Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
spotlight

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

  • 0
PFAS

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 might 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 warned 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.

These chemical 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 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.

A grinning baby boy crawls toward the camera through thick white carpet.

PFAS shows up in stain-resistant carpet and furniture textiles. FatCamera via Getty Images

We found that products advertised as water- and stain-resistant were more likely than other products to have detectable levels of total fluorine and higher levels of PFAS, though not all of them included PFAS. None of the other products had detectable levels of the PFAS chemicals that we tested for, though some had measurable levels of total fluorine.

Water- or stain-resistant products advertised as “green” or “nontoxic” had similar detections of PFAS and total fluorine levels to water- or stain-resistant products without any green assurances.

The product categories that had the highest measurements of PFAS were clothing, including school uniforms; pillow and mattress protectors; and upholstery from children’s furniture.

While our study didn’t measure exposure, there is potential for children in contact with these products to be exposed to PFAS compounds, including many we did not measure, such as volatile PFAS that can be inhaled. Studies have shown that with wear and washing, PFAS can leach out of durable or functional textiles, leading to increased potential for exposure and environmental contamination.

What can be done about it?

While more research is needed to quantify PFAS exposures from clothing and other children’s products, it’s worth asking why these chemicals are added to these products in the first place. The truth is that children are messy, and buying white clothing or using light carpeting in heavily trafficked rooms is just not practical.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been considering federal rules to limit PFAS use and possibly declare them hazardous substances. It’s a complicated debate with implications for the companies that make these chemicals and the products that contain them, and even for landfills and wastewater treatment plants.

Several states aren’t waiting. California recently passed a law that will phase out PFAS in children’s products. California, Maine, Vermont and Washington have banned PFAS in carpets and rugs. Maine has gone further and will phase PFAS out of consumer products sold in the state by 2023. Several other states are considering limits or bans on some or all PFAS in different uses, including firefighting foams, drinking water, food packaging and ski wax.

As someone who buys used clothing, which doesn’t come with tags, for my children, I am concerned about exposure to PFAS. As our study showed, it’s hard to know when an item contains PFAS.

Certifiers of “green” products could help by ensuring that they include PFAS in their criteria. The precautionary principle would suggest avoiding noncritical uses of PFAS in general.

[Get science, health and technology stories from The Conversation in your inbox each Wednesday.]

Kathryn Rodgers has been supported by grants from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and charitable donations to Silent Spring Institute. She was a staff scientist at Silent Spring Institute from 2012-2021.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Claire McCarthy of Harvard Health Publications offers six practical steps for boosting your child’s immune system:

0 Comments

Build your health & fitness knowledge

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

TUESDAY, May 3, 2022 (HealthDay News) -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning Americans to watch out for phony at-home, over-the-counter COVID-19 tests that look a lot like the real things.

Many parents are hunting for infant formula after a combination of short- and long-term problems hit the biggest U.S. brands. So what should you do if you can't find formula? Talk with your pediatrician or call a local food bank to see if they can help locate some options. Experts also recommend checking with smaller stores and pharmacies, which may still have supplies when larger stores run out. Most regular baby formulas contain the same basic ingredients and nutrients, so parents using those products shouldn’t hesitate to buy a different brand if they’re having trouble finding their regular one. Parents of infants requiring specialty formulas should talk to their doctor if they can’t find those products.

Workers at a public library system based in Columbia are voting this week on whether to join a union. If the union is ratified, employees at the Daniel Boone Regional Library would become the only active public library union in Missouri. They also would join a growing nationwide movement toward unionizing, sparked in part by the coronavirus pandemic. About 160 of the system's employees are casting votes Wednesday through Saturday, with results expected on Monday. Union organizers cite pay, benefits and safety for pushing the union. Library Executive Director Margaret Conroy says the system offers competitive pay and benefits to its employees in Columbia, Fulton, Ashland and Holts Summit. 

A new congressional report says that in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, the meat processing industry worked closely with political appointees in the Trump administration to stave off health restrictions and keep slaughterhouses open even as COVID-19 spread rapidly among workers. The report issued Thursday says meat companies pushed to keep their plants open even though they knew workers were at high risk. The lobbying led to health and labor officials watering down recommendations for the industry and culminated in an executive order from President Donald Trump designating meat plants as critical infrastructure that needed to remain open. The North American Meat Institute trade group says the report distorts the truth and ignores steps companies took to protect workers.

State officials say plans to execute a Georgia man who killed an 8-year-old girl and raped her 10-year-old friend 46 years ago will not be carried out as scheduled Tuesday night. A judge on Monday issued an order temporarily staying the plans to administer a lethal injection to inmate Virgil Delano Presnell Jr. The state on Tuesday appealed that order to the Georgia Supreme Court, which still hadn’t ruled as the original 7 p.m. execution time approached. Presnell had abducted and attacked the two girls as they walked home from an elementary school in Cobb County, a suburb of Atlanta, in May 1976. 

New Jersey’s casinos, horse tracks that offer sports betting and the online partners of both types of gambling outlets won $422 million from gamblers in April, up 20% from a year earlier. And the casinos’ core business, revenue won from in-person gamblers, surpassed the level of April 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic hit, an encouraging metric for Atlantic City’s brick-and-mortar casino industry, whose revenue has been struggling to rebound from pre-pandemic levels. The numbers do not include money the tracks won on horse races. The nine casinos won $235 million from in-person gamblers in April, surpassing the $207 million they won April 2019.

Asian stock markets are mixed after Wall Street rose and the Federal Reserve's chairman said it will raise interest rates further if needed to cool inflation. Shanghai and Hong Kong declined. Tokyo and Seoul advanced. Oil prices rose to stay above $110 per barrel. Wall Street's benchmark S&P 500 index rose by an unusually wide daily margin of 2% after positive U.S. retail sales data helped to offset concern about inflation. Fed chair Jerome Powell said the U.S. central bank will “have to consider moving more aggressively” if inflation that is at a four-decade high fails to ease.

When desperate people can’t obtain abortions near home -- when they need plane tickets, bus fare, babysitters -- they reach out to groups like the Midwest Access Coalition. The demand has become staggering.  And now, as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to gut Roe v. Wade, it is likely to get far worse. Already, state after state has tightened restrictions, pushing pregnant people further from home, for some hundreds of miles away. Helpless to prevent the coming crisis, the goal for the resistors is to assist abortion seekers one by one, either legally by helping them travel, or illegally if that’s what it eventually comes down to.  

Homelessness increased nearly 9% in the San Francisco Bay Area over the last three years, despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent to keep people off the streets during the coronavirus pandemic. Preliminary numbers released Monday show that more than 35,000 people were counted earlier this year living in shelters or outdoors in a federally required survey. San Francisco appeared to be the one bright spot, seeing homelessness decline slightly. Alameda County reported a 22% increase in this year’s point-in-time survey while neighboring Contra Costa County saw a 35% jump. Housing advocates said the increases would have been higher without strong government aid.

The sponsor of a bill that would have subjected Louisiana women to murder charges for having abortions has abruptly pulled the proposal from debate. That move came Thursday night after Louisiana House members voted 65-26 to totally revamp the bill, eliminating the  criminal penalties for women who have abortions. The bill would have ventured farther against abortion than lawmakers’ efforts in any other state. It would have made women who end their pregnancies subject to criminal homicide prosecutions. Gov. John Bel Edwards, an anti-abortion Democrat, had called the proposal absurd and said he would have vetoed it.