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10 days ago

Hazards of textiles' 'forever chemicals'

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A recent study by the Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO) and International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) titled 'Persistent Threat: PFAS in textiles and water in Bangladesh' sheds light on a critical issue that demands immediate attention from policymakers and garment and textile industry leaders. The report reveals alarming levels of toxic PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in surface and tap water samples collected near industrial areas, particularly those associated with the textile industry in and around Dhaka.

PFAS are a large, complex group of synthetic chemicals that have been used in consumer products around the world since aroind the 1950s. PFAS are widely used for their water and stain-resistant properties in various consumer products, including textiles. These chemicals, however, earned the nickname of 'forever chemicals' because scientists say they could take hundreds or even thousands of years to degrade long after their initial use. If PFAS leak into water, they could remain there for centuries. As the textile industry accounts for about 50 per cent of global PFAS use, Bangladesh stands at the epicentre of this environmental crisis as the world's second largest apparel manufacturer.

To address the issue, Dr. Shahriar Hossain, senior policy and technical advisor for ESDO and lead author of the study, said "Regulating thousands of PFAS chemicals one-by-one would take decades and leave our children at risk. We urgently need global controls on all PFAS chemicals as a class." His call for a class-based approach to banning PFAS chemicals is both practical and necessary. Given the complexity and sheer number of PFAS compounds, a piecemeal regulatory approach would be insufficient and dangerously slow.

The long-time health implications of exposure to PFAS so far known are well documented. These chemicals have been linked to fertility problems, developmental issues, thyroid disruption, weakened immunity, liver damage, and cancer. Despite these serious risks, the textile industry and policymakers have been slow to respond. The study detected PFAS in 87 per cent of the surface water samples collected, with many samples exceeding proposed regulatory limits by alarming margins. One sample from the Karnatali River in Savar contained PFAS levels more than 300 times above the proposed EU limit, with PFOA and PFOS levels thousands of times higher than Dutch advisory limits.

The study also highlights the significant influence of major international fashion brands sourcing products from Bangladesh. These brands have the power to drive change by demanding PFAS-free products and being transparent about the presence of these chemicals in their products. Some brands have already committed to eliminating PFAS, demonstrating that safer alternatives are available and viable. The textile industry must follow suit and prioritise public health and environmental sustainability over short-term economic gains. If necessary the government must force them to follow suit.

Siddika Sultana, executive director of ESDO in Bangladesh, rightly points out that "the fashion export industry should not get a free pass to contaminate our rivers, lakes, and taps with PFAS." The industry must be held accountable and stricter regulations are essential. Bangladesh currently lacks specific regulations on PFAS, a gap that policymakers must urgently address. Implementing a class-based ban on PFAS chemicals and setting stringent contamination limits are critical steps toward mitigating this pervasive threat.

Clean water is the essence of all life. Not just for humans, but also for animals and plants. It is the very foundation of a healthy ecosystem. Yet, Dhaka's rivers, once teeming with life, are now being polluted, strangled, and choked by industrial and human waste. This is not just a major concern for now, but also for our very survival and collective future. We need to stop the rot and veer away from our suicidal ways immediately. Industry, policymakers, and the public alike must work together to clean up Dhaka's water and ensure a healthy future for all.

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