Equilibrium & Sustainability

Many children’s products labeled as eco-friendly contain toxic ‘forever chemicals,’ study finds

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A bevy of children’s products, including those with green certifications, may contain harmful “forever chemicals” that were not listed on the labels, a new study finds.

While more consumers are demanding products free of toxic ingredients, seeking out items with eco-friendly labels may not necessarily be an effective strategy, according to the research, published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal on Wednesday.

These findings, the authors concluded, demonstrate the pervasiveness of so-called forever chemicals — also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — and the challenges Americans face when trying to avoid them, the authors noted.  

“Children’s bodies are still developing and are especially sensitive to chemical exposures,” co-author Laurel Schaider, a senior scientist at the Silent Spring Institute, said in a statement.

“It makes sense that parents would want to steer clear of products that contain ingredients that could impact their children’s health now and in the future,” Schaider added.

The Silent Spring Institute — a nonprofit organization that investigates the link between chemicals in the environment and women’s health — received funding from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for the study.

To draw their conclusions, the researchers tested 93 different products often used by children and adolescents, including linens, furnishings and clothes. They said they specifically looked for products labeled as stain-resistant, water-resistant, “green” or “nontoxic.”

Their initial tests employed a rapid screening method that looks for fluorine, which is a marker of PFAS, an umbrella group for thousands of chemicals linked to testicular cancer, kidney cancer and a variety of other illnesses.

While most notorious for their presence in jet fuel firefighting foams and industrial discharge, PFAS are also key components in a wealth of household items, such as waterproof apparel and nonstick pans. 

Out of the 93 products the scientists tested, they found that 54 contained detectable levels of fluorine — with the highest concentration in a school uniform shirt.

Products marketed as water- or stain-resistant — including those marked as “green” or “non-toxic” — were more likely to contain fluorine and had higher concentrations of fluorine in comparison to other products.

Following these initial evaluations, the scientists then tested a subset of products for 36 different types of PFAS. They found PFAS only in products that were labeled as water- or stain-resistant, regardless of whether they were marketed as “green” or “nontoxic,” according to the study. 

Of all the products tested, upholstered furniture, clothing and pillow protectors most frequently contained PFAS, while pillow protectors had higher levels of PFAS than other items, the authors found.

“These are products that children come into close contact with every day and over a long period of time,” co-author Kathryn Rodgers, a doctoral student at Boston University School of Public Health, said in a statement. “Given the toxicity of PFAS and the fact that the chemicals don’t serve a critical function, they should not be allowed in products.”

One specific type of PFAS called PFOA — perfluorooctanoic acid — which has largely been phased out in the U.S. was also detected in many products, including those labeled as “green,” according to the study. Most of these products came from China, the researchers noted.

The study’s findings highlight the need for green product certifiers to include PFAS in their criteria and to conduct a more comprehensive review of the products they evaluate, according to Rodgers. Currently, certifications vary in their safety standards and don’t all include the same compounds.

Wednesday’s study follows a January report from the group Toxic-Free Future, which found widespread PFAS contamination in water- and stain-resistant apparel and other textiles sold at many of the nation’s top retailers, as The Hill reported.

“Retailers also must play a role in ending this toxic trail of pollution,” Mike Schade, director of Toxic-Free Future’s Mind the Store program, said in a statement.

“Market power is built on trust,” he added. “Customers should be able to trust that the retailers where they shop sell products — especially those marketed for children — that are not laden with PFAS forever chemicals.”

Tags Childrens products forever chemicals PFAS PFAS chemicals

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