Eco Certifications for Clothes, Furnishings Don't Protect Kids From PFAS Chemicals

A study found 'forever chemicals' in items labeled as nontoxic.

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Green labels on clothing and furnishings may not protect your child from exposure to toxic PFAS chemicals, research has found. Scientists from the Silent Spring Institute recently discovered that many children's products, including those with labels claiming to be environmentally friendly, contain per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as "forever chemicals" for their persistence in the natural environment. PFAS have been linked to a range of adverse health effects, such as cancers, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, low birth weight, and asthma.

The scientists wanted to get a sense of what certain labels mean when it comes to chemical exposure. Many parents try to reduce their children's exposure to potentially harmful substances by making smart consumer decisions, but it can be tough to navigate the many labels on products these days. The scientists selected 93 products that were being marketed as water- or stain-resistant and/or nontoxic. This included a selection of clothing, mattress and pillow protectors, bedsheets, rugs, upholstered furniture, and slipcovers for furniture—all items that children would come into regular and close contact with. (This was not meant to be a representative sample of children's textiles.)

Testing the Products

All products were tested for total fluorine, and 54 came up positive—nearly 60%. The item with the highest concentration was a school uniform shirt. The presence of fluorine atoms is one hallmark of PFAS chemicals. Items with water- and stain-resistant claims were more likely to contain fluorine, even if they had nontoxic labels as well.

Study co-author Laurel A. Schaider told Treehugger, "Finding elevated levels of total fluorine in products provides a strong indication of the presence of PFAS, although we can't completely rule out that the fluorine might be in the product for another reason." 

Another challenge with applying total fluorine tests to a green certification in particular is figuring out what level should be restricted. Schaider said, "There currently aren't well-established levels of total fluorine that definitively indicate that PFAS have been intentionally added to a product." She added that PFAS chemicals could also be embedded in a product and not likely come out of it, at least during normal use, which makes it less of a threat.

A subset of the 93 products were then tested for 36 specific PFAS chemicals. Of these, PFAS were found only in items labeled as stain- or water-resistant, some with eco claims. They were most common in upholstered furniture, clothing, and pillow protectors, with the latter two showing the highest levels in general.

Schaider explained that the tests for individual PFAS chemicals were conducted by soaking pieces of product in a solvent like methanol to see which chemicals would emerge. "This tells us more about the specific chemicals that can come out of a product, but these types of testing typically only include a few dozen individual chemicals, so we may be missing others." Nor does the test capture volatile PFAS, present in indoor air that we may breathe in.

"Another question that often arises from these tests is whether the PFAS were added intentionally, or whether they were there unintentionally, for instance as an impurity or residual from the use of recycled materials," Schaider added. "In our study, the only products with extractable PFAS chemicals were products marked as stain- or water-resistant, so we interpret this to mean that the PFAS were usually there from an intentional additive."

The tricky thing is that PFAS are a newer concern than some other chemicals that have been around for longer and have a more established reputation for harm. Schaider explained, "Defining and measuring PFAS is more complicated than just restricting lead or mercury, which are specific elements with well-established test methods." 

Furthermore, some green certifications do restrict PFAS but at higher levels than what these scientists measured. "It is important to note that green certifications are useful for helping consumers avoid some types of chemicals of concern, but there's more that green certifiers can do to help consumers avoid PFAS," Schaider said.

How to Avoid PFAS

So, what are concerned parents supposed to do, now that their trust in eco-friendly labels has been eroded? Avoid claims of stain resistance, to start. These are more likely to contain PFAS than products just labeled as water-resistant. You could try to stay away from both and perhaps accept that stains are part of life with young kids. Buy dark-colored furniture to avoid substances like Scotchgard.

Said Schaider, "For some types of products, like mattress covers, these are products that are inherently waterproof, so look for products that might be waterproof in other ways, such as another type of barrier." For example, a wool mattress protector might be a good option instead of plastic. 

People can also use the Detox Me smartphone app, created by the Silent Spring Institute to offer tips on avoiding PFAS and other chemicals of concern. The app is described as focusing more on actions than brands, guiding people "to make simple changes in their daily behaviors," as opposed to advising what to buy based on consumer ratings.

Schaider told the Guardian that she'd like to see a ban on PFAS outside of essential uses, such as medical equipment without a substitute chemical. "Where it is just a nice-to-have feature but we don’t really need it—all of these textile products fall into that category—it’s not worth it to introduce these forever chemicals into the home." If that means learning to live with a few stains and taking changes of clothes because you don't want to buy fully waterproofed gear, then so be it.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

View Article Sources
  1. Rodgers, Kathryn M., et al. "How Well Do Product Labels Indicate the Presence of PFAS In Consumer Items Used by Children and Adolescents?Environmental Science &Amp; Technology, vol. 56, no. 10, 2022, pp. 6294-6304., doi:10.1021/acs.est.1c05175.

  2. "Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and Your Health." Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.