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A Toxics-Free Future


Study Finds the Textile Industry in Bangladesh is a Significant Source of PFAS Water Pollution

Factories making clothes for major global fashion brands linked to toxic “forever chemical” contamination of Dhaka’s surface and drinking waters

Dhaka, Bangladesh-A study released today by the Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO) and IPEN reveals high levels of toxic PFAS chemicals in surface and tap water samples collected near industrial areas that are centers of the textiles industry throughout and around Dhaka. PFAS chemicals were found in nearly all samples. The water analyses showed PFAS amounts in many samples at levels above current or proposed regulatory limits in the EU, US, or the Netherlands, with several samples containing one or more globally banned PFAS. 

The study, “Persistent Threat: PFAS in textiles and water in Bangladesh,” notes that the textile industry in Bangladesh is a global center of the export “fast fashion” sector, with dozens of factories making clothing for major brands. PFAS are found in countless products where they provide water-, grease-, and stain-resistance and are widely used by the textiles industry, which accounts for about 50% of the total global use of PFAS and ranks second in PFAS emissions.

“Bangladesh is an international textiles manufacturing hub, and the prevalence of toxic chemical emissions from this sector puts our residents at higher risk. The fashion export industry should not get a free pass to contaminate our rivers, lakes, and taps with PFAS,” said Siddika Sultana, Executive Director of ESDO in Bangladesh. “We are not against industry, but we are against pollution. As a party to the Stockholm Convention, Bangladesh should implement PFAS regulations and health-protective standards.”

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of chemicals often called “forever chemicals” because of their accumulation and persistence in the environment. They are a threat to human health—having been associated with negative impacts on fertility, fetal development, and thyroid hormone function. Certain PFAS have been linked to weakened immunity, liver damage, and cancer. Some PFAS have been banned globally under the Stockholm Convention and others are under review for a global ban.

As Bangladesh has no specific regulations on PFAS, the study compares its findings with standards developed or in development in the EU, Netherlands, and USA (expressed in nanograms per liter or ng/L). Key findings from the study include: 

  • PFAS were detected in 27 of 31 surface water samples (87%). Of the 27 samples containing PFAS,

18 samples (67%) contained one or more of the globally banned PFAS chemicals PFOA, PFOS, and/or PFHxS.

19 samples (70%) had PFAS levels exceeding the proposed EU regulatory limit (4.4 ng/L).

  • The highest PFAS levels were detected in 2019 in water from the Karnatali River, with levels more than 300 times the proposed EU limit. That sample also had the highest level of two banned PFAS, more than 1,700 times above a current Dutch advisory limit for PFOA (0.3 ng/L) and more than 54,000 times above a current Dutch advisory limit for PFOS (0.007 ng/L). 
  • Another sample, from Hatirjheel Lake in 2022, also contained both PFOA and PFOS, the latter testing at 185 times above a current Dutch advisory level for PFOS.
  • Samples with high PFAS levels were common in areas near textile producing facilities, adding to the evidence that the textiles industry may be a significant source of PFAS water pollution. In two waterways where samples were taken in 2022 downstream and upstream from Export Processing Zones (the Dhaka and Adamjee EPZs), samples taken downstream from the facilities showed higher PFAS concentrations, reinforcing the conclusion that the textiles industry is the likely source of PFAS pollution.
  • Three of the four tap water samples from 2019 contained PFAS and tested above the US PFOA threshold for drinking water (4 ng/L).
  • The study also analyzed clothing purchased in Bangladesh, as another potential source of PFAS exposure to residents. PFAS were detected in all five clothing items sampled, with one men’s jacket containing the globally banned chemical PFOA.

“PFAS in our waterways, tap water, and clothing pose serious health and environmental threats, yet industry and policy makers have been slow to respond,” said Dr. Shahriar Hossain, Senior Policy and Technical Advisor for ESDO and lead author of the study. “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.”

Water samples were collected from lakes and rivers in areas near densely populated areas and industrial centers including textiles and other manufacturing facilities (including garment, tannery, electronics, chemicals, pharmaceutical, and/or steel plants). Two sampling areas were near Export Processing Zones, special duty-free economic areas that host large concentrations of textile plants oriented toward international markets and export. The samples were analyzed by independent labs in the US. Chemicals found in some samples from 2022 that were not found in 2019 suggest that manufacturers may be shifting away from banned or regulated PFAS chemicals to unregulated polymeric chemicals. However, this shift fails to address the PFAS problem, as the substitute chemicals are known to degrade into hazardous PFAS chemicals, including globally banned PFAS.

“Safer alternatives to PFAS in textiles already exist,” noted Jitka Straková, IPEN Global Researcher and co-author of the study. “Given the many health risks at all stages of human development due to the constant exposure to PFAS, the textile industry should move quickly to phase out their PFAS use and be transparent about the PFAS content in their products.”

The fashion brands that source products from Bangladesh have tremendous market influence – their demand for PFAS-free products would be a powerful force toward ending PFAS pollution. Some brands have committed to eliminating PFAS.

ESDO and IPEN are calling on policymakers to develop a class-based approach toward banning PFAS chemicals and to work to address PFAS contamination in communities affected by textile manufacturing.

For more information, see the study here.