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Adidas, Fabletics, Champion Named in New BPA Activewear Investigation

Bisphenol A in workout gear might be more common than previously thought.

Last week, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) sent legal notices to eight retailers—Adidas, Athleta, Champion, Fabletics, Kohl’s, Nike, Patagonia and Sweaty Betty—after tests showed that their leggings, shorts, sports bras and athletic shirts could be exposing their wearers to as much as 40 times the safe limit of bisphenol A, or BPA, in California.

This is at least the second round of letters that the Oakland-based watchdog group has dispatched to call attention to what it dubs a “well-studied” hormone disruptor in gym wear. Typically used to manufacture polycarbonate plastics, BPA can also be employed as a dye-fixing agent for polyester and other synthetic materials. Because it mimics estrogen, BPA can interfere with the body’s normal functions, including metabolism, reproduction and growth and development. It’s also been linked to health conditions such as asthma, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

“People are exposed to BPA through ingestion—e.g., from eating food or drinking water from containers that have leached BPA—or by absorption through skin—e.g., from handling receipt paper,” Kaya Allan Sugerman, the CEH’s illegal toxic threats program director, said after the nonprofit sent similar notices to Athleta and Nike, plus Asics, Nike, Target’s All in Motion, The North Face, Victoria’s Secret’s Pink and others, to alert them of BPA levels up to 22 times higher than California’s threshold in October.

“Studies have shown that BPA can be absorbed through skin and end up in the bloodstream after handling receipt paper for seconds or a few minutes at a time. Sports bras and athletic shirts are worn for hours at a time, and you are meant to sweat in them, so it is concerning to be finding such high levels of BPA in our clothing,” Sugerman said.

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The CEH said it wasn’t able to share any testing data due to the litigation process. Letters seen by Sourcing Journal state that the CEH intends to file citizen enforcement lawsuits against the alleged violators unless they agree, in “binding written instruments,” to recall sold products, either reformulate the items or provide “clear and reasonable warnings” to consumers about their risks, and pay an “appropriate” civil penalty based on factors laid out in California’s health and safety code. It has already entered into such agreements with several companies, the CEH said.

Adidas said that it’s reviewing the CEH’s report. “Safeguarding the health and safety of our consumers and protecting the environment is of paramount importance for us as a brand,” a spokesperson for the sportswear giant said. “Adidas is committed to following global best practices and complying with the strictest international safety requirements.” The other retailers did not respond to requests for comment.

The American Chemistry Council maintains that BPA is safe. On its website, the trade association calls it “one of the most thoroughly tested chemicals in use today and has a safety track record of more than 50 years.”

Still, the CEH, which previously targeted 75 sock makers, including Gap, Hanes, New Balance and Reebok, resulting in the first settlement for BPA in socks under California’s Proposition 65, begs to differ.

“The problem with BPA is it can mimic hormones like estrogen and block other hormone receptors, altering the concentration of hormones in our bodies, and resulting in negative health effects,” Jimena Díaz Leiva, science director at the CEH, said in October. “Even low levels of exposure during pregnancy have been associated with a variety of health problems in offspring. These problems include abnormal development of the mammary glands and ovaries that can increase the likelihood of developing breast or ovarian cancer later in life. These effects occur even at low levels of exposure like those seen in people today.”

Last month, the CEH dinged Urban Outfitters for selling jewelry with “stunningly high” levels of lead and cadmium.