The research, published on Wednesday in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, found that millions of school children just in the US and Canada could be exposed to potentially harmful levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), or forever chemicals, through their uniforms.
“Children are a vulnerable population when it comes to chemicals of concern, and nobody knows these textiles are being treated with PFAS and other toxic chemicals,” study co-author Graham Peaslee from the University of Notre Dame in the US.
PFAS are chemicals used since the 1940s, that are commonly found in nonstick cookware, waterproof cosmetics, firefighting foams, as well as commercial products that resist grease and oil.
Previous studies have shown that PFAS are linked to developmental effects in children, increased risks of cancer, and reduced immunity to fight infections.
These “forever chemicals” have also been found to be extremely persistent in the environment, and even when the PFAS are buried, they leach into the surrounding soil.
Researchers warn that the PFAS in chemically treated uniforms may end up harming children through skin absorption.
They say children may also be exposed to these potentially dangerous chemicals from eating with unwashed hands, other hand-to-mouth behaviors, or mouthing of clothing by younger children.
“PFAS don’t belong in any clothing, but their use in school uniforms is particularly concerning. School uniforms are worn directly on the skin for up to eight hours per day by children, who are particularly vulnerable to harm,” Marta Venier, senior author of the study from Indiana University in the US said.
“I don’t know any parent who values stain repellency over their child’s health,” Miriam Diamond, co-author of the study from the University of Toronto in Canada said.
Scientists call for these chemicals to be eliminated from school uniforms and all other products where they are not essential.
Researchers also call on parents to check labels on uniforms to see if the ones worn by their children are marketed as stain-resistant, adding that multiple washes might reduce the PFAS concentration of these clothes.
“This study has supported the hypothesis that many children’s products that are marketed as ‘stain-resistant’ or ‘waterproof’ do indeed contain PFAS,” scientists wrote in the study.
“PFAS in school uniforms with high levels of PFAS could be a source of exposure to these harmful chemicals for millions of children each day via inhalation, ingestion and possibly also via dermal absorption, as well an important source of PFAS release to the environment during laundering and at the end-of-life stages,” they added.
However, researchers say further studies with a more systematic approach targeting different fabric and clothing types are required to confirm the findings.