From raincoats to napkins, toxic 'forever chemicals' found in everyday products
Woman in a yellow raincoat (Shutterstock)

Despite the existence of safer alternatives, toxic "forever chemicals" linked to a wide range of health problems are found in most products labeled stain- or water-resistant, from rain jackets and hiking pants to mattress pads, comforters, napkins, and tablecloths.

"We need urgent action at the state and federal levels to solve the PFAS crisis, including by quickly stopping its use in products we wear and use in our homes."

That's according to Toxic Convenience, a new study released Wednesday by Toxic-Free Future, which analyzed 60 commonly used items to highlight the "hidden costs of forever chemicals in stain- and water-resistant products" across three categories: outdoor apparel, bedding, and table linens.

The Seattle-based nonprofit research and advocacy organization found that 72% of the 47 stain- or water-resistant products it tested contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

PFAS are a class of synthetic compounds known as "forever chemicals" because they don't break down—polluting people's bodies and the planet for years on end. Scientists have linked long-term exposure to PFAS—identified at unsafe levels in the drinking water of more than 200 million Americans and detected in 97% of blood and 100% of breast milk samples—to numerous adverse health outcomes, including cancer, reproductive harm, immune system damage, and other serious issues.

Notably, all 13 of the products tested by Toxic-Free Future that were not marketed as stain- or water-resistant were found to be PFAS-free.

"Our testing finds continued, unnecessary use of the toxic chemicals known as PFAS in outdoor clothing and home furnishings like bedding and tablecloths," Erika Schreder, study author and science director for Toxic-Free Future, said in a statement.

"When companies use PFAS to make products stain- or water-resistant," said Schreder, "they are using chemicals that contaminate homes, drinking water, and breast milk with highly persistent chemicals that can cause cancer and harm the immune system."

Over a quarter of the studied products that were marketed as stain- and/or water-resistant appeared to be free of PFAS—demonstrating that alternative compounds are available and sparking calls for swift regulatory action to improve workplace and consumer safety.

"Some companies are using PFAS-free alternatives, but until regulations ban PFAS in products, these dangerous chemicals will continue to be used in our raincoats and bedding," said Laurie Valeriano, executive director of Toxic-Free Future. "We need urgent action at the state and federal levels to solve the PFAS crisis, including by quickly stopping its use in products we wear and use in our homes."

Manufacturers have been using a combination of PFAS, including compounds currently banned in other countries, the analysis revealed. While newer PFAS were present, researchers also discovered that nearly three-quarters of the products tainted with forever chemicals tested positive for older PFAS—already prohibited in the European Union and phased out by major U.S. manufacturers.

"It is time to stop this terrible injustice, hold manufacturers accountable, and urgently establish national and international bans for the entire class of PFAS," said Pamela Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics and co-chair of the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN). "PFAS contamination of the Arctic poses a particular threat to the health of Indigenous peoples who are reliant on traditional foods as essential to their physical, spiritual, and cultural sustenance."

The products analyzed by Toxic-Free Future were purchased from 10 large retailers: Amazon, Bed Bath & Beyond, Costco, Dick's Sporting Goods, Kohl's, Macy's, REI, Target, TJX, and Walmart. According to the group, which conducted tests for total fluorine and PFAS at independent scientific laboratories, forever chemicals were found in at least one item sold by each corporation.

"Rain jackets shouldn't cause cancer—but for some of us, that just might be the case," said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear. "These companies sold a convenience product to consumers without fully disclosing the toxic trade-off."

"In my region of North Carolina, our drinking water has been severely contaminated from the manufacture of PFAS chemicals," added Donovan. "No one's drinking water should be contaminated for a rain jacket."

The analysis comes amid a national campaign pressuring REI and other retailers to ban PFAS in outdoor gear and other textiles.

Since November 2021, more than 60,000 REI customers have signed petitions and sent e-mails urging REI's CEO and board to take action on PFAS. Last month, a coalition of more than 100 local, state, and national organizations sent a letter imploring REI—which also happens to be facing a union drive in Manhattan—to catalyze an industry-wide shift away from the entire class of PFAS.

"Retailers, like REI, can stop contributing to this toxic trail of pollution by ensuring the products they sell are free of PFAS," said Mike Schade, director of Toxic-Free Future's Mind the Store program. "As a company committed to sustainability and one of the biggest outdoor retailers in the U.S., REI has a responsibility to lead the outdoor industry away from these toxic chemicals."