school uniform. pillowcases. Mattress protectors. household goods. Children’s clothing and other water and dirt repellents that children come into contact with on a daily basis all contain PFAS. writes Catherine Rodgers (Boston University, Environmental Health), who researched the materials, even if they were advertised as “non-toxic” or “green.”
In principle, it doesn’t matter whether water- or stain-resistant clothing is promoted as “green cucumber” or “non-toxic”: there is still a chance that it contains PFAS, a group of “forever chemicals” associated with health problems in children.
In a new study, my colleagues and I tested more than 90 waterproof and stain-resistant baby gear. These are easily available online and in-store products.
The results were horrific. We’ve found PFAS in school uniforms, pillows, upholstered furniture, and many other products that come in contact with children’s skin. None of the products warned that they were produced with toxic chemicals. In fact, many products are advertised as “non-toxic” or “green”.
“PFAS” stands for poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances. It is a group of more than 9,000 chemicals that each form a carbon-fluorine bond. They are used for their effective properties. They are water, heat and dirt repellent.
We see these types of chemicals all around us. They are found in nonstick pans, greaseproof food packaging, waterproof clothing, touch screens, and foam in fire extinguishers and industrial processes. They end up in the water, soil, and air we breathe. It can accumulate (“bioaccumulate”) in animals.
In the United States, PFAS was detected in the blood of more than 98 percent of the population tested. Chemicals are also found in the most remote corners of the world.
Studies of (relatively few) types of PFAS in terms of effect in humans show that the substances can be linked to various health problems, from cancer to high cholesterol and hormonal disorders. As a result, children are less able to absorb vaccines.
Babies are smaller, they’re still developing, and their hormones and physiology are still changing. Therefore, it is of particular concern that they are exposed to PFAS in this way: they are more susceptible to the health effect of the substances.
A study of PFAS exposure in children shows a link between the presence of PFAS in the blood and the time girls start menstruating. Other studies indicate a change in kidney function and immune problems. Dyslipidemia, an imbalance of fats in the blood, can lead to children developing cardiovascular disease.
What did we find exactly?
This isn’t the first time that PFAS has been discovered in children’s clothing. This is often the case with clothing labeled “functional,” such as raincoats, which must be waterproof. We wanted to know if information on the labels of baby items, specifically items advertised as water- or stain-resistant, revealed the presence of PFAS.
But it doesn’t stop there. We also wanted to know if products promoted or certified as “green” or “non-toxic” really didn’t contain PFAS.
In the end we came up with 93 products used by children and young adults. We divide it into three types of products: clothing, bedding, and household goods.
The first tests already indicated high values of fluorine in 54 products, which may indicate the presence of PFAS. Our Alpha Analytical Study Partners tested these 54 products on 36 different PFAS chemicals.
Water and stain resistant
Our research shows that products advertised as water and stain resistant are more likely than other products to contain fluorine and show higher levels of PFAS, even though not all 54 products contain PFAS. None of the other products tested were found to contain PFAS, although we still had high levels of fluorine.
“Green” water- and stain-resistant products are just as likely to contain PFAS and high levels of fluorine as water- and stain-resistant products without a guarantee of durability.
The products with the highest PFAS values are clothing such as school uniforms, bedding such as pillowcases and mattress protectors, and children’s fabric furniture.
Although our study did not include examination of exposure levels, we see the possibility that children who handle these products may also come into contact with PFAS. It is also possible that they will be exposed to chemicals that have not yet been tested, such as volatile chemicals that can be inhaled.
Studies show that PFAS can escape from textiles when worn or washed. This increases the chance that the substance will contaminate our living environment.
And now what?
More research is needed to determine the level of exposure to PFAS in children’s clothing and other children’s items. However, it is pertinent to ask now why these chemicals end up in those products specifically.
The fact is that children get dirty quickly. Buying white or light clothes or carpets is simply meaningless if you have children.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering drafting federal regulations to limit PFAS (the European Union had already banned its use in 2006, ed.). It’s a hot debate because it affects companies that use chemicals and chemical products. It also has implications for landfills and water treatment plants.
Some US states do not wait for regulations. In California, a law was recently passed to eliminate PFAS in children’s clothing. PFAS is now banned in carpets in Maine, Vermont, Washington and again California.
Maine goes even further: By 2023, it wants no more PFAS in consumer products sold in the state. Other states are considering restrictions or similar bans on products containing PFAS, including fire extinguishers, drinking water and food packaging.
It is very difficult to determine which products contain PFAS and which ones do not. This worries me, even as a mother. Anyone who certifies “sustainable” products can already do their homework by including PFAS in the standards. PFAS is best avoided across the board.
This analysis originally appeared on The Conversation, an IPS partner.