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How Will the Ban on PFAS Affect Your Fly-Fishing Gear?

New legislation to ban so-called “forever chemicals” could affect the performance of fly-fishing outerwear.

How Will the Ban on PFAS Affect Your Fly-Fishing Gear?

Almost all our raingear and waders are treated with a durable water repellent (DWR). These coatings contain so-called “forever chemicals” that will be banned from sale or distribution in California and many other states by the end of 2025. (Arian Stevens photo)

EDITOR'S NOTE: For those seeking an in-depth explanation of this entire situation, the Outdoor Minimalist has launched a comprehensive 10-part podcast series called "Forever Chemicals," about what PFAS are, why they're no good, and what brands are doing to eliminate them. Podcaster Meg Carney speaks with scientists, brands, lawmakers and others about it all. 


As regulatory efforts to remove per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from consumer products ramp up across the country, soft-goods manufacturers are faced with a unique and troubling dilemma: how can they produce high-quality waterproof products that don’t include these types of “forever chemicals”?

And the answer, at least in the short term, is that it’s complicated. But most companies understand that the chemicals currently used to make everything from raingear to waders are harmful. PFAS are currently the primary ingredient in most durable water repellent (DWR) coatings added to outerwear in the outdoor sports world. It’s the stuff that makes water bead into droplets and roll off your brand new jackets and waders. The problem is that it’s not just used by fishermen who actually need that protection—it’s used by almost every sector of the clothing and textile world on everything from shoelaces to khaki pants and other products to ensure that the products appear on store shelves as clean and fresh-looking as possible.

However, these PFAS are ending up in our waters, in our fish, and even in our own bloodstreams. These chemicals are linked to some significant health problems. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, health effects linked to PFAS exposure include liver damage, asthma, and possibly cancer. Newer research shows that PFAS can even impact growth and development in children.

Over the last several months, both state and federal regulatory agencies have imposed strict standards on PFAS in everything from outerwear to drinking water—there is significant worry that the long-lived chemicals that refuse to break down in the environment are causing some hidden health effects that have yet to fully surface.

In recent months, a number of states, including California, Vermont, Colorado, Maine, and New York have announced bans on PFAS that start to take effect immediately for some products, and, as is the case in California, in textile goods starting in less than two years.

The new regulations are understandably troubling to manufacturers who make important gear for anglers and others who brave the elements. The DWR coating is the first line of defense. Without it, water tends to soak into the outer face fabric.

But most manufacturers that have used PFAS in their gear for years have been quietly working to reduce the amount of chemicals in their products in anticipation of new regulatory requirements.

Ben Christensen, COO at Simms Fishing Products based in Bozeman, Montana, said manufacturers understand that limiting PFAS in products is not only necessary to protect both human and environmental health, but also for long-term sustainability of the companies that make the goods anglers use to stay warm and dry in the elements.




“Quality and durability are foundational to our brand,” Christensen said of Simms, which makes waders, raingear, outerwear, and wading boots, all of which include PFAS to some extent. “But we have to do our best to solve this problem and remain compliant.”

And, Christensen acknowledged, the California ban on PFAS, which takes effect in January 2025, is huge. While Simms has been working to solve problems posed by PFAS for years, the California law basically amounts to “forced compliance.” As he predicted, other states are following suit, and it won’t be long before state regulations will make producing PFAS-free (or at least PFAS-compliant) gear a requirement to simply do business.

The Challenge

It’s really become a math and science problem for manufacturers, and since many of the materials used by companies like Simms, Orvis, Patagonia, Skwala, and Grundéns are similarly sourced, there’s a natural inclination to put competitive differences aside and work together to solve the uber-complex problem.

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In other words, misery loves company. Christensen agreed—it’s going to take corporate cooperation if soft-goods manufacturers are going to be able to produce gear that meets durable water repellent (DWR) standards and also meets important PFAS compliance deadlines. This means that everything from supply-line access to the complicated science behind the products is going to have to become a bit more transparent.

PFAS have been in all kinds of products—from “stain-resistant” carpets and furniture to high-end fishing waders—for 55 years. That likely explains how these chemicals have lingered and built up in water and in our bodies over time.

Just getting rid of them and finding something else that works just as well isn’t an option. Doing so would be on par with a moon shot—so many products contain PFAS that it would be impossible to get rid of it all. The best that textile manufacturers can do is to phase it out while working on the science behind the challenge to find an acceptable replacement.

“It’s kind of like building the airplane while we fly it,” says Simms Public Relations Manager John Frazier.

Simms isn’t alone in its efforts to reduce or remove PFAS from its product line in recent years while also trying to identify new and effective materials that can repel water.

Matt Dwyer, senior director of materials innovation at Patagonia, says his company has been working for years to reduce PFAS in its gear, and the challenge is significant. At first, it was the long-chain chemistry behind the wonders of PFAS when it comes to water repellency that was the bogeyman in this equation. Now, after some years of working to shorten the chemical chain (from C12 to C6, for instance), it’s still not enough to keep the PFAS off the regulatory radar.

“There are still lots of chemistry hoops to jump through,” Dwyer says.

In recent years, Patagonia has started producing as many PFAS-free materials as possible as supplemental “ingredients” in its outerwear. For instance, in 2019, it started using PFAS-free liners in its raingear.

“It was a great place to start without sacrificing quality,” he says.

Patagonia hopes to be completely PFAS-free by 2024. Orvis and Grundéns hope to offer PFAS-free product lines by the end of 2025.

