Your children's school clothes may look neat, but are they safe to wear?
Researchers found high levels of dangerous chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in school uniforms sold across North America. These chemicals — which can build up in people and the environment over time — can be harmful to health. They are widely used in consumer and industrial products, and textiles.
Examining a variety of children's textiles, the researchers found fluorine in 65% of samples tested. Concentrations were highest in school uniforms, especially those labeled 100% cotton.
“What was surprising about this group of samples was the high detection frequency of PFAS in the garments required for children to wear,” said study co-author Graham Peaslee, a professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame. “Children are a vulnerable population when it comes to chemicals of concern, and nobody knows these textiles are being treated with PFAS and other toxic chemicals.”
Textile manufacturers use PFAS to make fabrics more stain-resistant and durable.
Known as "forever chemicals," they have been linked to an increased risk of health problems, including a weakened immune system, asthma, obesity and problems with brain development and behavior. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention routinely detects PFAS in blood samples from children between the ages of 3 and 11.
The researchers estimated that 20% of public schools in the United States require students to wear uniforms, putting millions of children at greater risk of exposure to toxic chemicals. They can be exposed through skin contact with PFAS-treated clothing, inhalation or ingestion.
This study looked at 72 samples of products bought online in North America in 2020 and 2021. The investigators looked at products whose labels said they were resistant to water, stains, wind or wrinkles.
Besides uniforms, the products tested included outerwear like rainsuits, snowsuits and mittens; accessories like bibs, hats and baby shoes; as well as sweatshirts, swimwear and stroller covers.
The study authors added that more study is needed to learn how chemical concentrations change over a lifetime of use and laundering.
“There is no consumer option to purchase clothing that can be washed instead of clothing that comes coated with chemicals to reduce stains,” Peaslee said. “We hope one of the outcomes of this work would be increased labeling of textiles to fully inform the purchaser of the chemicals used to treat the fabric prior to sale so consumers have the ability to pick garments that were not treated with chemicals for their children.”
The items were screened for fluorine using particle-induced gamma-ray emission (PIGE) spectroscopy, according to a university news release. Peaslee's lab has previously used the method to detect PFAS in cosmetics, fast food packaging, face masks and firefighting gear.
While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken steps to have forever chemicals officially declared as hazardous, they are almost impossible to avoid. The study is a reminder that PFAS are still used in consumer and industrial products and that they stay in the environment.
Scientists from Notre Dame, Indiana University, the University of Toronto and the Green Science Policy Institute collaborated on the study. They published their findings Sept. 21 in Environmental Science and Technology Letters.
IPEN offers more information on harmful chemicals such as PFAS.
SOURCE: University of Notre Dame, news release, Sept. 21, 2022