School Uniforms Carry High Levels of Dangerous PFAS Chemicals

    A study found that the chemicals were found in all 30 of the uniforms tested, as well as some other clothing worn by children

    Students wearing school uniforms raising their hands in class. Photo: Getty Images

    Children’s school uniforms are loaded with potentially dangerous PFAS chemicals, according to a study published today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

    PFAS—per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, known as “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally break down or do so extremely slowly—are often added to products to make them waterproof, stain resistant, or nonstick. But many of these uses have come under scrutiny in recent years, because various PFAS have been linked to a growing list of health problems, including immune system suppression, increased risk for certain cancers, liver disease, and neurodevelopmental problems.

    These health risks are especially concerning for children, who are smaller than adults and still developing. “In general, children experience adverse health outcomes at lower internal concentrations” of PFAS, says Jamie DeWitt, PhD, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., who studies the health effects of PFAS, and who was not involved with the new study.

    About 25 percent of U.S. children wear school uniforms, which are especially common in low-income and elementary schools, as well as in Catholic and other private schools. Stain resistance may be desirable in school uniforms, but it’s not essential, DeWitt says. And many parents may not be aware of the potential risks posed by chemicals in uniforms.

    PFAS chemicals are risky enough that these findings should trigger concern, says Marta Venier, PhD, an environmental chemist and assistant professor at Indiana University in Bloomington and the senior author of the new study. “We think parents would rather wash their clothes more than expose their kids to toxic chemicals,” she says.

    Why PFAS in Uniforms Is Such a Concern

    The team behind the study purchased 72 different children’s clothing products, including weather-resistant outdoor gear; miscellaneous articles like bibs, hats, and baby shoes; and 30 stain-resistant school uniforms.

    More on PFAS

    Because there are thousands of different PFAS chemicals and there is no way to test for every single one, the researchers looked at total fluorine in all the products as a measure of overall PFAS levels. (Organic fluorine is considered an indicator of overall PFAS, and though inorganic fluoride would also be picked up by these tests, it is expected to be negligible in children’s textiles, according to the study.) They also analyzed a subset of the products to assess the prevalence of 49 specific PFAS compounds.

    Fluorine was detected in 65 percent of total samples. But it was detected in every single one of the school uniforms tested. School uniforms also had the overall highest fluorine levels, Venier says—a surprise, because previous research on PFAS in clothing has focused on weather-resistant outdoor gear. In uniforms, the most prevalent PFAS was one known as 6:2 FTOH, which is often used to make stain-resistant coatings, Venier says. 

    The uniform findings were especially concerning, says Venier, because unlike outdoor gear, kids wear them against their skin for hours every day. That means that kids could be absorbing PFAS through the skin or, as the material degrades, inhaling PFAS in dust particles.

    Health Risks to Children

    Some specific PFAS have been linked to serious health risks, while less is known about other chemicals in this class. But many researchers believe that the growing body of evidence on these chemicals is sufficient to say there’s a “consistent pattern” of risk associated with them, Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, previously told CR. Because of that, a number of researchers argue that any non-essential use should be restricted.

    There is evidence that 6:2 FTOH—the PFAS found most commonly in school uniforms—is potentially hazardous to health. Plus, once it’s inside people or in the environment, 6:2 FTOH could degrade into other PFAS, including some that have been directly linked to health risks, DeWitt says. And while there’s limited research on the toxicity of PFAS absorbed through the skin, she says, scientists have found that such exposure is possible. 

    Because these chemicals can stay in the body for months or even years, limiting exposure where it’s possible is important. People ingest PFAS in drinking water and eat them in food, but limiting exposure from these sources can be difficult and expensive. 

    Textiles are likely to be contaminated with PFAS more often than people think, DeWitt says. But while overhauling municipal water systems to filter out PFAS is complicated and expensive, manufacturers could easily stop applying stain resistance to school uniforms. And when consumers have the option, they can limit exposure by avoiding stain-resistant products.

    Some people may appreciate stain resistance in school uniforms, especially if they are able to afford only a limited number of uniforms and don’t have access to laundry at home, DeWitt says. But schools could still help by avoiding making white shirts part of uniform requirements, instead opting for something less likely to show stains, like navy blue, Venier says.

    In some states, new legislation will help parents limit exposure. Legislatures in New York and California have both passed bills that will phase PFAS out of textiles. These are expected to be signed into law by New York and California state governors and will go into effect by 2024 and 2025, respectively.

    “We hope that our study will bring attention to the issue and manufacturers will decide to voluntarily move away from PFAS in uniforms and children’s textiles before that,” Venier says.

    Kevin Loria

    I'm a science journalist who writes about health for Consumer Reports. I'm interested in finding the ways that people can transform their health for the better and in calling out the systems, companies, and policies that expose patients to unnecessary harm. As a dad, I spend most of my free time trying to keep up with a toddler, but I also enjoy exploring the outdoors whenever possible. Follow me on Twitter (@kevloria).