Unlike most parents, Helena Meresman doesn’t look forward to the start of the school year. Back-to-school shopping fills the environmental scientist and mother of two with an uncommon sense of dread. “On top of balancing your child’s creative visions of what they want their lunch box, raincoat, and wellies to look like—already a task not for the faint-hearted—a parent is faced with a very different minefield: knowing which of these products are free from hazardous chemicals,” she writes on the Greenpeace website. To justify her anxiety, Meresman points to recent reports about the toxic beasties that lurk in many popular clothing products. Among them is a group of chemicals known as per- and polyfluorinated compounds, or PFCs.
Found in everything from rain jackets to football boots, PFCs are typically employed to make products stain- or water-resistant. These “little monsters,” Meresman says, escape into our air and pollute our waterways. Hardy and persistent—they’ve been discovered in polar bears in the far north—the contaminants eventually wind in human blood, where they wreck havoc on our reproductive and immune systems.
“A parent already has so many things to worry about aside from researching the safety of each and every product,” she says. “Surely we cannot be expected to turn into hazardous chemicals experts during our weekly shopping? Clothing companies should not put our health and our children’s future at risk. Instead of using these dangerous substances, shouldn’t these global corporations be innovating and investing in the existing alternatives?”
Not that there hasn’t been any progress. Brands like H&M and Mango have already banned PFCs. And as recently as July, Adidas, one of the world’s leading sportswear firms, pledged to eliminate 99 percent of all PFCs by 2017.
Still, even more companies are lagging behind, creating an untenable situation. “It’s time the industry understands it is outgrowing its outdated manufacturing processes, just like our kids outgrow their old school uniforms,” she adds.
With school returning to session, it’s time to bid the little monsters goodbye. And we don’t mean the children.