Products intended for children, particularly school uniforms, have been found to have high levels of PFAS chemicals, potentially exposing kids to levels of these substances that could have harmful health effects, according to a study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of more than 9,000 molecules that are widely used in consumer products like non-stick cookware and waterproof or stain-resistant fabrics. They are known as “forever chemicals” because the carbon-fluorine bond that is their calling card is one of the strongest chemical bonds out there. “Once they are out in the environment, that bond is not naturally degraded,” says Marta Venier, an environmental chemist at Indiana University. “The rest of the molecule can break down into smaller chunks, but that is not necessarily a good thing.”

These chemicals are known to have a variety of health effects. They can disrupt the endocrine system, have harmful effects on metabolism, fertility, and obesity, and can cause a diminished immune response to vaccines, says Cassie Barker, toxics senior program manager for Environmental Defence Canada. Children, whose bodies are still developing, are particularly susceptible to such chemical exposures.

Venier and her colleagues looked at a variety of children’s products for sale in the US and Canada that were labelled as stain or water-resistant, including bibs, hats, stroller covers, swimsuits, outdoor wear, and school uniforms, and found PFAS in all of them. The concentration ranged from 0.25 to 153 000 ng/g with a median of 117 ng/g. The highest concentrations were seen in outdoor wear and school uniforms.

The most common PFAS chemical they found was 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol (6:2 FTOH), a compound that can break down into forms that are even more toxic. The US Food and Drug Administration has already banned it from food products. “If it’s not safe for food, it might not be safe to be worn all day, every day, for years,” says Venier.

It is not clear, however, if levels found might be harmful, because there are no reference doses to demonstrate what is safe, says Venier. “We don’t know what a reasonable exposure is, there’s no number to compare this to.” But the fact that they were found in uniforms, which students have no choice but to wear all day, is a concern, she says.

Barker says the presence of the chemicals in school uniforms is a particular problem because uniforms are often more common in low-income schools. “It’s another example of how our toxics laws fail to protect the most vulnerable,” she says. “Most families can’t buy their way out of these exposures. You shouldn’t have to be well-off to be well-protected.”

Clothing treated with PFAS is rarely labelled as such, so parents and schools don’t know what they might be exposing kids to, says Barker, and of the thousands of PFAS chemicals, only two are regulated in Canada. “They were quickly replaced with others,” she says, “which is why we need to deal with these as a class.” The federal government is assessing the class of chemicals now, and Barker is following that process closely. She is hoping for, at a minimum, a labelling requirement.

Venier says that based on simple calculus of benefits versus risks, and following the precautionary principle, it’s clear what should be done. “We don’t need to learn any more about these chemicals, we just need to move away from them,” she says. “Alternatives exist, and they should be used instead.”