Nearly 60% of children‘s textiles labeled “waterproof”, “stain-resistant” or “eco-friendly” that were tested in a new study contained toxic PFAS substances known as eternal chemicals” due to their persistence in the environment.
Among the products checked were clothing, pillow protectors, bedding and furniture.
“It’s definitely a concern because these toxic chemicals can enter children’s bodies,” said Laurel Schaider, one of the study’s authors.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of more than 9,000 compounds generally used through dozens of industries to make water, stain or heat resistant products. They are found in thousands of everyday consumer products such as stain repellents, kitchen utensils, food packaging and rainwear.
The chemicals are linked to cancer, birth defects, liver disease, thyroid disease, decreased immunity, hormonal disruption and a range of other serious health issues. They’re nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down naturally and build up in humans.
The peer-reviewed study was conducted by public health advocacy group Silent Spring Institute and published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. It aimed to give an idea of the use of chemicals in products accompanied by labeling suggesting that they are environmentally friendly or that they protect against stains and water. The study is not intended to provide a representative sample of children’s textiles.
It detected PFAS in 54 of 93 products, including 21 with labels such as “eco”, “green” or “non-toxic”. The chemicals were most widely used in products labeled “water-resistant” or “stain-resistant”.
PFAS in clothing can enter the body through several routes. Chemicals are volatile, meaning they can break off from products they are applied to, then travel through the air and be inhaled. They can also attach to dust that is inhaled or ingested, or they can be absorbed through the skin. .
Silent Spring detected the chemicals most frequently in upholstered furniture, clothing, and pillow protectors, and the latter two generally contained the highest levels of PFAS.
Nearly 20 products contained multiple types of PFAS, including PFOA, a highly toxic compound that regulators and industry say has been phased out because of its danger, but is still routinely detected in the United States. Products containing PFOA were manufactured in China.
It’s hard for consumers to avoid chemicals because they’re not on labels, but the study provides some helpful advice, Schaider noted. Products labeled “stain resistant” most often contained the chemicals, as PFAS are often the main ingredient in stain removers like Scotchgard.
“It could mean making a lifestyle decision to live with spots,” Schaider said.
Products labeled “waterproof” also frequently contained the chemicals. It’s also difficult to navigate “eco” and “green” labels because there’s no legal definition for the terms, and they can be “meaningless” marketing, Schaider said.
Third-party companies will certify products as environmentally safe, but there is no uniform standard and some companies do not consider PFAS in their certification. That’s partly because PFAS is a newer chemical than toxins like lead, but Schaider said certifiers “could do a better job.”
The best solution, she added, is a ban on PFAS outside of essential uses such as medical devices where there is no substitute chemical.
“Where it’s just a nice feature to have but we don’t really need – all these textile products fall into this category – it’s not worth bringing these chemicals into the house forever “, said Schaider.