Children are being exposed to potentially toxic PFAS chemicals through the use of stain-proof and waterproof school uniforms and outdoor wear, according to a new international study.
Many Indiana schools require some sort of uniform or equivalent dress code that require clothing, like solid-color collared shirts and pants, that are available in stain-proof versions. The stain-proof versions of the clothing prevent liquids and other particles from being absorbed into the fabric, potentially extending the life of the clothing and making it easier to clean.
Researchers from Indiana University, University of Notre Dame, University of Toronto and Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology studied 72 stain-resistant textile products available for children, including school uniforms, outdoor wear and other items, and found all of the products contained PFAS chemicals.
Stain-resistant school uniforms had the highest concentration of PFAS chemicals, potentially exposing children to the chemicals via inhalation or absorption through the skin.
PFAS chemicals have been used to manufacture products that are resistant to water, fire, grease and stains since the 1940s, including household name brand products, like Teflon, Gore-Tex and Scotchgard.
More than 9,000 PFAS exist, but only few, like PFOA and PFOS, have been studied thoroughly.
The chemicals have been linked to increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, increased cholesterol levels, liver damage and increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women.
Exposure to PFAS chemicals has also been linked to decreased vaccine response in children, a potentially fatal impediment to the development of a child’s acquired immune system.
PFAS chemicals have been found in water, air, fish and soil throughout the world, from Indiana tap water to Antarctic rainwater. They have been given the nickname “forever chemicals” due to their persistence in the environment. The chemicals do not break down naturally and can remain in the environment for a very long time.
That is a concern for researchers because PFAS chemicals are essentially everywhere and can accumulate in the human body for at least five years.
“Children are particularly susceptible to environmental exposures because they are developing. Their bodies are forming, their brains are growing, so they are particularly susceptible to exposures to chemicals,” said associate professor Marta Venier, an environmental chemist at Indiana University and the study’s corresponding author.
The researchers looked at products children are exposed to for longer periods of time, like school uniforms, outdoor wear and products like bibs, hats and stroller covers marketed as stain resistant or water resistant.
They tested the products for 49 PFAS chemicals, finding “forever chemicals” in all of them.
The school uniforms tested had the largest concentration of PFAS chemicals, with the most detected chemicals being 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol, or 6:2 FTOH, and tridecafluorohexylethyl methacrylate, or 6:2 FMTAc.
6:2 FTOH has mainly been used in grease-proof food packaging. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration published an analysis in 2020 that found 6:2 FTOH could migrate from food packaging to people who regularly came into contact with the packaging and damage their liver and kidneys.
Several months after the release of the analysis, the FDA announced a three-year phaseout of the 6:2 FTOH food packaging that would allow manufacturers to sell existing stocks without disrupting food packaging availability during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The FDA’s announcement did not impact other uses of the product.
6:2 FTMAc has been linked to respiratory tract irritation, organ damage through prolonged or repeated exposure and has been found to be very toxic to aquatic life. Besides stain-proof clothing, the chemical compound is also used to make various construction materials.
“One of the contradictions of the regulatory system in the US that every single application has a different process,” Venier said. “But if it's not safe in our food, how can it be safe to wear it, to inhale it, to breathe it, too?”
Both 6:2 FTOH and 6:2 FTMAc were among many PFAS chemicals created to replace PFOA, PFOS and other legacy PFAS whose adverse health and environmental effects were becoming more well-known.
Both PFOA and PFOS were studied for decades by 3M, the company that created the chemicals; the Department of Defense, which purchased PFAS firefighting foam from 3M; and companies that used the chemicals to produce their own products, like E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co.
A large amount of data on the effects of PFOA and PFOS on human health came as a result of a major lawsuit filed against DuPont and its offshoot company, Chemours Co., in 2005. The C8 Health Project that came about due to the case settlement collected health data from about 65,000 people living near areas where products using PFOA and PFOS were manufactured.
Nearly two decades later, the EPA is on the verge of setting enforceable limits to the amount of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water and designating them as hazardous substances under the nation’s Superfund law, and is tracking the use and disposal of more than a hundred other replacement PFAS chemicals.
6:2 FTOH, 6:2 FTMAc and other replacement PFAS chemicals were created with shorter carbon chains to make them less persistent in the environment, but they continued to pose risks to human health.
“We know more about certain PFAS than others,” said Venier.
“But because these chemicals are all somewhat similar in structures, even when we don't know as much, we can predict that they will be as toxic and not safe.”
Venier said there is a push to treat all PFAS chemicals as a single chemical class.
“We have 9000 chemicals to regulate and control. How can we do that? We don't have the time; we don't have the money for that. We know enough to know that they they're toxic, and most likely, the benefit of using them doesn't outweigh the risk of using them,” she said.
Venier recommends parents try to avoid purchasing stain-proof uniform clothing, but if it cannot be avoided, washing the clothing more often will help slowly reduce the amount of PFAS present. Purchasing second-hand clothing could also reduce exposure to PFAS.