Buying a pair of leggings or a raincoat can involve more than just fashion risks.
The exact extent of the risk is still unclear, but toxic chemicals have been found in hundreds of consumer products and clothing bought off the racks nationwide.
Thousands of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, have existed since the first were invented in the 1940s to prevent staining and clogging. PFAS chemicals are used in nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, and firefighting foam. Their continued presence in manufacturing and products has contaminated drinking water nationwide. Also known as “permanent chemicals,” these substances do not break down in the environment and can accumulate in our bodies over time.
Drinking water is widely considered the greatest source of potential exposure and harm. And, in March, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first national standards for PFAS levels in drinking water. But the chemicals can also contaminate soil, fish, livestock and food products. Researchers say they are present in the blood of nearly all Americans.
Until now, federal regulations on PFASs in consumer products have largely focused on older generation perennial chemicals like PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid. But the new state-level law targets all permanent chemicals.
Consumers concerned about clothing are also turning to the courts. A torrent of recent class-action lawsuits alleges that brands falsely advertise their products as environmentally sustainable or healthy contain toxic levels of PFAS chemicals. In January, Thinx, which makes reusable underwear, agreed to pay up to $5 million to settle a lawsuit. Another lawsuit, against REI, primarily targeting its raincoat line, is in court.
From production to wearing, washing and then disposal, “PFAS in clothing and textiles can lead to harmful exposure,” claims Avinash Kar, a senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council, an international nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.
Although the full health risks of wearing togs allegedly toxic are still unknown, the potential effects are wide-ranging. A report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine linked PFAS to cancer, thyroid dysfunction, small changes in birth weight and high cholesterol, among other concerns.
So how concerned should consumers be about wearing clothes that contain chemicals forever?
PFAS has been found in a variety of clothing items such as rain jackets, hiking pants, shirts and yoga pants, and sports bras made by popular brands such as Lululemon and Athleta.
Forever chemicals are used as surface treatments to block water and stains. In fact, a 2022 report by Toxic-Free Futures, an environmental health research and advocacy organization, found that nearly three-quarters of products labeled as water- or stain-resistant tested positive for them.
The group points to research showing that clothes with such PFASs, known as side-chain fluorinated polymers, release volatile chemicals into the air and, when washed, into water. “What you can expect is that a raincoat that has this surface treatment is, over time, releasing PFAS into the environment,” said Erica Schrader, director of science at Toxic-Free Futures.
PFAS can also be used as a membrane – a thin layer sandwiched in fabric that prevents water from passing through. This technology is found in products made with Gore-Tex. Such breathable yet waterproof layers of fabric are used in dozens of brands of outerwear in jackets, pants, boots and gloves. Sometimes, garments have both membrane and surface treatment.
A study published last year by the American Chemical Society found that textile products sold in the United States and Canada contained high concentrations of PFAS in materials used in children’s uniforms marketed as stain-resistant.
“It was concerning to us because these uniforms are on children for up to eight or 10 hours a day during their school years,” said Marta Venier, an assistant professor at Indiana University-Bloomington and co-author of the study. . “Children are particularly sensitive to exposure to chemicals because their organs are still developing.”
But skin-contact fabric is only one way people are likely to be exposed to these chemicals. PFAS have found their way into most homes through water, air, dust and soap. PFAS can also shed from carpeting or furniture, as well as fabric treatments sprayed on furniture and clothing.
Skin or “dermal exposure” from wearing fabric is particularly difficult to study. Stuart Harrad, professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Birmingham, said just because a product contains PFAS doesn’t mean the chemical will seep into the bloodstream from that jacket or pair of shorts.
So far, Harrad has found that PFAS can end up—either from fabric or dust particles—in skin oils and sweat. But more research is needed to test whether those chemicals transfer into the blood. “From what we’ve seen, it’s definitely something we shouldn’t ignore,” he said.
In general, however, it is harder for PFAS chemicals to enter the body through transdermal exposure than through the digestive system, said Dr. Ned Calonge, associate dean of public health practice at the Colorado School of Public Health who co-authored the National Academies. Report
Levi Strauss stopped using chemicals. Other brands, such as Patagonia, LL Bean, Lululemon and Eddy Bauer, have pledged to phase them out over the next few years. In late February, REI released updated standards that require most cookware and textile products to be PFAS-free by fall 2024. The retailer said in a statement last year that it had been “working for several years to phase out PFAS” and was “testing new options.”
WL Gore & Associates, the inventor of Gore-Tex and a giant manufacturer of weather-resistant fabric, said it “plans to shift the bulk of its consumer portfolio by the end of 2025.” Last year, the company debuted a membrane that uses non-fluorinated materials and is found in jackets sold by Arcteryx, Patagonia and other brands.
Still, without oversight, corporate commitments aren’t a guarantee, and there are always contamination concerns, PFAS experts say. Gore, for example, said a few years ago that the company had eliminated PFOA from its ingredients. But in its testing last year, Toxic-Free Future found it in REI Gore-Tex rain jackets. Gore spokeswoman Amy Calhoun disputed the findings and said the agency considers itself a leader in “responsible chemical management.”
People in the chemical field see it as a tipping point and are watching closely as companies push to phase out the chemicals forever and for transparency about what alternatives have been chosen and how safe they might be.
The EPA has set out to regulate some of the older generation chemicals commonly found in imported products. They have also been banned in the European Union and phased out by major US manufacturers, often replaced by newer generations of PFASs, which leave the body more quickly and are less likely to build up in organs. “When discussing the broad group of chemicals known as PFASs, it’s important to remember that not all PFASs are the same,” Calhoun said. Some Gore products use PTFE, a polymer that the company says is “of low concern.” According to a growing body of research, however, these new PFASs often have similar levels of toxicity.
More stringent, state-level bans targeting apparel are in the offing. Maine now requires companies to report PFAS in their products to state officials. The chemicals will be completely banned there as early as 2030, while Washington state will restrict PFAS in clothing as well as other consumer products by 2025.
The most important legislation came in two states with large consumer markets that manufacturers would hate to avoid, effectively setting a standard for the nation. A New York law signed in late December bans the sale of clothing with PFAS by the end of 2023. A California law passed last year prohibits companies from manufacturing, distributing or selling PFAS-containing clothing in 2025, but those rules won’t. Apply to extreme weather and personal protective clothing until 2028.
So where does that leave consumers? Calonge says people who already have high levels of PFAS in their blood serum should be more aware of their clothing. Community-level blood testing is underway in areas with known PFAS exposure, but individuals can find out by asking their doctors.
“Right now I will choose not to wear clothing that I know has PFAS in it,” she said.
Without adequate evidence linking skin exposure from clothing to increases in blood serum levels of PFAS, Calonz said, for now, decisions are largely left to risk tolerance.
He personally draws the line at using brands of dental floss that contain forever chemicals.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit organization that provides health information to the nation.