BLOOMINGTON, Indiana — Children who wear stain-resistant school uniforms may be exposed to potentially harmful chemicals, according to a new study by researchers from the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University and colleagues from the University of Toronto, the University of Notre Dame and the Green Science Policy Institute.
About a quarter of US children wear school uniforms, according to a Statista survey. One-fifth of US public schools require uniforms, with the highest prevalence in elementary and low-income schools. They are even more common in Catholic and other private schools in the United States and Canada.
The study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, found that millions of schoolchildren in the United States and Canada are exposed to potentially harmful levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, through their uniforms. The researchers detected PFAS in all of the stain-resistant school uniforms they tested from nine popular brands. Most of the products had concentrations as high as in outdoor clothing.
“PFAS do not belong in clothing, but their use in school uniforms is of particular concern,” said Marta Venier, senior author and professor at Indiana University. “School uniforms are worn next to the skin for up to eight hours a day by vulnerable children.”
Some PFAS have been linked to a variety of serious health problems, such as cancer, obesity, and more serious consequences of COVID-19. They have also been found to contaminate the drinking water of millions of citizens. Only a small fraction of the thousands of PFAS have been tested for toxicity, and all PFAS are either extremely persistent in the environment or break down into extremely persistent PFAS. In addition, some newer PFAS, initially thought to be safe, were later found to be harmful to human health.
PFAS in treated uniforms can harm children through skin absorption, as well as through eating with unwashed hands, other hand-to-mouth behaviors, and mouthing of clothing by younger children. The fluorotelomer alcohols, which were the primary type of PFAS found in the uniforms, also pose an inhalation risk. In addition, PFAS-treated uniforms are a source of PFAS contamination in the environment when worn, laundered and disposed of or be recycled.
“I don’t know of any parent who prioritizes stain repellency over their child’s health,” said Miriam Diamond, co-author and professor at the University of Toronto.
The findings come as legislation to phase out PFAS in textiles, including school uniforms, is pushed ahead in New York and California. New York’s Senate Bill S6291A and California’s Assembly Bill 1817, known as the Safer Clothes and Textiles Act, have both passed their legislative sessions and are expected to be signed into law by their respective governors soon.
“To protect our children and future generations, the entire class of PFAS should be eliminated from school uniforms and all other products where they are not essential,” said Arlene Blum, co-author and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. “Manufacturers can prevent damage by eliminating PFAS as soon as possible.”
Researchers recommend parents check labels to see if their children’s uniforms are being marketed as stain-resistant. If this is the case, there is evidence that multiple washes can reduce PFAS levels. They also say that used clothing or pre-owned clothing are better options as PFAS levels could go down with washing.
Other authors of the study are Chunjie Xia from the O’Neill School at IU; Graham Peaslee, Heather Whitehead and Megan Green from the University of Notre Dame; Zhanyun Wang from the Federal Materials Testing and Research Institute; and Hui Peng, Anna Shalin, Heather Schwartz-Narbonne, and Diwen Yang from the University of Toronto.