Navy explores how to get ‘forever chemicals’ out of sailor uniforms

by Vern Evans

The Navy is working to rid its outerwear of so-called “forever chemicals,” starting with a new shipboard jacket that hasn’t yet hit the fleet, budget documents reveal.

According to justification books accompanying the service’s fiscal 2025 budget request, the Navy has several initiatives cooking in its in-house laboratory that are focused on applying the latest scientific advancements to uniforms.

In all, the service wants $630,000 in the next fiscal year for initiatives improving clothing and shoe sizing, and for developing reusable menstrual products for sailors.

But one initiative in particular focuses on a thorny problem affecting every part of the military: eradicating forever chemicals that have become common in modern society.

In fiscal 2024, the service began work on developing an alternative to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, for the water- and stain-repellent coatings used on coats and external layers, according to budget documents.

Forever chemicals are handy for their water, heat and oil resistance, and have been in use sine the 1940s in hundreds of products, including carpeting, paints and firefighting foams, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Different PFAS have varying toxicity levels, but they break down very slowly and can accrue in people, animals and the environment over time, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A $67,000 Navy initiative seeks to help figure out how to make sailor uniforms that don’t rely on PFAS, a tough problem dogging other sectors of society as well.

Such efforts are being spearheaded by the Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility, which tests Navy fabrics for fire and heat resistance, cold stress, ballistic protection and other factors in uniform design.

“The objective of the [research and development] effort is to investigate suitable PFAS alternatives for durable water repellent (DWR) and stain repellent treatments used in Navy clothing and equipment items,” the documents state. “The [Navy textile facility] will assess PFAS-free fabric treatments by evaluating the repellency efficacy and degradative effects on material performance or comfort.”

The lab is beginning its testing of non-PFAS clothing coatings with a shipboard cold-weather jacket that has been in early development for several years.

In 2021, the Navy published a request for information solicitation calling for a new cold-weather clothing system featuring “moisture-wicking undergarments, insulation garments, protective outer garments, handwear, headwear, and socks.”

This system, the solicitation states, should protect sailors at temperatures as low as 60 degrees below zero, as well as from other harsh weather and sea spray, while offering flame protection through at least three seconds of fire exposure.

It should also sport a cleaner design that would minimize ship deck snag hazards.

This year and next, according to current budget documents, the Navy is moving the cold-weather clothing system development forward with $79,000 to begin fit and wear evaluations, and to lay the groundwork for user tests in a “relevant operational environment,” such as a ship underway.

For fiscal 2025, the service is requesting an additional $170,000 to develop requirements documents for the planned cold-weather ensemble, so Navy officials can determine which items might be commercially available and which require special procurement through the Defense Logistics Agency.

In another PFAS eradication effort for 2025, the Navy wants $50,000 to evaluate how fibers from current uniform items containing such coatings shed during machine washings and thereby enter waterways and ecosystems.

“To reduce the negative environmental impact, [the Navy’s textile facility] proposes to evaluate ways to quantify and minimize fiber fragmentation and improve filtration of fiber fragments from washing machine effluent,” budget documents state. “This research will look at which fabrics have the least fragmentation and recommend material changes for garments currently made from fabrics with high amounts of fiber fragmentation.”

Neither documents nor the previously published request for information identify when the planned warmer and more complete set of shipboard clothing items might hit the fleet.

The Navy budget requests for next fiscal year still will have to be approved lawmakers before officials can start acting on the ideas, and neither the House nor Senate have finalized those plans yet.

House appropriators are expected to advance a draft of their funding priorities on Thursday, with an eye towards a full chamber vote later this month.

Senate leaders have yet to give a timeline for when their spending plans may advance through that chamber.

Military Times reporter Leo Shane III contributed to this report.

Hope Hodge Seck is an award-winning investigative and enterprise reporter covering the U.S. military and national defense. The former managing editor of Military.com, her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Politico Magazine, USA Today and Popular Mechanics.

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