IN DEPTH: First-of-its kind testing points to dangers and unknowns of PFAS in clothing

If you happened to be strolling by the Adidas outlet store near the company’s German headquarters on a sunny May day in 2014, you would have seen a soccer match of sorts on the concrete outside. But there was something odd about this game.

In place of cleats, the players had red paint on their feet. Their white calf socks had the words “Detox our Shoes” emblazoned on them.

The “match” was part of a series of protests staged by environmental activist group Greenpeace calling on Adidas, Nike, and other sportswear companies to stop using toxic chemicals in their clothes and shoes. The campaign was largely successful, with Adidas agreeing to stop using PFAS in its clothing by the end of the decade.

But seven years later, these so-called “forever chemicals” appear to still be finding their way into some of these brands’ clothing. Recent testing of a range of yoga and athletic clothes marketed for women from common brands like Under Armour, Gap, and Adidas found that more than two-thirds of sports bras and a quarter of leggings tested contain fluorine—an indicator for PFAS.

“Every single woman who’s working out in the United States, I promise if you ask her, “Do you want a chemical on your athletic wear that is linked to metabolism woes and weight gain and vaccine issues,” [she] will say no,” Leah Segedie, founder of eco-wellness and consumer safety blog Mamavation, which commissioned the testing, told EHN. partially funded the testing. Pete Myers, chief scientist of Environmental Health Sciences, which publishes Environmental Health News, reviewed the findings.

Experts are divided on whether the levels of fluorine found in the athletic clothes indicate the intentional use of PFAS or that the compounds accidentally contaminated textiles during manufacturing. Meanwhile, the textiles industry is the largest user globally of a newer type of PFAS that has been linked to liver and immune system harms. In addition, textile safety certifications, for the most part, only consider a fraction of the PFAS that exist.

The new testing highlights the inconsistent approach taken by the apparel industry in ridding its supply chain of the toxic chemicals. Advocates and experts say the lack of meaningful chemical safety regulations and confusion over what “PFAS-free” means in the clothing sector puts consumers and people who work in or live by textile plants at risk.

Graham Peaslee, a University of Notre Dame physicist and PFAS researcher, referred to the lack of chemical safety regulation in clothing as “the Wild West.”

“They’re not even sure what their suppliers” are adding in some cases, he told EHN.

PFAS in athletic wear

PFAS clothes

Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly referred to as PFAS, are a group of almost 9,000 compounds that have gained notoriety for contaminating drinking water, especially near military bases and factories. The compounds are linked to decreased vaccine responsiveness, certain kinds of cancers, impacts to our hormone regulation system, birth defects, and other health impacts.

Scientists have become increasingly concerned about the prevalence of PFAS in the food we eat and in everyday products like makeup and outdoor gear. Some manufacturers apply a PFAS-based finish on the outer layer of clothes and uniforms to make them water- and oil-resistant. Certain rain jackets, meanwhile, contain a PFAS membrane to make them waterproof without sacrificing breathability.

Researchers have found especially high levels of PFAS in firefighting gear, flight attendant uniforms, some outdoor apparel, and even period underwear. A recent study from non-profit Toxic-Free Future determined that almost three-quarters of 47 pieces of stain- and water-resistant outdoor clothes and home linens tested contain PFAS.

Follow our collaboration with Mamavation on PFAS testing

There’s also evidence that these compounds are not just staying on clothes. A study last year found high levels of PFAS in the dust where firefighting gear is stored; another study found elevated PFAS in the air of an outdoor gear store. Scientists are also learning that PFAS-based finishes run off clothes in the wash, heading to wastewater treatment plants and eventually into waterways. And, unsurprisingly, both the air inside and surrounding waste water treatment facilities by textile mills can have high levels of PFAS, leading Toxic-Free Future to call the facilities “PFAS pollution hot spots.”

Because testing for PFAS is expensive, and tests only exist for a limited number of the compounds, researchers will commonly test products for the presence of fluorine—a good indicator that fabric has been treated with PFAS. “It’s a really great screening tool because it tells you where you should be targeting your resources to identify the products that need to be investigated further,” Carla Ng, an engineer at the University of Pittsburgh who studies PFAS, told EHN.

Mamavation tested athletic clothes based on community member interest and because studies have already shown that PFAS are widespread in outdoor apparel. Over the past year, they sent 32 pairs of yoga leggings and workout pants and 23 sports bras to be tested for fluorine.

Related: What are PFAS?

A quarter of the leggings had organic fluorine in the crotch area, while two-thirds of the sports bras had fluorine in the nipple area. Only one of the bras had detectable fluorine levels in the back. Dr. Manasa Mantravadi, an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, told Mamavation that nursing mothers should avoid PFAS in sports bras and other everyday products.

None of the leggings or cotton bras, which are meant for lower-impact sports, from companies like Pact and Tree Tribe had the PFAS indicator in them. There were also three sports bras— Target’s All in Motion Sports Bra, CRZ Yoga’s Longline Yoga Bra, and Lululemon’s Free to Be Strappy Bra—and a range of leggings made from synthetic fabrics that also didn’t have detectable fluorine levels.

Those results indicate that companies can make athletic clothing that doesn’t have PFAS, said Segedie.

How PFAS is getting into athletic wear 

With the exception of one pair of leggings from LulaRoe, which had just less than 300 parts per million of fluorine, all the clothes had fluorine levels of less than 100 parts per million—what is likely below the threshold for PFAS being added purposefully for water- or stain-resistance. Peaslee said that while it’s unlikely companies would put a PFAS-based coating on a stretchy pair of leggings or a sports bra, finding fluorine only in the front of the sports bras seems to suggest that the PFAS could have intentionally been added to that fabric.

