How to avoid ‘forever chemicals’ lurking in your child’s school uniform, everyday clothes

If your child wears a school uniform, they could be exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals before they even get out the front door.

Consumer Reports found the fabric of some school uniforms could be loaded with “forever chemicals.”

According to a recent study published in the Journal Environmental Science and Technology, school uniforms had higher levels of potentially dangerous PFAS chemicals than other types of children’s clothing tested, such as bibs, hats and swimsuits.

“PFAS are known as forever chemicals because they essentially never break down naturally. And they are often added to products to make them waterproof, stain resistant, or nonstick,” Consumer Reports’ Kevin Loria said.

In recent years, PFAS have been linked to a growing list of health problems, including increased risk for certain cancers, liver damage and neurodevelopmental problems. And children’s exposure is of particular concern.

In this study, 30 stain-resistant school uniforms were tested. The chemicals were found in all of them.

“Kids wear these clothes against their skin for hours every day -- and these chemicals can stay in the body for months or even years,” Loria said. “So it’s really important to limit exposure where possible.”

Now some states are stepping up. New York and California passed bills that phase PFAS out of textiles by 2024 and 2025.

That does little to help anxious parents right now, but there are some ways to limit your child’s exposure to PFAS.

“If you have the option -- say your school requires a blue polo but not from a specific store -- buy one that’s not labeled stain-resistant, since stain-resistant coatings often contain PFAS,” Loria said.

And parents can also limit exposure from other sources, like testing their drinking water and using a water filter certified to remove PFAS, and avoiding stain-resistant carpets and home products

When it comes to ordering takeout, it’s a good idea to choose places that have phased PFAS out of their packaging.

Other chemical concerns

There are also chemicals in your everyday clothes.

Experts say one of the most common reactions to those chemicals is a skin rash that appears a few days after exposure and can last for several weeks.

“Disperse dyes” are the most common culprit, and they’re at their highest levels in brand-new, unwashed clothes.

They are typically used in synthetic clothing materials like polyester and nylon, which are commonly used in workout clothes.

Sweating and friction can also cause that dye to leach out and onto your skin.

A more dangerous chemical compound was found in 29 of 31 clothing samples in a 2014 study.

“Quinoline” is also used in dyes and was especially high in polyester items. The EPA classifies it as a “possible human carcinogen,” meaning it could cause cancers.

But the agency based that on studies involving mice and has not studied it in humans.

There are several other types of stain-repellents, color-fasteners and anti-wrinkle chemicals used to treat clothing that are still being investigated.

Overall, researchers say natural fibers like cotton are typically treated with fewer chemicals.

But the reality is clothing manufacturers don’t have to disclose any of the chemicals or additives to customers.

The best way to protect yourself is to wash every article before you wear it.