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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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Students reflect on campus vaping culture in wake of multistate Juul settlement

On September 16, Juul Labs, the company behind the Juul e-cigarette, agreed to pay a sum of nearly $440 million to settle a two-year investigation launched by 33 states, including Indiana. The investigation, launched in early 2020, called into question the marketing and sales of the brand’s e-cigarette products, including whether the company targeted youths and made misleading claims about the nicotine content of their devices. According to a statement, the investigation found that Juul knowingly marketed its products to teenagers with launch parties, product giveaways and ads and social media posts using young-looking models. The sum will be paid out over a period of six to ten years.

Since the technology was first brought to market in 2015, Juul has taken the world by storm. Sleek and easily concealable, with fruity flavors considered irresistible to target-demographic adults and teenagers alike, Juuls have become the bane of high school administrators across the country. A 2018 study placed usage at least three times a month among 15 to 17-year-olds at above 50%,
making Juul by far the most popular nicotine product used by teenagers.

“Vaping contains nicotine, and nicotine is a stimulant,” Sisy Chen said, director of health and wellbeing within the executive cabinet of the student government. “So, when you take a hit of a vape, you experience a short-term high, and it may make you feel relaxed or feel great in that moment, but over a long period of time, it can have really detrimental effects on your lungs. It can also cause increases in depression and anxiety, especially in college students.”

Juul’s catastrophic falling from grace has come about almost as quickly as its rise to fame. The beginning of the end came in 2019, when Juul agreed to make changes to its youth advertising practices which included the discontinuation of flavored pods, leaving only tobacco, mint and menthol flavors on shelves in the U.S. Since 2019, over 2,300 class action cases have been filed against the company in federal court.

“Vaping has such an instant reward,” sophomore Ben Mulenda said. He’s a smoker, but he only smokes cigarettes.

“Nicotine used to be this fun thing to do after you finish your work. But now everyone just takes momentary hits and they don’t really reward themselves. After I get this paper done, and after I get another paper done, yeah, sure. I’ll go smoke a cigarette. People frown on that, but like, glorify vaping, which really annoys me.”

The biggest hit, though, came in June of this year when the FDA moved to ban all Juul products from shelves in the U.S. A federal court granted a temporary stay, allowing their products to stay on the market, and the FDA has since reopened its scientific review of the company’s technology.

Since 2020, the minimum age to legally purchase and use e-cigarette products, including vapes, in Indiana has been 21.

“In accordance with state law, smoking for anyone under 21 at the university is prohibited,” Chen said. But she is cognizant of the fact that it still does happen on campus.

“Obviously I don’t know exactly what goes on behind closed doors, but I will say that there is a portion of the student body that probably does vape, as with any other university across the United States,” she said.

Some have a very optimistic view of the situation.

“I feel like personally, I haven’t seen [vaping] much here at ND,” senior Caroline Paige said. “I feel like many students I talk to here seem to understand the risks of vaping and try to stay away from it. I actually transferred here from a Big Ten school after my freshman year, and I felt like there was a bigger vaping culture there.”

Following the pseudo-ban this past summer, Juul has shifted to marketing its product more as an alternative source of nicotine for older smokers. The company has agreed to halt a number of
marketing practices as part of its recent settlement, including not using cartoons or depicting people under 35 in ads, paying social media influencers or placing ads in any outlets unless 85% of their audience are adults. The settlement also includes restrictions on where Juul products can be sold and age verification on all sales.

“To anyone who is dealing with an addiction to vaping or nicotine, I recommend seeking help and reaching out for support because it really is an addiction, and we must make sure that every student on campus is healthy,” Chen said. “The university counseling services, they have support groups for those struggling with addiction, whether that’s individual or group counseling, where students that have gone through similar experiences can come together and really support each other.”

Contact Matthew Broder at mbroder@nd.edu