Not even so-called “eco-friendly” children’s clothing is safe from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS, a new study claims.
Published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, the study found that many kid-targeting products, including those boasting green certifications, contained “forever chemicals” that were not listed on their labels. Among them were children’s pants from The Children’s Place and Columbia Sportswear, baby jeggings from Gap, toddler polos from Lands’ End and girls’ shirts from Old Navy.
The products were among 93 stain- and water-resistant, “green” or “non-toxic” textile items, including apparel, bedding and furnishing, that scientists from the Silent Spring Institute, Alpha Analytical Laboratories and Galbraith Laboratories picked for testing. Most of them hailed from major U.S. retailers.
PFAS imbue many products with stain and water resistance but are known to pose a long-term threat because they don’t break down in the environment. In people, they have been linked to hormone and immune-system disruption, liver and kidney damage, developmental and reproductive harm and certain cancers.
Researchers first used a rapid screening method to test the products for fluorine, a marker of PFAS. Products advertised as water- or stain-resistant, even those labeled as “green” or “non-toxic,” they found, were more likely to contain detectable levels of fluorine that were higher than others. They then tested a subset of those products for 46 different PFAS chemicals. Only products labeled as water- or stain-resistant, whether they were marketed as “green” or “non-toxic,” manifested PFAS.
Even PFOA, a legacy PFAS that has been phased out in the United States, reared its head in a slew of products, including those marketed as “green.” Most of them originated from China, researchers noted.
The findings, the study said, demonstrate the ubiquity of PFAS in everyday products, along with the challenges consumers may face trying to avoid them. Children are especially vulnerable to being exposed.
“Children’s bodies are still developing and are especially sensitive to chemical exposures,” Laurel Schaider, senior scientist at Silent Spring Institute and a study co-author, said in a statement. “It makes sense that parents would want to steer clear of products that contain ingredients that could impact their children’s health now and in the future.”
The analysis, scientists say, also spotlights the need for third-party green certifiers to include PFAS in their criteria—plus conduct a more thorough review of what they’re certifying.
“Retailers also must play a role in ending this toxic trail of pollution,” Mike Schade, director of Toxic-Free Future’s Mind the Store program, said in a statement. “Market power is built on trust. Customers should be able to trust that the retailers where they shop sell products—especially those marketed for children—that are not laden with PFAS forever chemicals.”
Gap and Old Navy owner Gap Inc. said it is “committed and on track” to eliminate PFASs from its supply chain by 2023. The Children’s Place, Columbia Sportswear and Lands’ End did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Sujatha Bergen, director of health campaigns at the National Resource Defense Council, which recently published a PFAS “report card” with Fashion FWD and U.S. PIRG Education Fund, said she wasn’t surprised by the results.
“PFAS are widely used throughout the textile industry, even though they are not necessary,” she told Sourcing Journal. “All textile and apparel companies should immediately establish a commitment to phase these chemicals out of their supply chains to ensure public safety.”
Though Bergen and company gave Gap Inc. a B for its efforts in eliminating PFAS from its supply chain, Columbia received an F. (The Children’s Place and Lands’ End weren’t included in the rating.)
“Columbia Sportswear and the textile industry should immediately establish a public timeline to phase these chemicals out,” she added. “They have no place in children’s clothes, or any textiles, for that matter.”
Several states have introduced or passed legislation to prevent manufacturers from dropping PFAS into products. California passed a law banning the use of PFAS in some infant and children’s products and is now mulling a bill to ban PFAS in textiles, while Washington state greenlit a bill that will phase out PFAS in products ranging from apparel to cosmetics by 2025.
In Maine, a new law will outlaw the sale of products with intentionally added PFAS, except where their use is unavoidable, beginning in 2030. Massachusetts, too, has introduced a bill that would prohibit the use of PFAS in common household products such as carpeting and cookware.
Meanwhile, the NRDC offers a good rule of thumb for consumers: If a garment is labeled “waterproof,” “breathable,” “stain repellent,” or “dirt repellent,” it’s highly likely that it uses a PFAS coating or membrane.
“These are products that children come into close contact with every day and over a long period of time,” Kathryn Rodgers, a doctoral student at Boston University School of Public Health and a co-author of the study, said in a statement. “Given the toxicity of PFAS and the fact that the chemicals don’t serve a critical function, they should not be allowed in products.”