Last week, REI Co-op stores around the country closed for Black Friday. It’s a company tradition dating back to 2015, where the outdoor retailer asks customers to “opt outside” rather than participate in a post-Thanksgiving shopping spree.

But there’s one thing that REI hasn’t yet opted out of: a class of compounds known as “forever chemicals.” By using these chemicals in its water-resistant outdoor clothing, a coalition of nonprofits and health experts says REI is needlessly polluting the environment and damaging people’s health.

“It’s ironic that a company like REI … is selling products that are contaminating some of the most beautiful and wild places,” said Mike Schade, a program director for the nonprofit Toxic-Free Future. Similar companies such as Patagonia have already committed to phasing out per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — known as PFAS — and Schade’s organization is calling on REI to do the same.

PFAS comprise a class of chemicals that have been used in consumer products since the mid-19th century — often to give stain- and water-resistant properties to products like nonstick cookware, food packaging, and outdoor clothing. The problem, however, is that PFAS are linked to cancer, metabolic disorders, reduced fertility, and other health problems. Plus, they don’t break down once they escape into the environment, hence the nickname “forever chemicals.” Scientists are now finding PFAS just about everywhere they look — in drinking water, in breastmilk, in people’s bloodstreams. Even rainwater is now contaminated with unsafe levels of PFAS.

PFAS “tend to get into everything” and pose serious risks to public health, said Jimena Díaz Leiva, science director for the nonprofit Center for Environmental Health. They’re released not only by shearing off of contaminated materials like clothing, but at the manufacturing stage, where large quantities may enter the environment through wastewater or airborne particles.

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