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Who hasn’t dreamt of being in the untouched wilderness of the Himalayas, the Andes or the Altai Mountains, hiking or climbing in these incredible natural landscapes? Nowhere in the world is the snow purer or the water cleaner than in a clear mountain lake far from civilisation. Very few nature lovers would expect persistent and hazardous chemicals to be found in such places.
In May and June 2015, eight Greenpeace teams led expeditions on three continents to the most beautiful and seemingly unspoilt regions of the world. We collected water and snow samples to test them for per- and poly-fluorinated chemicals (PFCs). Sadly, we found these persistent and hazardous chemicals in snow samples from all the remote areas that Greenpeace teams visited as Footprints in the snow – Hazardous PFCs in remote locations around the globe report shows. With this global investigation we want to draw attention to a long-standing but little-known and certainly unsolved problem: the global presence of invisible but very persistent and hazardous chemicals in our environment.
PFCs are used in many industrial processes and consumer products. The outdoor industry is an important user, since it applies PFCs to make products waterproof and dirt-repellent. Once released into the environment, PFCs are broken down only very slowly; they remain in the environment for many years and are dispersed across the entire planet. Some PFCs cause harm to reproduction, promote the growth of tumours and affect the hormone system.
The outdoor sector stands for freedom and love of nature: ‘the great outdoors’. It uses images of beautiful mountain landscapes, majestic forests, freshly fallen snow and clean rivers, to market its products. These positive images are heavily promoted by outdoor brands and have brought strong double-digit growth in recent years. It’s ironic to think that companies who depend on nature for their business, willingly release dangerous chemicals into the environment.
Consumers are often prepared to pay hundreds of euros for a high-tech waterproof jacket, promoted with images of deep snow skiers or fearless climbers, despite the fact that most customers are not high-performance athletes, but city dwellers who simply need a decent anorak for a bike ride or an autumn hike. Children’s clothing is also sold with ‘high-performance’ finishes – although it is more often used in the rain and mud, in the sandpit or in the playground. Nevertheless, the industry has made its mission to ensure that its clothing can always resist the most extreme weather conditions that ‘the great outdoors’ can throw at us, and that represents the brands’ biggest selling point. This unfortunately results in an increasing chemical burden, especially with the controversial PFCs.
The good news for outdoor enthusiasts is, that safer alternatives to PFCs exist and some small brands already sell PFC-free gear. All of our sampling teams used PFC-free clothing on their expeditions, and were very happy with the equipment’s performance – even in harsh weather conditions and at over 5,000 metres on Haba Snow Mountain in China.
Even in the Haba Snow Mountain, China PFCs were found
The outdoor sector has certainly made progress in terms of environmental protection. However, it has neglected the need to replace the problematic PFC chemicals used as waterproofing in membranes and coatings. So far, most outdoor brands have sidestepped the repeated warnings from Greenpeace’s Detox campaign. Now it’s time to act and get rid of PFCs: it’s up to everybody – nature lovers, climbers, skiers, walkers or city dwellers – to join our movement on Detox Outdoor and ask the outdoor sector to get rid of hazardous chemicals altogether. Together, outdoor lovers can challenge their favourite brands to become a Detox Champion and stop the spread of PFCs across the planet.
Gabriele Salari is the Communications Lead for the Detox Outdoor project at Greenpeace Italy.