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PFAS chemicals found in school uniforms

A recent study involving the work of Notre Dame researchers found high levels of dangerous chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in children’s school uniforms sold across North America.

The study, published earlier this month in the journal “Environmental Science and Technology Letters,” found elevated levels of fluorine in 65 percent of children’s textiles sampled, but the concentrations were highest in school uniforms. PFAS are manmade chemicals particularly desirable for their stain-resistant properties, hence their usage in school uniforms.

“PFAS are very good surfactants because of the way they are made,” said Graham Peaslee, a lead researcher behind the study and professor of physics at Notre Dame. “One part of the molecules is water-loving, and the other part is oil-loving, and these molecules like to line the layers between water and air or water and oils. Thus, if you apply PFAS to paper or textiles, you achieve quite high water and stain resistance on the material.” 

The study investigated a total of 72 textile products purchased online in American and Canadian markets in 2020 and 2021. Researchers focused on products marketed as water/stain resistant, windproof or wrinkle resistant. Other items tested include outerwear like raincoats and mittens, accessories like bibs and baby shoes and other miscellaneous clothing like sweatshirts and swimwear.

But PFAS come with a cost. Known as forever chemicals, they are very persistent in the environment.

“Think thousands of years for each molecule,” Peaslee said. “The product using PFAS might decay away in 60 days, but then 100 percent of the PFAS on its surface will be released to the landfill leachate and enter the surface and groundwater pool where we subsequently drink them.” 

Beyond this, many PFAS are known to be bioaccumulative, meaning they can build up in the body over time.

“Many have been found to have human toxicity, involving cancers, thyroid disease, hypertension, endocrine systems, ulcerative colitis and immune system suppression to name a few,” Peaslee said. They have also been linked to an increased risk of asthma, obesity and neurodevelopmental and behavioral problems.

The reason for the concern regarding children’s school uniforms is that children are much more sensitive to chemicals than adults, mainly because of their body weight. A small amount of toxin is a much larger dose for a child than it is for an adult who weighs twice as much. And any amount of toxin can have an impact on a child’s development.

“Children have rapidly developing systems in their body, and chemicals can often alter those developments in a bad way, while in adults, the systems are already largely developed,” Peaslee said. 

But particularly worrying to Peaslee is the immunosuppression capabilities of PFAS observed in the body.

“The more in the blood sera, the less effective any vaccine becomes,” he said. “In this way, PFAS don’t just encourage one disease to form, but any opportunistic disease or cancer can get past the natural immune system more easily.”

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from the CDC routinely find detectable levels of PFAS in blood samples of children between the ages of three and 11. PFAS can enter the body from exposure to skin or inhalation of contaminated dust in the air. Because of how useful they are as surfactants, they are ubiquitous in modern life.

“It is a much wider problem than just clothing, since there are over 200 industrial or commercial uses for PFAS published in a review paper in 2020,” Peaslee said.

The items tested were all initially screened at Notre Dame using particle-induced gamma-ray emission spectroscopy (PIGE), a method developed by Peaslee to test for the presence of fluorine. Using this method, his lab has detected PFAS in face masks, cosmetics, fast food wrappers and even drinking water.

“There is no consumer option to purchase clothing that can be washed instead of clothing that comes coated with chemicals to reduce stains,” Peaslee said. “We hope one of the outcomes of this work would be increased labeling of textiles to fully inform the purchaser of the chemicals used to treat the fabric prior to sale so consumers have the ability to pick garments that were not treated with chemicals for their children.”

Contact Matthew Broder at mbroder@nd.edu.

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