Getting Fluorochemicals Out of Carpets (and into Ski Wax)
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I got my first pair of cross-country skis back in the '70s. A pair of Bonna wood skis from Norway. They were beautiful skis, but you had to torch pine tar into the base to protect them from moisture. My current skis, Madshus "Nanosonic Carbons",... PFCs are used in ski wax because they're durable and shed dirt, oils, and water better than any chemical known today. And they are fast, really fast. You can't compete in skiing without them anymore. These same characteristics that make them effective ski waxes also make them useful in non-stick cookware, fast-food wrappers, cosmetics, and many other building products...including carpet treatments. But durability and stability are PFCs environmental downfall (see the Chemcials on our Carpets and Textiles, Vol. 20 No. 3 ). Once they are put into the environment--through manufacturing, use, or disposal--they are there forever. PFCs are found in animals in the most remote regions on the planet and some stay in the human body for years. Newer PFC compounds are less toxic than older formulations, but their long-term environmental impacts are still unknown. In carpet treatments, they can be washed off and worn away over time with cleaning and use to a level that renders them ineffective. According to Stuart Jones of Interface, PFCs "last anywhere between two and five washings and they are gone." They are captured in the water and go down the drain and are released into the environment. So why use PFCs? Well, again, there is no question that PFCs work as dirt repellents when applied to carpet. Invista and Ascend Performance Materials require PFC treatments on their carpet fibers before they can be branded Antron and Ultron, respectively. And the rest of the carpet industry is no different. They routinely specify PFCs as a way to prolong a carpet's lifespan (perhaps partially because maintenance staff and cleaning standards have been reduced), and the association between PFCs and durability has become ingrained in the carpet industry's collective psyche. But it is now possible to purchase a commercial carpet that doesn't require PFCs. Both Universal Fibers and Aquafil (the largest fiber manufacturer in the world--offer solution-dyed fibers that have built-in dirt and stain repellants. Universal uses a "sulfonated" nylon 6,6 fiber and Aquafil offers its Alto Chroma nylon 6 "cationic" fiber. The performance of these fibers is supposed to equal that of PFC-treated fibers. And major carpet manufacturers are starting to use these fibers in place of those that require PFCs. Interface, for instance, offers both Universal and Aquafil fibers in its carpet tiles. According to Jones, "We switched to a sulfonated fiber last year. They create the same soil and stain resistance, but the effect is permanent." Bentley Prince Street and Northwest also offer Aquafil's fibers. According to Bentley Prince Street, with proper maintenance, these carpets should perform as well as their PFC competitors. Time will tell if these fibers truly offer the same performance, but considering PFC's potential for negative long-term environmental impacts, taking a precautionary approach and limiting their use is a reasonable goal. Unfortunately, I don't expect the ski industry to switch to non-PFC ski wax anytime soon.