Health

School uniforms are abundant in toxic ‘forever’ chemicals linked to cancer, infertility and dementia

Beware of… school uniforms! Study discovers they are abundant in toxic ‘forever’ chemicals which are linked to cancer and infertility

  • Experts testing clothes found school uniforms are rife with ‘forever chemicals’
  • Called PFAS these stain-resistant industrial chemicals don’t degrade naturally
  • They have been linked to raised cancer risk as well as obesity and asthma rates
  • 20% of American children wear school uniforms but this rises to 98% in the UK 

School uniforms may pose a health risk to children, research suggests.

Tests showed items like blazers, shirts and ties contained notably high levels of ‘forever chemicals’.

PFAS, as they are scientifically known, are feared to stunt youngsters’ growth and have been linked to cancer and infertility.

The chemicals, designed to make surfaces stain- and water-resistant, don’t break down naturally in the environment, hence their nickname.  

One of the study authors, Dr Marta Venier, from Indiana University, said: ‘PFAS don’t belong in any clothing.

A study found children’s school uniforms are rife with ‘forever chemicals’ industrial substances that have been linked to increased cancer risk and infertility later in life (stock image)  

What ARE ‘forever chemicals’? 

‘Forever chemicals’ are a class of common industrial compounds that don’t break down when they’re released into the environment.

Humans are exposed to these chemicals after they’ve come in contact with food, soil or water reservoirs.

These chemicals — known more properly as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — are added to cookware, carpets, textiles and other items to make them more water- and stain-repellant.

PFAS contamination has been detected in water near manufacturing facilities, as well as at military bases and firefighting training facilities where flame-retardant foam is used.

The chemicals have been linked to an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, and damage to the immune system, as well as birth defects, smaller birth weights, and decreased vaccine response in children.

‘But their use in school uniforms is particularly concerning.

‘Uniforms are worn directly on the skin for up to eight hours per day by children, who are particularly vulnerable to harm.’ 

PFAS have for decades been added to textiles to prevent staining. They’re also used in cookware, children’s toys and can now be found in some water supplies. 

Children are exposed to the substances from clothing by direct skin contact, and the inhalation or ingestion of fibres. 

They can accumulate in the bloodstream.

Fellow researcher Professor Miriam Diamond, of University of Toronto, said: ‘I don’t know any parent who values stain repellency over their child’s health.’

Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute — which was involved in the research, called for urgent action. 

She said: ‘To protect our children and future generations, the whole class of PFAS should be eliminated from school uniforms and all other products where they are not essential.

‘Manufacturers can prevent harm by moving away from PFAS as soon as possible.’

Only a fifth of American public-school children wear a uniform. But they are far more common in the UK.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters, analysed 72 product samples bought in the US and Canada between 2020 and 2021.

Experts focused on items items labelled as stain, water or wrinkle resistant.

'Forever chemicals' and the impacts of their exposure to human health were the focus of the 2019 legal thriller 'Dark Waters' starring Mark Ruffalo

‘Forever chemicals’ and the impacts of their exposure to human health were the focus of the 2019 legal thriller ‘Dark Waters’ starring Mark Ruffalo

They also looked at other children’s clothing, such as sweatshirts, swimwear, bibs and mittens. 

PFAS concentrations were highest in school uniforms, particularly in items labelled as 100 per cent cotton. 

Researchers said further studies now need to be carried out to explore if PFAS exposure through clothing changed over years of use and after multiple washings. 

The chemicals, known properly as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been linked to an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer.

Studies have also suggested they damage the immune system and raise the risk of birth defects.

There are around 5,000 different types of the chemicals. 

They featured in the 2019 Hollywood film Dark Waters starring Mark Ruffalo after a community’s water was poisoned by the chemicals from the local plant.  

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