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The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times
15 Apr 2023

NextImg:Is Your Clothing Drenched in ‘Forever Chemicals’?

The term dressed to kill has taken on a whole new meaning.

Dangerous chemicals are now so ubiquitous they are in our water supply, the food we eat, and even—the clothing we wear.

PFAS stands for the almost impossible-to-pronounce perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances—also known as “forever chemicals.” The reason they are called “forever chemicals” is that they don’t “break down” in the environment but rather “build up,” or bioaccumulate, in fish, wildlife, and humans. PFAS represent a group of thousands of man-made chemicals used in a number of industries and are found in a large number of household products, from carpets to dental floss.

PFAS are a group of chemicals used to make coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. These coatings exist in a variety of products that include furniture, clothing, adhesives, food packaging, heat-resistant non-stick cooking surfaces, and the insulation of electrical wire, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The unique chemical and physical properties of PFAS to repel oil, water, stain, and soil, as well as their chemical and thermal stability and friction reduction abilities, have a wide range of uses in many industries. These include the aerospace, semiconductor, electronics, medical, automotive, construction, electronics, and aviation industries, as noted by the Interstate Technology Regulatory Council (pdf).

Despite their purported usefulness in industry and innumerable household products, evidence demonstrating the ramifications of exposure to PFAS has been mounting—with more and more scientific studies linking them to a plethora of health problems. With a growing understanding of the risks, consumers have been paying attention and are fighting back against the companies using them in their products.

Lately, there has been a surge of class action lawsuits against companies and the clothing they sell. The suits claim that brands are falsely advertising their products as “sustainable,” “natural,” or “healthy” while containing toxic levels of PFAS. One lawsuit against REI (pdf) (Recreational Equipment Inc.), primarily targeting its raincoat line, is moving through the courts.

According to Bloomberg Law, more than 6,400 PFAS-related lawsuits have been filed since 2005, and the numbers have been rising, especially in the last two years, as awareness of PFAS has increased.

In another lawsuit against Thinx (pdf) reusable period underwear, which were found to contain PFAS, the company settled, agreeing to pay out up to $5 million after being accused of fraud and other deceptive practices. The complaint, filed in May 2022, said, “Through its uniform, widespread, nationwide advertising campaign, [Thinx] has led consumers to believe that Thinx Underwear is a safe, healthy, and sustainable choice for women and that it is free of harmful chemicals.” The complaint continues, “In reality, Thinx Underwear contains harmful chemicals … which are a safety hazard to the female body and the environment.”

PFAS have been found in a wide variety of clothing—from outdoor wear such as coats and rain jackets, hiking pants, and shirts—to activewear like yoga pants, leggings, and sports bras made by popular brands like Lululemon, Gaiam, Old Navy, and Athleta. Sources of PFAS contamination in these types of clothing tend to come from treatments the fabrics receive for stain resistance, water resistance, moisture-wicking, and sweat-wicking, which pull moisture and sweat away from the skin—something to be aware of next time you are out shopping for new yoga gear or a jacket for a rainy day.

PFAS have been found in hundreds of consumer products and clothing sold nationwide. Although the health risks associated with wearing clothing containing PFAS are still unclear, the chemicals have been linked to a whole host of serious conditions, from high cholesterol to cancer.

PFAS are not new, and since their invention in the 1940s, they have been accumulating in the environment, the food chain, and, unfortunately, us. According to the CDC, PFAS are present in the blood of nearly all Americans, demonstrating widespread exposure to PFAS in the U.S. population.

Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director of health and food for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says PFAS are dangerous for three critical reasons “First, the structure of PFAS means they resist breakdown in the environment and in our bodies. Second, they move relatively quickly through the environment, making their contamination hard to contain. Third, for some PFAS, even extremely low levels of exposure can negatively impact our health.”

According to U.S. Right to Know, an investigative public health group, studies have shown the connection of PFAS exposure to various health problems, including:

Children are particularly susceptible to the health effects of toxic chemicals like PFAS because their bodies and brains are still growing and developing.

A study published in 2022 by the American Chemical Society examined 72 children’s textile products that were marketed as “stain resistant” from U.S. and Canadian stores—many of which were school uniforms. Researchers aimed to assess whether the clothing represented significant exposure to PFAS and found that school uniforms had a high level of PFAS—comparable to that of outdoor wear—which is known to have high levels of PFAS because it is often stain and water-repellant.

This level of exposure is particularly dangerous as school uniforms are worn directly on the skin for extended periods every day–between 8–10 hours. The study states that this exposure could account for about one-quarter of Canadian and U.S. school-aged children.

Although PFAS are ubiquitous, there are ways to limit your exposure, which begins with knowing where to find them.

An article from U.S. Right to Know details the health concerns of PFAS and lists the routes of exposure to PFAS identified by researchers, which are:

One of the most common ways to expose yourself to PFAS is in drinking water. The Environmental Working Group, or EWG, has created a national tap water database, which is searchable by zip code. If your city has high levels, consider buying a water filter to limit exposure, especially if you have young children. Experts say reverse osmosis filters are considered some of the best types. The NSF, formerly the National Sanitation Foundation, has a list of the best water filters for PFAS.

In a March news release, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the first-ever PFAS National Drinking Water Regulation for six PFAS known to occur in drinking water, stating that, if fully implemented, the rule would “prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses.”

EWG has also created a national map of PFAS contamination by location, so you can see your exposure levels where you live.

When it comes to clothing specifically, be aware that outdoor and activewear are at higher risk of containing PFAS because this type of clothing tends to be water, stain, and sweat resistant. A lot of children’s clothing, too, has labels that promise it is resistant to stains and dirt. Read labels, and if something is labeled water, stain, or sweat resistant, there is a good chance it may contain PFAS.

You can also check the clothing brand’s website to see if they have made any public statements about using PFAS or that its clothing is “PFAS free.” NRDC has created a PFAS scorecard that gives a score to various apparel brands. PFAS Central, a Green Science Policy Institute project, offers a helpful list of brands and products that provide PFAS-free outdoor gear, apparel, and other products.

One of the best ways to avoid exposure to these forever chemicals is to keep life simple. There was a time in the not-too-distant past when we lived without clothing that would promise to whisk away sweat during a yoga class or make the coffee you spilled on your pants magically disappear—and the consequences of new “conveniences” on our health seem too high.

Stains and sweat are natural, and considering what is at stake for our health, maybe we can learn to love getting wet in the rain, find the humor in spilling coffee on our pants, and appreciate the hard work that goes into all that sweat in yoga class.