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Toxic outdoor clothing at a high price for factory workers

A new report from Future in our hands documents dangerous exposure of PFAS substances for workers and the immediate environment surrounding textile factories in China. Sportswear retailers in Norway and Europe lack an overview of how PFAS exposure affects the workers in their factories. 

A textile worker washing jeans at a factory in Xintang, China. The high levels of pollution around textile and chemical plants in China are damaging to both workers and the local community. (Photo: Lu Guang / Greenpeace)
A textile worker washing jeans at a factory in Xintang, China. The high levels of pollution around textile and chemical plants in China are damaging to both workers and the local community. (Photo: Lu Guang / Greenpeace)

A new report from Future in our hands documents dangerous exposure of PFAS substances for workers and the immediate environment surrounding textile factories in China. Sportswear retailers in Norway and Europe lack an overview of how PFAS exposure affects the workers in their factories. 

Toxic PFAS keeping your hikes dry

Water and dirt repellent textiles for outdoor recreation are an important area of application for PFAS substances. A large part of PFAS emissions occur during the production of textile chemicals and textiles, which mostly affects countries in the south.

Both Norway and EU member states import large volumes of clothing and textiles from China and other Asian countries.

An updated risk assessment of PFOS and PFOA setting new temporary and markedly lower tolerances for these PFAS substances was published in November 2018, by The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

PFOS and PFOA have been linked to lower birth weight in children, vaccine resistance, decreased liver function, increased risk of infections, impaired immune system and increased cholesterol levels.

In addition, there is cause for concern that the substances may cause testicular and kidney cancer, overweight and intestinal disease.

European manufacturers have factories in vulnerable areas

Both Norwegian and European retailers often get their textiles manufactured in factories in China, where the workers are likely to be heavily influenced by PFAS exposure.

74 per cent of imports of clothing to Norway in volume (tonnes) in 2018 came from Asia. A total of 40 percent came from China.

There are strikingly few studies focusing on the health of factory workers who produce textiles for Western markets and are exposed to chemicals in the production process. The same applies for the effect on the local population in the areas around the factories.

Future in our hands has gone through several articles addressing the exposure on workers and the local community around factories using hazardous chemicals in textile production. And the findings are disturbing.

 

foto lu guang greenpeace

A Chinese woman collects water from the river Yantze, which is surrounded by factories and power plants that pollute the local environment. (Photo: Lu Guang / Greenpeace)

 

"The world's highest levels" of harmful substances

"The world’s highest levels" of the health hazardous substance PFOA, which is being banned in the EU by July 2020, have been found in groundwater at a Chinese factory supplying PFAS mixtures for textile production.

Agricultural products and drinking water in the area surrounding the factory have also been investigated, and there were found levels of PFOA which have an unacceptable health risk - especially for children.

People who work at the factory and live in the area are subject to hazardous exposure. In addition, the families of workers and the local community are exposed to the chemicals in transmission through cooking, through the contamination of groundwater, crops and air.

Ineffective regulation of environmental pollutants

A major report showing the lack of regulation of hazardous chemicals in the EU was published in April 2019 by the umbrella organization for European environmental organizations (EEB).

Of the 22,000 chemicals registered for use in Europe, 352 are prioritized for risk analyzes. Only 27% of these have been checked since 2012. Of these, half were found unsafe for commercial use because of their health hazardous properties.

Most of these substances are still in use and there are still no measures in place to limit them.

Calls for more leverage from European authorities

EEB calls for more decisiveness from European authorities and claim the EU chemicals regulation is going too slow.

Anja Bakken Riise, leader of the Future in our hands, believes there is cause for concern, and that both retailers and authorities should take more responsibility.

Retailers of impregnated clothes in Norway and elsewhere in Europe must take responsibility for workers in the factories where they produce their goods. While they are benefiting from countries in the south with inadequate environmental regulations and low salaries, factory workers and local communities are left paying the cost of health and environmental pollution, she says.

The knowledge of factory workers' PFAS exposure is too scarce. This report from the Future in our hands suggests that many textile workers are exposed to high-risk doses through their daily work.

- We think the entire group of environmentally toxic PFAS should be banned from consumer products in the EU. Rather than regulating these substances one by one, so that manufacturers merely substitute one harmful substance with a similar substance that we have even less knowledge about, the whole group of similar substances should be banned, says Bakken Riise.

Read the full report here.

Author: Per-Erik Schulze and Siv Elin Ånestad. In the editorial board: Marius Schulze and Ikumi Umetani.