A pile of clothes

US study finds harmful chemicals in children’s clothes

‘If you want to avoid PFAS, avoid waterproof and stain resistant products’, finds study
26 May 2022 , Katie Coyne

Almost 60% of children’s waterproof and stain resistant clothing and products contain a ‘forever chemical’, a US study has found.

Published in Environmental Science and Technology, the study looked at 93 products in total and found 54 contained the synthetic chemical, PFAS (Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances), including 21 products that were labelled as “green”, “eco” and “nontoxic”. There is currently no requirement to label whether a product contains a PFAS.

Nearly 20 items were found to contain multiple types of PFAS including PFOA, which has been found to be harmful and whose production and use has been banned in over 160 countries. Products looked at included school uniform, casualwear, face masks, period pants, sheets, mattress and pillow protectors, area rugs, and upholstered chairs.

The authors from the Silent Spring Institute in Massachusetts said: “Among products advertised as water- and/or stain-resistant, detection frequencies and concentrations of targeted PFAS were similar regardless of green assurances.”

PFAS are a group of 4,000 plus chemicals, used in multiple products from cookware, furniture, clothing, for their water and stain resistant qualities. They are called ‘forever chemicals’ because they persist in nature and do not naturally breakdown, and accumulate in the human body. They are linked to adverse health including cancer, thyroid disease, elevated cholesterol, decreased birth weight, developmental toxicity, ulcerative colitis, preeclampsia, and immunotoxicity.

Previous research has found that children may be especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of PFAS and that there is some evidence showing links to complicated cardiovascular diseases, reduced vaccine response, kidney problems, asthma, and delayed puberty in girls.

It’s very difficult to argue that stain resistance is essential when there is no demonstrable benefit.”

Heather McFarlane, Senior Project Manager at Scottish based environmental charity Fidra, said that although this was a US study, the global interconnected supply chain means it is relevant to the UK.

Fidra has had some considerable campaign success in negotiating a voluntary agreement with major supermarkets and school clothing manufacturers not to use forever chemicals.

The charity’s research was able to illustrate that there was no benefit in using PFAS as parents reported no reduction in washing of school uniforms using the chemicals. “It’s very difficult to argue that stain resistance is essential when there is no demonstrable benefit,” says McFarlane.

She is hopeful that most school uniform providers in the UK are still adhering to this promise, but there has been no legislation banning the use of PFAS, which is what the charity would like to see. “The only time we might need PFAS would be in very specialist cases such as in PPE in the oil and gas industry, and perhaps specialist expeditions, or in medical devices. But with day-to-day rainwear, that level of performance isn’t necessary,” says McFarlane.

Fidra would like to see more transparency on labelling so that chemicals such as PFAS, and others, were clearly labelled for consumers and retailers, but McFarlane argues this wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem - as consumers would need to know all 4000+ iterations of the chemicals in order to avoid them. She added that a ban on non-essential use was also needed.


Image credit: Shutterstock

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