First, it came for the socks. Then, the workout gear.
On Wednesday, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) revealed that it has dispatched legal notices to brands such as Asics, Athleta, Brooks Running, Nike, Target’s All in Motion, The North Face, Reebok and Victoria’s Secret’s Pink after their sports bras and athletic shirts tested positive for levels of bisphenol-A up to 22 times the safe limit in California.
Better known by its acronym, BPA, the chemical is a “well-studied” hormone disruptor that mimics estrogen and can wreak havoc on the body’s normal functions, including metabolism, reproduction and growth and development, the Golden State-based watchdog group said. In the production of polyester, BPA can be used as an intermediary step to create hygroscopic and antistatic fabrics that won’t discolor in the wash.
“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,” said Kaya Allan Sugerman, the CEH’s illegal toxic threats program director. “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.”
Last year, the nonprofit found BPA at quantities up to 19 times higher than California’s threshold in the socks of 75 brands that targeted babies and children. With the addition of adult socks a few months later, the CEH’s list grew to 95. It initiated litigation with all of them—Asics, Athleta sister brand Gap, Reebok and Target’s All in Motion included—resulting in the first settlement for BPA in socks under California’s Proposition 65 in May. Several brands, the environmental group said, have since agreed to reformulate their products to remove all bisphenols, including BPA.
“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,” said Jimena Díaz Leiva, science director at the CEH. “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.”
Defendants will have 60 days to work with the CEH to remedy the violations before it files a complaint to do so, the organization said.
A representative for The North Face said that the brand is aware of the CEH notice and is investigating the allegations.
“At The North Face, our commitment to product safety is uncompromising as is our compliance with all local, state and national laws regarding product safety,” the spokesperson told Sourcing Journal.
Brooks Running said that BPA is a banned substance in its restricted substance list and its practice is to only use materials that are either Oeko-Tex 100 Standard certified or Bluesign approved, which demonstrate compliance to its RSL, or materials that are certified as compliant with its RSL by an independent third party.
“We have no reason to believe any of our products do not meet any health/safety standards, but out of an abundance of caution, we are working urgently to investigate these claims,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal.
Other brands did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
As scrutiny over the intentional use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in garments heats up, attention to BPA has been more muted. The Food & Drug Administration outlawed BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012, but there isn’t a similar ban for BPA in textiles. When the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety published its final opinion on the use of BPA in clothing in 2021, it concluded that “there is no risk for adverse effects of the estimated exposure levels of BPA resulting from the use of clothes, independent of the age group of the consumer” because overall concentrations tend to be low.
Tyrone Hayes, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, takes a different view, however.
“BPA was originally designed as an estrogen,” Hayes said on behalf of the CEH. “Given the many adverse effects of exogenous estrogenic compounds, BPA should not be in our clothing, food packaging or anything else that humans—or any animal for that matter—will come in contact with.”