The results of a new scientific study have revealed that 65% of school uniforms, children’s rain gear, snowsuits, snowshoes, mittens, bibs, hoods and hats contained what scientists consider “high” levels of toxic PFAS chemicals*. In school uniforms, the most prevalent PFAS chemical is known as 6:2 FTOH, which is often used to make stain-resistant coatings.
Why should we care?
As we reported in separate pieces recently about a variety of toxic chemicals in clothing, including microplastics in clothes, toxic chemicals in textiles worn against the skin can enter the body through the skin where they can be stored in organs. They can also be inhaled when the microfibers are released into the air during movement. In the case of PFAS, it has been linked in scientific studies to myriad of serious health conditions* including cancers, liver disease, kidney problems, reproductive problems, neuro-developmental problems and immune system deficiencies, to name a few. These health risks are particularly problematic for children as their systems and organs are still developing.
Scientists tested 72 different children’s clothing products, including weather-resistant outdoor gear, miscellaneous articles like bibs, hoods, hats, and baby shoes, and 30 stain-resistant school uniforms. Researchers examined the total fluorine in all the products (organic fluorine is considered an indicator of overall PFAS) as a measure of overall PFAS levels. Next, they analyzed a subset of the products to assess the prevalence of 49 specific PFAS compounds.
Fluorine was detected in 65 percent of total samples of children’s clothing. And it was detected in every one of the school uniforms tested. School uniforms also had the overall highest fluorine levels for the specific PFAS chemical known as, “6:2 FTOH”. The PFAS chemicals were found in uniforms made from 100% cotton, cotton spandex and cotton polyester. Higher total targeted PFAS concentrations were found in school uniforms made of 100% cotton than synthetic blends. The only textile in which scientists have found higher levels of PFAS than school uniforms is turnout gear used to protect firefighters. Researchers say there is evidence that 6:2 FTOH—the PFAS found most commonly in school uniforms—is potentially hazardous to health.
What can you do?
Consumers should limit risk from toxic PFAS chemicals by avoiding stain-resistant clothing and other textiles (like throws, bedspreads, etc.) and other household products like carpeting and upholstered furniture. More specifically, avoid clothing with labels of “stain-resistant”, “weather-resistant”, or “waterproof”. Additionally, parents and caregivers should urge schools to order PFAS-free products.
*PFAS chemicals (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are toxic to humans, animals and the environment. They are comprised of approximately 12,000 compounds. They are ubiquitous in the U.S., appearing in thousands of consumer and industrial products and are typically used to make products resist water, stains and heat, including household products (like carpeting, curtains, furniture upholstery, waterproof and stain-resistant flooring, etc.), cooking supplies (including cooking utensils and bake ware), clothing, personal care products (like cosmetics, including waterproof mascara) and even food (PFAS appears in processed food packaging for humans and pets) and public drinking water (tap water) that affects an estimated 2 million Americans. PFAS chemicals are usually found in products labeled “stain-proof” and “waterproof”. PFAS chemicals also appear in fire-fighting foam and other industrial products used at airports and military bases across the country, where the chemicals have leached into the groundwater. PFAS chemicals are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not readily break down in the environment or human body. PFAS chemicals have been linked in scientific and medical studies to a variety of serious health conditions including cancer (including testicular cancers), kidney disease, heart disease, thyroid problems, reproductive problems, endocrine problems (PFAS has been found to disrupt hormonal functions with some research suggesting that the PFAS chemicals are linked to accelerated ovarian aging, period irregularities and ovarian disorders like polycystic ovarian syndrome) and liver problems. Some newer PFAS have been found to accumulate in organs, so in some cases, science simply cannot detect the toxic chemicals when testing for it in blood.
Journal reference: Chunjie Xia, et al. Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances in North American School Uniforms, Environmental Science & Technology Journal, Publication Date: September 21, 2022. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.2c02111