Richard Blackburn, a professor of sustainable materials at the University of Leeds, told EHN that if a brand makes its clothing in a facility that uses fluorinated chemicals for another clothing company, that could contaminate their clothing. He added that it’s counterintuitive for PFAS, compounds that repel water, to be added to sweat-wicking athletic clothes.

Experts also say that Teflon-coated equipment, cleaning chemicals, use of recycled goods to make clothes, and background levels of PFAS in water could all introduce the toxic compounds during manufacturing. “That’s the problem with this chemistry—it’s very persistent, and it’s very accumulative,” said Blackburn, adding that “there are not methods in place to ensure…this level of contamination is down to the levels that you might want.”

While there is evidence that PFAS can be absorbed through the skin, unknowns abound, Amina Salamova, an environmental chemist at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, told EHN. “It’s hard to say exactly what kinds of health effects this exposure [from wearing athletic clothes] could be associated with,” she said, adding that she’d still be “concerned,” as experts are worried about our overall exposure to PFAS from a range of sources.

Company responses to PFAS investigation

Most of the brands whose clothing tested positive for fluorine did not respond to multiple requests for comment from EHN. A Nike spokesperson told EHN that the company stopped using any PFAS in its clothes as of the end of last year.

Vuori, a California athletic clothing company, told EHN that it tests all products designed to be repellent against water and other substances for any PFAS listed on industry trade organization Apparel and Footwear International Group’s list of banned substances. The list cited by Vuori only contains older generation PFAS—not the newer PFAS, which companies are beginning to use more frequently.

A Vuori spokesperson added that: “It is common in these applications [of repellent] for traces of PFAS to be present.”

Athletic apparel company approaches to addressing the compounds vary widely, according to brand commitments and publicly available lists of restricted substances. Nike and Adidas both say they’ve eliminated all PFAS from their products, while Gap, which also owns Athleta and Old Navy, says it’s eliminating PFAS finishes by 2023. As of 2020, less than 10% of its water- and stain-resistant products were PFAS-free. Target, meanwhile, whose sports bra had no fluorine, will stop using any intentionally-added PFAS by the end of this year.

High-end British women’s activewear company Sweaty Betty says it’s “phasing out” the compounds but doesn’t detail a timeframe. Lululemon, Champion, and Lane Bryant only say they restrict PFOA and/or PFOS and related substances—compounds that the EU has already banned and that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed to classify as “hazardous substances.” Other companies tested, whose clothes had fluorine, don’t have stated commitments.

Even if clothing companies receive textile certifications that go above and beyond U.S. safety requirements, those standards don’t restrict, or test for, all PFAS. Swiss sustainable textile certifier Bluesign, for example, told Mamavation that they still accept newer generation PFAS. OEKO-TEX restricts the use of around 100 different kinds of PFAS, Ben Mead, U.S. head of OEKO-TEX, told EHN. He added that some U.S. clothing companies, and especially retailers, are starting to ask for PFAS-free commitments.

The chemical and apparel industry has long maintained that newer, shorter-chain PFAS, which have fewer carbon atoms and generally leave the body sooner, are safe—a claim called into question by mounting scientific evidence. Studies have shown, for example, that newer PFAS appear to be toxic to the liver and are linked with potential fetal development issues.

Additionally, higher amounts of these newer PFAS often need to be used in products to achieve the same oil- and water-resistant effects, and their manufacturing creates the long-chain PFAS as a byproduct.

These newer PFAS are now being found in our bodies. “I assume that we see this new sort of emerging PFAS just because they are being used more and more as replacements for those that have been phased out,” said Salamova, lead author on a study that found that short chain PFAS were the most prevalent kind in breast milk.

There’s also some early evidence that the smaller PFAS can more easily get through skin pores, said Peaslee.

Segedie and others have concerns that testing for a subset of the thousands of PFAS isn’t enough. And limitations exist with the current tests; researchers found, for example, that using water to break chemical bonds in textiles, a process called “hydrolysis,” turned up significantly more fluorotelomer alcohol, a newer class of PFAS, than traditional tests. There’s “a growing concern and scientific evidence that PFAS included in monitoring programs are just a small part of the total PFAS burden,” writes author Vladimir Nikifirov, a senior scientist at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, in the study.

Toward PFAS-free clothes

PFAS clothes

Researchers would like to see all PFAS banned except for essential uses where it remains difficult to replace, like in certain medical devices. While some major athletic and other apparel companies have made commitments to stop using PFAS in their products, the outdoor gear industry, which has relied on PFAS finishes to waterproof clothes, has been a bit slower to act. REI, for example, has dodged calls to only sell PFAS-free rain gear, noting that most brands they sell still use short-chain versions of the compounds “due to their performance and durability.” A few outdoor companies, like Fjallraven and Jack Wolfskin, have already stopped using fluorinated finishes, while others, like Patagonia, are moving in that direction.

Blackburn said that using PFAS for waterproofing clothes is a case of “overengineering,” citing a recent study he worked on that found some green chemistry alternatives were just as effective at repelling water.

Clothing has not yet been the focus of the legislative push at the state and federal levels to restrict PFAS. Maine recently passed a bill banning PFAS from all products sold in the state with limited exemptions for “unavoidable use” of the compounds. Washington, meanwhile, gave state agencies wide latitude to restrict PFAS in consumer goods, according to Toxic-Free Future, which finds in a new report that 19 states will consider bills to limit PFAS in textiles and many other uses this year.

Besides banning PFAS from textiles, advocates would like to see governments require ingredient disclosure and ensure that PFAS alternatives meet rigorous safety standards.

“The women around me, they want to know desperately for their families because they understand that this is a big problem,” Segedie said. “And they understand that they’re in that interim world before it’s banned.”

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