Back-to-school: Avoid PFAS in your kids’ backpack

Thirteen popular children’s backpacks have detectable levels of organic fluorine, an indicator of the group of chemicals known as PFAS, according to a new report from Mamavation.

Partnering with, the environmental wellness blog and community had 19 backpacks from 18 brands tested by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-certified lab and found levels of organic fluorine ranging from 10 parts per million (ppm) to 335 ppm in 13 of the backpacks. The lab tested the inside and outside of the backpacks.

Organic fluorine is a strong indicator of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS or “forever chemicals”— which have been linked to everything from cancer to birth defects to lower vaccine effectiveness. partially funded the testing and Pete Myers, chief scientist of Environmental Health Sciences, which publishes Environmental Health News, reviewed the findings. The report builds on and Mamavation’s growing library of consumer products tested for evidence of PFAS, including products such as contact lenses, pasta and tomato sauces, sports bras, tampons, dental floss, electrolytes and butter wrappers.

While many are aware of PFAS pollution in water, the new testing reinforces that we’re also exposed by the things we wear. You can explore more reporting from our collaboration with Mamavation: “PFAS on our shelves and in our bodies.”

“This is incredibly disheartening. It’s imperative that kids’ backpacks are not coated with any type of PFAS compounds,” Linda S. Birnbaum, scientist emeritus and former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program and scholar at residence at Duke University, told Mamavation of the new findings.

“Pregnant women and children are the most vulnerable in terms of human health impacts from PFAS. We need to ensure that priority is taken here and these companies attend to this immediately.”

PFAS contamination

PFAS kids

Six of the backpacks had levels higher than 100 ppm, which indicates the chemicals were purposefully added to the fabric. PFAS chemicals are often used on clothing and outdoor gear for water-proofing.

The other seven that tested positive for organic fluorine had levels ranging from 10 ppm to 41 ppm — levels that suggest it could be due to contamination somewhere in the manufacturing process. As previously reported, PFAS are getting into cosmetics, clothes and food even when companies are not intentionally adding the chemicals.

It’s not clear what the health impacts are from wearing a backpack with PFAS in it. There is some evidence that PFAS can be absorbed through the skin, however, some experts say skin contact is of low concern.

In addition, clothing with PFAS in it has been shown to shed some of the chemicals in the wash — sending PFAS to wastewater treatment plants and waterways.

“Given all the recent attention in the media to PFAS in common consumer products and the health concerns these exposures bring, you might think that companies would already have worked to ensure the backpacks they make for kids would be PFAS-free,” Myers told Mamavation.

Which backpacks are PFAS-free? 

Backpacks that showed no evidence of PFAS included two from Adidas, one from Columbia and three others.

Backpacks that showed evidence of PFAS included popular brands like REI, Nike and Jansport.

To see the full results see the new report at Mamavation.

The testing is part of an ongoing effort by Mamavation and to identify PFAS in common consumer products. Follow our PFAS testing project with Mamavation at the series landing page.

Want to know more about PFAS? Check out our comprehensive guide.