PFAS show up in children’s stain- and water-resistant products, including those labeled nontoxic | Health


Stain-resistance can mean questionable chemicals in children’s clothes. VM via Getty Images

Even if children’s stain- or water-resistant clothes are advertised as “green” or “nontoxic,” they may still contain PFAS, a group of manufactured “forever chemicals” that have been linked to a wide range of health problems in children.

In a new study, colleagues and I tested more than 90 water- and stain-resistant children’s items that are easily available in stores and online.

The results were eye-opening. We found PFAS in school uniforms, pillows, upholstered furniture and several other items that are often next to children’s skin and near their noses and mouths. None of those products’ labels warning that toxic manufactured chemicals were present. In fact, many of them were advertised as nontoxic or green.

What’s wrong with PFAS?

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a group of over 9,000 chemicals that contain a carbon-fluorine bond and are used for their persistent characteristics, such as their ability to withstand water, heat and grease.

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These chemicals are all around us — they are used in nonstick cookware, greaseproof food packaging, water-resistant clothing, touch screens and plastic molding, as well as firefighting foams and industrial processes. They get into water, soil, dust and the air people breathe, and they can bioaccumulate in animals.

They have also been found in the blood of over 98% of Americans tested and in the farthest reaches of the Earth. The relatively few PFAS that have been studied for their impact on humans have been shown to have associations with a wide range of health problems, such as cancers, increased cholesterol, interference with natural hormones and reduced vaccine response in children.

Graphic show types of products including water-resistant clothes, stain-resistant products, makeup, firefighting foam, cleaning products and food packaging

These are a few examples of other products that can contain PFAS. City of Riverside, California

Children’s exposure to PFAS is of a particular concern because children’s smaller size, developing bodies and changing hormones and physiology may make them more susceptible to effects from PFAS. A review of children’s exposure to PFAS and the health effects found evidence of associations between PFAS levels in the blood and changes in the age when children first begin menstruating; Other findings included changes in kidney function and immune responses, along with dyslipidemia, an imbalance of fats in the blood, which can put children at risk for cardiovascular disease.

What we found in children’s products

Previous studies have found PFAS present in children’s clothing, some of which are advertised as “functional” fabrics with features such as water resistance. We sought to test whether the information on children’s product labels, specifically products advertised as stain- or water-resistant, would predict the presence of PFAS.

We also wanted to know if products advertised or certified as “green” or “nontoxic” indicated the absence of PFAS.

We looked at 93 products used by children or adolescents that fell into three broad product types: apparel, bedding and furnishings. Initial tests showed that 54 of those products had measurable levels of total fluorine, indicating the presence of PFAS. Our study partners at Alpha Analytical then tested those products for 36 individual PFAS.

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