“We are planning to be fully compliant with the timeline of the new regulations and are already making changes as new materials are qualified through our field and lab testing process,” said Christensen of Simms when asked for a target date.

Representatives from all five companies acknowledge that meeting deadlines will be difficult, and they’re all digging deep into the language of the regulations so they can remain compliant while still tackling the chemistry behind the effort to find solid DWR materials to replace those that contain PFAS.

Performance

While the folks behind the brands are optimistic that they’ll be able to meet those deadlines, they’re also more than willing to be honest about how the PFAS-free products will perform once the deadlines arrive and the products are in the hands of consumers. Any gear manufacturer who claims that new gear produced without PFAS is going to be just as effective as gear produced with it, at least for now, is likely being less than forthright.

“We’ll lose some functionality,” Patagonia’s Dwyer says. “That’s just inevitable.”

Curtis Graves, director of product at Grundéns, dove a little deeper, noting that raingear, for instance, treated with PFAS-free (C0) coatings will likely perform just fine for the typical consumer.

“The challenge comes when we try to use a one-solution-fits-all approach and apply those solutions to a fishing guide who works 150 to 200 days a year in their raingear and waders, or the extreme and extended wet-weather performance needs of our commercial fishermen,” Graves says. One of the unsung assets of gear treated with PFAS is its ability to not only shed water, but also to prevent the buildup of oil and dirt and other “gunk.” PFAS-free gear doesn’t yet have the same ability.

But, Graves says, the new regulations will spur innovation.

“I think there will be a fair amount of innovation around the membranes and laminates that are used in waterproof breathable garments to improve the user experience,” he says. And, he says, the pressure manufacturers are putting on textile producers to create DWR materials that don’t contain PFAS will help the cream rise to the top.

“As the industry quickly migrates away from short-chain PFAS-based DWRs,” Graves says, “there is a significant benefit to the textile mill or performance finish supplier that can unlock the next generation of DWR most effectively.”

Shawn Combs, product design and development director for Orvis, acknowledges the challenge of producing quality PFAS-free DWR gear, and is optimistic that it can be done.

“Our R&D work shows that there are alternatives,” Combs says. “But there’s more work to do to meet our goal of ensuring that Orvis produces the most durable and highest-performing gear we can make without harming people, while also protecting our ecosystems for future generations.

“We don’t want to compromise performance, and it’s going to take time,” Combs says. “But that’s the work—it’s the right work—and we’re committed to working collectively as an industry to do it.”

Part of an Orvis wader with water droplets on it.
Orvis, Simms, Patagonia, Grundéns, Skwala, and other outerwear manufacturers are all looking for suitable substitutes for the PFAS currently found in their outerwear products. (Dennis Pastucha photo)

The Process

The work to reduce—and now remove altogether—PFAS from their weatherproof gear has been going on across the board for years. Now, with deadlines looming, there is definitely a sense of urgency behind the process.

“In 2016, the EPA introduced regulations banning C8 DWR. Like the rest of the industry, we transitioned to C6, which breaks down faster in the environment than C8 but does not remove all PFAS,” says Laura Schaffer, vice president of conservation and sustainability for Orvis. “In recent years, as more science and research has linked the chemicals to longer-term impacts on the environment and human health, we began the work to eliminate PFAS from our product line by the end of 2025.”

For Orvis, this includes identifying all products that presently use DWR containing PFAS, and working to find alternatives. Schaffer says Orvis is working with textile mills and suppliers to test zero-chain (C0) DWR materials for efficacy so the company can “deliver the performance that Orvis and our customers expect.”

According to Simms’s Christensen, the work to replace DWR materials that contain PFAS got pretty serious about five years ago when the European Union first introduced rules limiting the chemistry in waterproof fabrics. Since then, the goal has been to steadily shorten the chemistry chain to eventually wind up at C0.

“We started as soon as we could with our R&D to meet the coming regulations,” he said. “We’ve been working with our materials suppliers and others in the industry on finding alternatives that meet our standards.” This includes real-life testing to see how the materials hold up under varying circumstances. Results have been promising, Christensen says.

The process has been similar for all four companies. It’s chemistry Whac-A-Mole. They might solve one chemical conundrum only to find that they’ve created another. But that’s the process, says Graves at Grundén’s.

“I personally believe that products on the premium end of the price spectrum will see the least amount of reduction in DWR durability, given brands’ abilities to afford higher-performing C0 alternatives,” he says. “Basic, price-point-driven outerwear will absolutely see a change in durability performance of DWR.”

In other words, just like things are today across the fly-fishing gear spectrum, consumers will get what they pay for. Certainly, there are bargains to be had, but in the world of waterproof and water-resistant outerwear—particularly waders—it’s going to cost more to stay warm and dry in gear that doesn’t leach PFAS into the water and the environment. How much more? Nobody knows for sure. But the finish line, according to Patagonia’s Dwyer, is when the industry can produce gear that’s up to today’s standards that isn’t laden with harmful “forever chemicals.”

Whatever the cost, manufacturers are embracing the need to keep PFAS out of the water, if for no other reason than to protect the resources they need to be successful.

“This moment is a real opportunity for better tech, better gear, and a better environment,” says Orvis’s Schaffer.


Chris Hunt is an award-winning journalist who writes about fly fishing, travel, conservation, and culture for numerous outlets. He’s been recognized for his work by the Outdoor Writers Association of America, the Associated Press, the Society of Professional Journalists, The Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association, and the Idaho Press Club. He lives and works in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

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