Research from Norwegian NGO Future in Our Hands claims that exposure to high levels of PFAS chemicals is having a devastating impact on the health of factory workers in China who produce textiles for western markets. PFAS, which are often used to make outerwear water resistant, build up in the human body over time and have been linked to various cancers, reduced birth weights and damaged immune systems. The Future in Our Hands report says that communities working in and living near manufacturing sites across Asia face serious health risks as a result of exposure to PFAS.

It says the “world’s highest levels” of PFOA, which is set to be banned in the EU by July 2020, were found in groundwater at a Chinese factory which supplies PFAS substances for textile production. Agricultural products and drinking water in the area surrounding the factory were also investigated, and levels of PFOA which pose an unacceptable health risk – especially for children – were found. Anja Bakken Riise, from Future in Our Hands, said retailers and brands should take “responsibility for workers in the factories where they produce their goods”. She added: “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.

“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.”

An updated risk assessment of two PFAS chemicals – PFOS and PFOA – setting new temporary and markedly lower tolerances 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, and decreased liver function, increased risk of infections, impaired immune system and increased cholesterol levels. They may also testicular and kidney cancer, experts say.

In Europe, some 100,000 sites are thought to create PFAS pollution but many are not registered, meaning European authorities are unaware of who is using what, where and how toxic it is. In June last year, environment ministers asked the European Commission to phase out all non-essential uses of PFAS. The Netherlands is currently drafting a comprehensive restriction.

But the release into the environment of PFAS – which may or may not be detectable in the final product – outside of the EU’s borders remains a huge challenge. There are very few studies focusing on the health of factory workers who produce textiles for western markets and who are exposed to chemicals in the production process. The same applies for those who live near factories. Fashion brand H&M this week backed a campaign by the ChemSec NGO to end the use of PFAS chemicals in apparel and supply chains, and replace them with safer alternatives.