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From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
Protecting Your Fabrics
while Guarding Your Health
Scotchgard’s fatal flaw
Are there nontoxic substitutes for Scotchgard? I just re-covered an antique chair and I want to protect the fabric from spills and dog paws.
Don Cummings, Los Angeles
Scotchgard was created by accident in a 3M laboratory a half-century ago after an experimental chemical formula spilled onto a technician’s sneaker. Remarkably, it kept the spot clean despite the rest of the canvas fabric collecting dirt over time. Scotchgard went on to become famous for its almost magical ability to protect clothes, carpets and furniture from water, dirt and stains. 3M later created variations for use in food containers, denture cleaners, floor polishes, firefighting foams and many other products.
But in May 2000, 3M started phasing out Scotchgard production, citing evidence that the key ingredient of the product, perfluorooctane sulfonate, was becoming ubiquitous in the environment as well as in the bloodstreams of humans and wildlife. Some argue that 3M was no model citizen in doing so.
“The more than 1,000 documents on Scotchgard some 29,000 pages of material show clearly that 3M knew its products were in the blood of the general population as early as 1976 and had detected perfluorooctane sulfonate in their own plant workers as early as 1979,” reported the Environmental Working Group. 3M waited more than 20 years, they say, under threats from the Environmental Protection Agency, to remove the chemical from the marketplace.
Perfluorooctane sulfonate is a fluorocarbon similar to the chemicals banned by the Montreal Protocol for depleting Earth’s ozone layer. It builds up in the environment, eventually bioaccumulating in the food chain so that people and animals retain larger and larger amounts in their blood and tissue over time. Perfluorooctane sulfonate combines “persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity properties to an extraordinary degree,” says the EPA.
3M has since developed a new Scotchgard formulation free of perfluorooctane sulfonate, using instead a related substance, perfluorobutane sulfonate. 3M worked extensively with EPA scientists in developing the formula, and claims that perfluorobutane sulfonate does not share the toxicity or bioaccumulation tendencies of its perfluorooctane sulfonate cousin. Perfluorobutane sulfonate is still too new for researchers to know whether or not these claims will be borne out over time. The EPA is not releasing the results of the dozens of studies it conducted on perfluorobutane sulfonate in conjunction with 3M.
Unfortunately for those not willing to take the risk, few alternatives work as effectively at protecting fabrics. Vectra Spray, which is based on a chemical similar to perfluorobutane sulfonate, is one option. Its manufacturer, Georgia-based Vectra Enterprises, has solicited independent tests that determined the product to be non-toxic and safe. It can also be sprayed onto fabrics and other surfaces previously treated with the old version of Scotchgard, says Vectra, to lock the harmful perfluorooctane sulfonate in place so it can’t get out into the environment.
But for those averse to using any synthetic chemical on their furniture, carpets and other valuables, the best solution might just be to choose a busy fabric pattern that can hide stains if they do happen, and to treat any such accidents with an all-natural spot cleaner such as Orange Sol, Castor and Pollux Out Spot! or Ecover’s Stain Remover. While these all-natural formulas won’t protect fabric the way Scotchgard does, they do a good job of removing stains after the fact.
For more information:
• 3M: www.3m.com.
• Vectraspray: www.vectraspray.com.
• Orange-Sol: www.orange-sol.com.
• Castor & Pollux: www.castorpolluxpet.com.
• Ecover: www.ecover.com.
Got an environmental question? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek: or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.