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“Forever” Chemicals Found in School Uniforms

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A new study has found that schoolchildren across the United States and Canada could be exposed to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – “forever” chemicals – via their school uniforms. The research, led by the Green Science Policy Institute is published in Environmental Science and Technology.

The PFAS problem

PFAS chemicals – sometimes referred to as “forever” chemicals – have received increased research attention over recent decades due to their potential adverse effects on health and the environment. “PFAS are industrial chemicals that contain multiple bonds between carbon and fluorine atoms,” says Dr. Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. “The strong carbon-fluorine bonds give PFAS useful chemical properties for making products oil-, stain-, and water-repellent or non-stick. But these bonds also make them extremely persistent—they never break down in the environment.”

“Some PFAS have been associated [with] diverse health harms, including cancer, obesity, fertility problems and pregnancy complications. They’ve also recently been linked to more severe COVID-19 outcomes,” adds Blum.

Alongside her colleagues at the Green Science Policy Institute, Blum is working tirelessly to conduct and communicate peer-reviewed research about chemicals of concern, including PFAS. Part of this work includes identifying where these chemicals can be found in consumer products. Last year, the institute published the first study exploring total fluorine or PFAS in cosmetics across the United States and Canada.

In its latest publication, the institute has turned its attention to school uniforms.

PFAS detected in all stain-resistant school uniforms

The research group tested nine different school uniform brands in their study. “We can screen products for total fluorine using particle-induced γ-ray emission (PIGE) spectroscopy. This gives you the surface concentrations of both PFAS, which contains fluorine bonded to carbon, and inorganic fluoride salt. Inorganic fluoride is not usually found in textiles,” explains Blum. Additional methods, such as liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) or gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) can also be used to perform analyses.

Blum and colleagues detected PFAS in all the school uniforms classed as “stain-resistant” from the nine brands that were tested, with most products having concentrations of PFAS that matched the levels identified in outdoor clothing.

A variety of different PFAS chemicals exist, of which some have been studied more than others. In this particular project, the researchers found fluorotelomer alcohols to be the most predominant type of PFAS in the school uniforms. “Fluorotelomer alcohols can biodegrade PFOA, PFNA and other perfluorinated carboxylic acids that are known to be harmful,” says Blum. “Although textiles are usually treated with large molecules called polymers which are not very bioavailable, they may also contain two to five percent unreacted smaller PFAS molecules, residuals and other impurities which are readily available for uptake and also very mobile in the environment.”

Why is PFAS in school uniforms?

Why are school uniforms being treated with such chemicals? Blum suggests its likely due to marketing, as companies can declare their brand as “stain-resistant”. However, it’s likely to have “limited effectiveness in practice” according to Blum.

The Green Science Policy Institute has chosen to not name the brands that are included in their analyses of consumer products. “As scientists, we do not name the brands we tested, which are a random sample of a much larger market. Plus, our results suggest that “stain-resistant” uniforms from all brands likely contain PFAS – not just from the brands we tested,” Blum says of this decision.

Reducing PFAS exposure

Parents may ask how they can keep their child protected from PFAS chemicals. Blum says that concerned parents should check their children’s school unforms in search of a “stain-resistant” label. “If there is one, they should ask school administrators to update their uniform policies and when purchasing new uniforms, specify PFAS-free uniform options. For already-purchased uniforms, multiple washes should reduce the amount of potentially harmful small PFAS left over from manufacturing and processing,” she advises. Used uniforms, perhaps handed down, could be a better option for children than purchasing brand new “stain-resistant” clothing. 

The findings from this study are published as a new legislation aiming to phase out PFAS use in textiles progresses in New York and California. But are we currently doing enough to prevent or limit PFAS exposure?

“We need to stop using the whole class of PFAS in products where they aren’t essential. Bills that phase out all PFAS in non-essential product categories (like textiles) are a good approach,” says Blum. She adds that manufacturers should not wait for mandates to stop the unnecessary use of PFAS chemicals. “To protect public health and their workers, they should stop unessential uses of PFAS in products and look for alternatives for essential uses,” she adds.

The Green Science Policy is contacting manufacturers to advise them on how and why they could stop the use of all PFAS in school uniforms, outdoor clothing and other products.

For more information on PFAS chemicals – and to learn how you can reduce your exposure – you can watch the following video produced by the Green Science Policy institute:

Dr. Arlene Blum was speaking to Molly Campbell, Senior Science Writer for Technology Networks.

Reference: Xia C, Diamond M, Peaslee G et al. Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances in North American school uniforms. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2022. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.2c02111.