Understanding the Risks and Impact on Our Health and Environment
The “forever chemicals” known as PFAS have been all over the news lately. From NPR, to the New York Times, to Time, these noxious chemicals are getting a lot of attention. But what do parents need to know about forever chemicals in order to protect their children? In this post, we’ll break down what forever chemicals are, what PFAS means and what they are used for, where you can find PFAS in the home (and where your kids play), the harmful effects of PFAS, and how you can limit exposure.
What are Forever Chemicals?
Toxic. Synthetic. Dangerous. These are the words that come to mind with forever chemicals.
Forever chemicals are human-made compounds that break down slowly and accumulate in humans. It is because of this slow breakdown that they are called “forever chemicals”. The technical term for them is PFAS.
What are PFAS?
PFAS are “Per- and Polyfluoroalkalyl Substances.” It is a group of human-made chemicals often used to add a specific functionality to a product, like heat-resistance, oil-repellent, wrinkle-resistance, and more. Often they are applied as a coating on top of a fiber or fabric, but they can also be embedded within a product.
PFAS have been used in industry and consumer products since the 1940s, and as a consequence, have contaminated food, livestock feed, and drinking water. Traces of PFAS can be found in the bloodstream of humans and animals. These compounds do not break down in the environment and accumulate in our bodies over time as exposure rises, known as “bioaccumulating”.
Why are PFAS used so often in textiles? Largely, it’s because PFAS coatings offer some way to improve the product’s functionality by adding oil, water, wrinkle or dirt protection. They may also increase heat tolerance or strength. (Though I’ve personally heard from some industry insiders that testing about their effectiveness for these properties is hit or miss—meaning we may be using these dangerous coatings without a benefit!)
But textiles aren’t just the things we wear, they are the upholstery in our sofas, drapes, potholders, outdoor furniture, and more!
PFAS in Clothing
Water and stain resilience make these coatings particularly popular in outerwear. In our harried society, we are so pressed for time that we look for anything to make our lives easier. That’s why they are also often used in everyday clothes to add wrinkle or stain resilience.
Investigators recently dug into children’s products labeled as water or stain resistant, windproof or wrinkle resistant and found that 65% of them contained PFAS, and the highest concentrations were found in school uniforms. Interestingly, items labeled 100% cotton had the highest concentration of PFAS. Why would this be? My personal analysis of this is that cotton naturally wrinkles fairly quickly, and in order to make it “wrinkle resistant” a larger amount of chemicals need to be added to them.
For their outdoor gear, look for a “PFAS-free” or “PFC-Free” label on products or shop from companies that don’t use PFAS. REI is planning to phase out PFAS by 2024 due to consumer demand. Ecocult has put together a good list of companies that currently do not use PFAS for outdoor gear, unfortunately, a lot of those don’t make children’s clothing. Two brands that we know of that are PFC-free for kids are Fairechild and Frugi, you can always look for these on the secondhand market or buy-sell-trade groups.
According to Mamavation, the following brands were tested by the Silent Spring Institute, and found to have PFAS in the following products:
Ultimately, it is essential that we, as parents, are armed with necessary information to make the best decisions for our children. The ability to research and educate ourselves is one of the many advantages of being a modern parent. We all want one thing and that is for our children to have the brightest future possible and one way of doing this is by providing them with a safe and healthy environment. When we make better purchases and advocate (and vote!) for legislation or regulations that put health and safety first, then we can make a positive impact for our kids and future generations.