As another example of the presence of the hazardous chemical known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in consumer goods, industrial products and textiles, researchers have found particularly high levels in school uniforms sold in North America.
In a study published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, scientists from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana University, the University of Toronto and the Green Science Policy Institute analyzed a variety of children’s textiles. Fluorine was detected in 65 percent of the samples tested.
But levels were highest in school uniforms — and higher in uniforms labeled as 100 percent cotton versus synthetics.
“What was surprising about this group of samples was the high level of detection of PFAS in clothing that children are required to wear,” said Graham Peaslee, a physics professor at Notre Dame and co-author of the study. “Children are a vulnerable demographic when it comes to chemicals of concern and nobody knows that these textiles are being treated with PFAS and other toxic chemicals.”
An estimated 20 percent of public schools in the United States require students to wear uniforms – meaning millions of children could be at risk of exposure to the toxic compounds.
Known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS are known to accumulate in the bloodstream and have been linked to an increased risk of various health problems, including a weakened immune system, asthma, obesity, and neurodevelopmental and behavioral problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys routinely find PFAS in blood samples from children between the ages of 3 and 11.
Clothing treated with PFAS offers multiple routes of direct exposure – through skin contact, inhalation or ingestion.
This study included a total of 72 product samples purchased online in the US and Canadian markets in 2020 and 2021. Researchers focused on products labeled as water or dirt repellent, windproof or wrinkle resistant. Items tested in addition to uniforms include outerwear such as rain suits, snow suits and mittens; accessories such as bibs, hats and baby shoes; and sweatshirts, swimwear, and stroller covers.
Additional research is needed to better understand concentrations over time and washing.
“There’s no way for consumers to buy clothes that can be washed instead of clothing that’s coated with chemicals to reduce stains,” Peaslee said. “We hope that one of the outcomes of this work will be increased labeling of textiles to fully inform the purchaser of the chemicals used to treat the fabric prior to sale, giving consumers the opportunity to purchase garments that have not been treated with chemicals were chosen for their children. “
The items purchased were all first examined at Notre Dame using particle-induced gamma-ray emission spectroscopy (PIGE), a novel method developed by Peaslee to accurately and efficiently test for the presence of fluorine.
Using the PIGE method, Peaslee’s laboratory has detected PFAS in cosmetics, fast food packaging, face masks, firefighting equipment and drinking water.
The Environmental Protection Agency has moved to officially classify chemicals as hazardous forever – but the study is a reminder of the continued use of PFAS and PFOAS in consumer and industrial products and their persistence in the environment.
Materials provided by University of Notre Dame. Originally written by Jessica Sieff. Note: Content can be edited for style and length.