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snow of tomorrow

Snow of tomorrow | PFC - Our chemical footprint

and what we can do about it!

by Lisa Amenda 11/04/2019
Greenpeace's Detox campaign has shown it: We outdoor sports enthusiasts are not environmental angels at all, but leave our footprint everywhere. Among other things, in the form of perfluorinated and polyfluorinated chemicals - PFCs for short. But why are they so bad and how do we get PFCs into the environment?

In 2015, Greenpeace sent eight teams to Chile, China, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Russia, Turkey, Slovakia and Switzerland to take snow and water samples. An independent laboratory tested these samples and detected traces of PFC in all of them. The concentrations were slightly higher in Europe than in Asia or the Andes, and yet there was an immediate outcry from the outdoor industry. After all, we outdoor and winter sports enthusiasts are actually a contradiction in terms. We go out because we like being in nature, enjoying the freedom and untouched nature, and that's exactly how we take a piece of this untouched nature away from it. Sometimes more, sometimes less. We can often try to exert as little influence as possible and, for example, take our garbage back with us, avoid going off the beaten track or even compensate for our journey. However, it becomes difficult if we are not even aware of our impact and are not aware that we are leaving something behind. Such as a chemical footprint that remains for many, many years.

What are PFCs?

We leave behind such a footprint with perfluorinated and polyfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs for short. More than 800 different substances are behind this abbreviation, PTFE is just one of many examples. And none of these substances are found in nature, but are anthropogenic, i.e. man-made. PFCs consist of a basic structure of carbon atoms and the attached hydrogen atoms are partially or completely replaced by fluorine atoms. If the original hydrogen atoms are completely replaced by fluorine, they are referred to as perfluorinated. If only parts are replaced, they are called polyfluorinated. This is also the name of the chemical group. The term long-chain and short-chain PFCs is often used because the carbon chains occur in different lengths. For example, as C8 (chain of eight carbon atoms) or C6 (chain of six carbon atoms). In addition, when fluorine is attached to a carbon skeleton, one of the most stable compounds in organic chemistry is formed. And that is what makes PFC so special.

What is special about PFCs?

Chemical substances are often water- or oil-repellent. PFCs, on the other hand, manage to make products water-, oil- and dirt-repellent all in one. And they can withstand temperatures of up to 250°C. It is precisely these properties that make them so attractive for the outdoor industry, as they also make our equipment and clothing water, dirt and oil repellent. You are sure to have heard one or two promises from well-known manufacturers about these properties. And that's how the triumph of PFCs began. Jackets, pants, shoes - all coated with PFC. And we were led to believe that we could set off on the greatest adventures without any worries. Then there are waterproofing sprays, paper cups, pizza boxes (of course, oil-repellent also plays a role here) or ski wax and Teflon. Sounds great at first! But why should we carry as few PFCs around with us as possible?

What makes them so dangerous?

Because their special feature is also their crux: there are no natural processes that are able to completely break down these stable PFCs. The substances are released into the environment during production and also through our washing machines at home. If we notice that the water on our jacket no longer beads up so nicely, then part of the coating has been lost and the PFCs have come off. They cannot be completely filtered out in sewage treatment plants and so they enter the water cycle and the food chain. From plankton, to fish, to us. They can trigger hormonal effects, block degradation processes in the liver and are even associated with increased cancer rates. In 2009, the Federal Environment Agency discovered that the half-life of PFCs in the human body is four years. According to the Bavarian State Office for the Environment, it is only possible to speculate about harmful effects on ecosystems and nature on a larger scale as there are hardly any studies to date, but we should not equate PFCs with a short cut on the hiking trail. The plants that we probably destroy there can grow back. However, PFCs are very stable, which may be great for our clothing, but they are still very stable even when we no longer have them on our clothes and remain in nature for a correspondingly long time - perhaps even until concentrations are reached that have harmful effects.

What we can do about PFCs

The outdoor industry has now also recognized the potential danger of PFCs and is working on producing water-repellent materials and membranes in other ways. Some brands have switched to shorter-chain PFCs. In other words, from C8 to C6. These include Gore, but also the self-proclaimed environmental activist Patagonia and Norrona, for example. However, the Federal Environment Agency is critical of this because little is known about the toxicity of these substances. C6 also remains in the environment and can have toxic effects on nature and living creatures.

Nevertheless, there are already numerous manufacturers who have completely dispensed with PFCs or have joined the Greenpeace Detox campaign and want to do without perfluorinated and polyfluorinated chemicals by 2020. These include Pyua, whose own Climaloop laminate is made from recycled materials and is FC- and PTFE-free, and Vaude, which has been producing completely PFC-free clothing since the 2018 summer collection and has also switched to PFC-free impregnation for its backpacks and shoes since winter 2018. The entire product range is to be PFC-free by 2020. Eco pioneer Houdini also banned all fluorocarbons from its collection back in 2018 and outdoor giant The North Face has been producing a material that breaks completely new ground with its new, in-house Futurelight since this season: Futurelight is made from recycled materials using nanospinning technology. It is said to be extremely breathable and waterproof and fewer chemicals are used in production. Among other things, no PFC is used. Other manufacturers also manage partially or completely without PFC: Klättermusen, Haglöfs, Schöffel, Fjällräven, Paramo, Nikwax etc. And almost every manufacturer now has PFC-free items in its range. These are also usually labeled as PFC-free so that you as a consumer can quickly recognize them. As nothing is yet known about the effects of short-chain PFCs and Greenpeace and the Federal Environment Agency warn against them, we believe we should look for a PFC-free alternative when buying new equipment and slowly reduce our chemical footprint even further. Because let's be honest: even in the worst snowstorm, we don't have to protect ourselves from water, oil and dirt at the same time and can easily do without the PFC cocktail.


Bayerisches Landesamt für Umwelt (2018): Das PFC-Paradoxon

Umweltbundesamt (2018) Per- und polyfluorierte Chemikalien

Greenpeace (2017): Outdoor industry: future without dangerous PFCs

Greenpeace (2019): Detox Outdoor

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This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

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