The health risks to workers in industrial factories with insufficient safety measures for chemical exposure is well-known. One family of chemical compounds under particular scrutiny is perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Sometimes colloquially known as ‘forever chemicals,’ PFAS are often used as coatings for industrial textiles to improve strength, durability, chemical and water resistance in theIn industrial environments, mechanical duct and pipe wrapping insulation materials often contain PTFE coated fabrics. Source: Mid-Mountain Materials, Inc.In industrial environments, mechanical duct and pipe wrapping insulation materials often contain PTFE coated fabrics. Source: Mid-Mountain Materials, Inc. intended application.

PFAS are scrutinized due to their very long environmental persistence and concerns about their unknown or potentially harmful health effects. Once PFAS are released into the environment, they can mobilize in groundwater, soil and other water sources. This can potentially cause human and animal exposure through drinking water, foods or dust. As a persistent organic pollutant, or forever chemical, PFAS can never be removed from the body once ingested.

Legislative efforts to reduce or eliminate all but necessary use of PFAS is growing in agencies within the European Union, the U.S., and the UN. To date, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified over 11,000 different compounds under the PFAS classification. It’s important to note that information on the health effects of exposure is continually evolving, but what is known is that PFAS affect the wider environment along with human and animal health.

What are the health effects?

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), or Teflon, belongs to a subgroup of PFAS called fluorinated polymers, and is one of the most widely used chemicals in the PFAS family. For PTFE, concerns revolve around its effect when heated to very high temperatures. When exposed to temperatures above 570° F (300° C), PTFE begins to produce toxic gases and undergoes significant breakdown. Even mild exposure can cause respiratory issues due to the production of toxic gases.

Another grave concern with PTFE is that it does not decompose in the environment but rather it bioaccumulates. When consistently disposed of in a landfill, PTFE can leak into soil or water, or be carried by rainwater into rivers and drinking water. If PTFE is incinerated for disposal, the toxic gases can be released into the air, which contributes to environmental pollution.

In industrial environments, mechanical duct and pipe wrapping insulation materials often contain PTFE coated fabrics. PTFE coated fabric has excellent chemical, abrasion and high temperature resistance, and is often used in the insulation pads and covers to protect personnel and improve operational efficiencies. However, if the pipes or ducts maintain an operational temperature over 570° F (300° C) for a sustained period, the PTFE fabric may begin to degrade and produce toxic gases. Personnel health and safety and operational efficiencies then become compromised.

There is still discussion as to exactly what the health implications and safe exposure limits are of PFAS, but there are growing concerns that PFAS exposure may include the following:

  • Increased risk of some cancers
  • Interference with reproductive function
  • Possible development delays in children
  • Increased cholesterol
  • Impact to the immune system
  • Damage to liver enzymes
  • Thyroid hormone disruption

What is the alternative to PTFE coating for industrial textiles?

Polyurethane coatings are an effective alternative to PTFE that easily impregnates textiles with desirable properties similar to those of PTFE. Polyurethane coated fabric can be substituted in most industrial applications where PTFE coated fabrics are used, especially in hot and cold mechanical piping and equipment.

Comparable properties of polyurethane and PTFE coated fabrics include:

  • High strength
  • High abrasion resistance
  • Flame resistance
  • High-temperature resistance
  • Improved insulation
  • Excellent sealing properties
  • Significantly lower environmental impact
  • Safer for personnel protection

Polyurethane coated fabrics also have excellent durability due to the urethane bonds, and the polyurethane coatings are straightforward to incorporate into many textile coating processes (fabrics, ropes, tapes). And like many PTFE coated fabrics on the market, polyurethane fabrics are manufactured in a variety of weights and thicknesses specific to the application.

If the coated fabrics being used in industrial processing settings have PFAS, a healthy work environment and operational efficiencies may be compromised. As we move toward a greener world and healthier work environments, the use of alternative chemicals that enhance operations should be considered.