As Maryland investigates PFAS pollution, W.L. Gore transitions outdoor clothing to new material – Baltimore Sun

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As Maryland investigates PFAS pollution, W.L. Gore transitions outdoor clothing to new material – Baltimore Sun

In 2014, W.L. Gore & Associates stopped using a harmful chemical called PFOA in the technology it makes for waterproofing raincoats, hiking boots and other gear.

The Newark, Delaware-based company’s shift came amid federal government pressure for the industry to phase out by 2015 the use of the cancer-causing compound, which is part of a broad group called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

Now, as concern grows about the entire class of PFAS, nicknamed “forever chemicals” for their persistence in the environment, Gore is going a step further and replacing its PFAS-based membrane. That’s the material that apparel makers have used since the 1970s to shield hikers, bikers and mountain climbers from rain and snow.

Outdoor gear with the new Gore-Tex membrane, made of a common plastic called polyethylene, has already hit store shelves. Soon, it will be found in all Gore-Tex clothing lines for the general public.

The new Gore-Tex membrane, which was announced in 2021 and debuted in some 2022 clothing lines, is called ePE. It replaces a membrane made with PTFE, the same compound behind Teflon nonstick coating.

Gore’s ongoing shift away from PFAS comes amid increased scrutiny of the company’s Maryland manufacturing sites. State environmental investigators began studying PFAS pollution at Gore’s Cherry Hill and Fair Hill plants in 2023, and have since detected a harmful compound called PFOA in groundwater close to the sites. They believe the compound was released by Gore and contaminated at least some nearby drinking water wells. They’re investigating how far the contamination spread and how it happened.

Workers at the Cherry Hill plant have long handled PTFE. And Gore says they will continue doing so, even though the new, polyethylene-based Gore-Tex has arrived, because many of Gore’s other products still rely on the old technology.

PTFE is considered inert in the human body, said Dan Jones, the associate director of the Michigan State University Center for PFAS Research. But it has been made with other PFAS compounds of concern, including PFOA.

“Because PTFE is so large, it generally doesn’t get into your tissues. It doesn’t get into your cells, where it can do harm,” Jones said.

But, he said, a lot of the smaller molecules are used in the process of manufacturing PTFE.

Gore first tinkered with the new, polyethylene-based membrane about a decade ago, said Matt Schreiner, a specialist in Gore’s consumer fabrics division. But only more recently did it seriously begin to consider replacing the original material with a new one.

“We were able to go deeper, put more resources behind it,” he said. “And the more we explored and the more we learned, the more excited we got. Because it checked a lot of the performance boxes for us, and had this additional requirement that the market was starting to direct us toward.”

In other words, outdoor gear sellers, consumers and legislators were increasingly aware — and leery — of the chemicals behind Gore-Tex.

Gore reached a deal with the environmental group Greenpeace in 2017, pledging to transition to more environment-friendly waterproofing technologies, Schreiner said.

At the core of the polyethylene used to make ePE are bonds between carbon and hydrogen atoms, instead of the powerful carbon and fluorine bonds that make “forever chemicals” difficult to eliminate once they accumulate in soil, rivers, streams or groundwater.

But the chemical differences mean the new Gore-Tex can’t withstand the same incredibly high temperatures. And while it’s resistant to water, it doesn’t repel oil like PTFE. So in more extreme settings, like industrial facilities, the old Gore technology still will be needed.

To the environmental advocates at Greenpeace, ePE is a welcome — though imperfect — substitute, said Kevin Brigden, who works as a scientific expert for the nonprofit.

“It can break down over time into microplastics, or even cause problems in its own right. So it’s not that polyethylene is without problems, but it’s far less impacting,” he said.

Gore’s switch has been years in the making, Brigden said, given what researchers have known about the environmental damage associated with PFAS.

“What Greenpeace has been saying from the beginning, really,” he said, “is rather than looking at these chemical by chemical, they should be addressed as a group.”

Scientists like Jones say the way forward is differentiating the situations that demand PFAS chemicals from and those that do not.

“There are lots of things that you couldn’t do without them,” said Jones, citing its use, for example, in medical equipment and protective clothing for firefighters.

But in less demanding settings, like those found on a hike through the woods, other less durable compounds work well, he said.

As Maryland investigates PFAS pollution, W.L. Gore transitions outdoor clothing to new material – Baltimore Sun

Cotton Coveralls “There are other alternatives that are probably — if not necessarily safer — at least wouldn’t last forever,” Jones said. “Maybe we should be learning to replace our wardrobes and our outdoor wares more frequently than we have been in the past.”