Common Type of Clothing Could Be Exposing Millions of Children to Harmful Chemicals

Happy Primary School Kids Uniforms

A number of major health problems, including cancer, obesity, and worse COVID-19 outcomes, have been linked to certain per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS).

The study found toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in all stain-resistant uniforms tested.

According to a recent study conducted by scientists at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University and associates from the University of Toronto, the University of Notre Dame, and the Green Science Policy Institute, children who wear stain-resistant school uniforms may be exposed to potentially harmful levels of chemicals.

Approximately one-fourth of children in the United States attend school in uniform, according to a Statista survey. Uniforms are required in one-fifth of public schools in the United States, with elementary and low-income schools having the highest prevalence. They are even more frequent at Catholic and other private schools in the United States and Canada.

According to the research, which was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, millions of children in the United States and Canada are exposed to PFAS through their uniforms at levels that might be harmful. The researchers found PFAS in all of the stain-resistant school uniforms from nine popular brands that they tested. Most products had concentrations comparable to those found in outdoor clothing.

“PFAS don’t belong in any clothing, but their use in school uniforms is particularly concerning,” said Marta Venier, senior author and professor at Indiana University. “School uniforms are worn directly on the skin for up to eight hours per day by children, who are particularly vulnerable to harm.”

Some PFAS have been linked to a wide range of major health issues, including cancer, obesity, and more severe COVID-19 outcomes. They’ve also been shown to contaminate the drinking water of millions of citizens. Only a small percentage of the thousands of PFAS have been tested for toxicity, and all PFAS are either extremely persistent in the environment or break down into extremely persistent PFAS. Furthermore, several newer PFAS that were initially thought to be harmless have now been shown to be harmful to human health.

PFAS in treated uniforms may end up harming children through skin absorption, as well as from eating with unwashed hands, other hand-to-mouth behaviors, and mouthing of clothing by younger children. The fluorotelomer alcohols, which were the primary type of PFAS found in the uniforms, also pose an inhalation risk. Further, PFAS-treated uniforms are a source of PFAS contamination in the environment when they are worn, laundered, and discarded or recycled.

“I don’t know any parent who values stain repellency over their child’s health,” said Miriam Diamond, co-author and professor at the University of Toronto.

The findings come as legislation to phase out PFAS in textiles, which would include school uniforms, moves forward in New York and California. New York’s Senate Bill S6291A and California’s Assembly Bill 1817, known as the Safer Clothes and Textiles Act, have both passed their legislatures and are expected to be signed by their respective governors soon.

“To protect our children and future generations, the whole class of PFAS should be eliminated from school uniforms and all other products where they are not essential,” said Arlene Blum, co-author and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. “Manufacturers can prevent harm by moving away from PFAS as soon as possible.”

The researchers recommend that parents check labels to see if their children’s uniforms are marketed as stain-resistant. If so, they say there is some evidence to suggest that multiple washes can reduce PFAS concentration. They also say that used clothes or hand-me-down clothes are better options because the levels of PFAS might decline with laundering.

Reference: “Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances in North American School Uniforms” by Chunjie Xia, Miriam L. Diamond, Graham F. Peaslee, Hui Peng, Arlene Blum, Zhanyun Wang, Anna Shalin, Heather D. Whitehead, Megan Green, Heather Schwartz-Narbonne, Diwen Yang and Marta Venier, 21 September 2022, Environmental Science & Technology.
DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.2c02111

The study was funded by the Environment and Climate Change Canada, Great Lakes Protection Initiative. 

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