Per- or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs), a class of man-made chemicals used to make products stain-resistant, waterproof and/or non-stick, are now detected in the remotest regions of the globe.

 

Do we need them on school uniforms?

These chemicals do not breakdown easily, once they enter the environment they persist and bioaccumulate. This means that even years after production and release ceases, they remain in our environment, accumulating in wildlife and humans 1. PFASs have been detected in marine animals, seabirds and predators across the world 2,3, with levels in remote Greenland Polar Bears high enough to cause neurological damage 4. They have been detected in water sources including rivers, lakes, groundwater, oceans and treated waste water; some forms are also airborne and have been detected in indoor and outdoor air and in household dust 5-7.

Some of the properties of PFASs are hard to replicate and therefore changing to safer alternatives where the technical function is vital can be difficult. However, in some products we believe their use is not warranted and can easily be cut out, this is the obvious place to start. When you pick up an item of clothing labelled ‘stain-resistant’, unless otherwise specified it likely contains a form of PFAS. Importantly it’s not likely to be one that causes any adverse health effects to the wearer, but during manufacture and breakdown, environmentally harmful and potentially toxic PFASs can be lost to the environment and these are what come back to haunt us.

We want to make parents aware of the negative side to some of the ‘easy-care’ treatments they are offered on children’s school uniforms. We want you to be able to make an informed choice. We are collaborating with an international research consortium looking at PFAS alternatives, and we’re talking with UK retailers to ensure they are pushing through best practice and reducing/eliminating their use of PFAS in children’s school uniforms. Some retailers have already made positive changes, with consumer support, the rest will follow.

Studies have shown that some forms of PFAS can be harmful to animals. Whilst the effects on humans are not well understood studies have suggested links to possible growth, learning, or behavioural problems, cancer, immune system disorders, fertility problems and obesity 8-11. The most commonly studied chemicals within the group, and the focus of regulatory actions across the EU and elsewhere, are PFOS and PFOA. Official classifications include ‘carcinogenic’ (Cat2, suspected human carcinogens), ‘reprotoxic’ (Cat 1B, presumed human reproductive toxicants), ‘Lact’ (may cause harm to breast-fed children), and ‘toxic to specific organs’ (liver) 12. The toxicity of lesser studied forms of PFAS, increasingly used as alternatives to the restricted substances, are still uncertain.

PFOS has been restricted under the Stockholm convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants since 2009 (note this does not constitute a total ban in the EU) and is severely restricted for use in the USA. However, there has been a marked increase in the production of PFOS in China since restrictions were applied meaning the chemicals are still entering our environment 13. PFOA and its related substances were added to an EU restricted substances list on 14 June 2017; actual restrictions on manufacture and sale will not come into force until 2020, with some uses remaining until 2032.

To help inform research and help us efficiently direct our efforts without compromising the needs of consumers, we are looking for parents of primary school age children to complete a short survey, available at the link below:

We are also currently developing a full website that will include practical information on deciphering your clothing labels and who sells what. Enter your email below if you’d like to be notified when the website is complete.


 

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  2. Grønnestad R, Norway UoODoBO, Villanger GD, Norway NIoPHDoCDaMHO, Polder A, Norway ONUoLS, Africa NWUPS, Kovacs KM, Norway NPIFCT, Lydersen C and others. Maternal transfer of perfluoroalkyl substances in hooded seals. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 2017;36(3):763-770.
  3. Gewurtz SB, Martin PA, Letcher RJ, Burgess NM, Champoux L, Elliott JE, Weseloh DVC. Spatio-temporal trends and monitoring design of perfluoroalkyl acids in the eggs of gull (Larid) species from across Canada and parts of the United States. Science of The Total Environment 2016;565:440-450.
  4. Eggers Pedersen K, Basu N, Letcher R, Greaves AK, Sonne C, Dietz R, Styrishave B. Brain region-specific perfluoroalkylated sulfonate (PFSA) and carboxylic acid (PFCA) accumulation and neurochemical biomarker Responses in east Greenland polar Bears (Ursus maritimus). Environmental Research 2015;138:22-31.
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  10. Melzer D, Rice N, Depledge MH, Henley WE, Galloway TS. Association between Serum Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Thyroid Disease in the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Environmental Health Perspectives 2010;118(5):686-692.
  11. Liu G, Dhana K, Furtado JD, Rood J, Zong G, Liang L, Qi L, Bray GA, DeJonge L, Coull B and others. Perfluoroalkyl substances and changes in body weight and resting metabolic rate in response to weight-loss diets: A prospective study. PLOS Medicine 2018;15(2):e1002502.
  12. <http://echa.europa.eu/information-on-chemicals>.
  13.  Wang T, Vestergren R, Herzke D, Yu J, Cousins IT. Levels, Isomer Profiles, and Estimated Riverine Mass Discharges of Perfluoroalkyl Acids and Fluorinated Alternatives at the Mouths of Chinese Rivers. Environmental Science & Technology 2016;50(21):11584-11592.

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