School uniforms, which nearly 600,000 students in Catholic school boards across Ontario wear, have been found to contain toxic chemicals, a new study has found. Photo by Michael Swan

Study finds school uniforms are toxic

  • October 1, 2022

Runaway autism, high rates of obesity, the asthma epidemic and other unknown health effects in children are being helped along by the chemistry that goes into modern school uniforms, a new study from University of Toronto and Notre Dame University scientists has found.

Polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly referred to as PFAS and known popularly as “forever chemicals,” were found in high concentrations in North American school uniforms, according to a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology in September.

“I’m a mom. I sent my kids to school. I don’t want my kids to be guinea pigs for harmful chemicals,” lead author of the study Miriam Diamond told The Catholic Register. “We put chemicals on the market without understanding their health implications. We’re exposed to them. We’re the guinea pigs.”

The most toxic school uniforms are those labelled as “stain resistant” or “stain release,” Diamond said. The study also found that stain-resistant school uniforms labelled as “100-per-cent cotton” or “cotton-Spandex” had higher concentrations of PFAS toxins.

The study tasked undergraduate students with buying school uniforms and other children’s clothing online from both Canadian and U.S. sources. Thirty-four products came from the U.S. and 38 from Canada. All were manufactured outside North America in low-income, low-wage countries including Bangladesh and Nicaragua.

This clothing was then subjected to the PIGE (particle-induced gamma-ray emission) process, which focuses proton beams on the surface of the clothing to measure the chemicals incorporated in the fabric in billionths of grams.

Just like nicotine patches, the chemicals in clothes can be absorbed across the outer dermal layer of the skin and enter into the body, where they will circulate and be metabolized, said Diamond.

The results of the study are of concern to Catholic school boards which mandate school uniforms for nearly 600,000 students across Ontario, said Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association president Pat Daly.

“We know that the number one priority of our member boards is the health and safety and well-being of students and staff,” Daly wrote in an email to The Catholic Register. “Without additional information, the referenced study is not something that we would be in a position to comment on at this time.”

Calls to local school uniforms companies were not returned.

The study should worry parents and school boards, said Diamond, a researcher and professor of earth sciences in the University of Toronto’s School of the Environment.

“Are we waiting to see adverse effects on our kids as they grow up?” she asked. “Are we waiting to see that experiment? As a mom, sorry no. I don’t want that experiment going on.”

Diamond thinks Catholic parents should be pushing their school boards to get up to speed on PFAS toxins in their kids uniforms.

“The Catholic school board speaking out about this is going to cause clothing manufacturers to sit up and pay attention,” she said. “That’s what we want. We want responsibility from the clothing manufacturers.”

The link between PFAS and obesity is the most clear in the scientific literature, Diamond said. Some of the substances in the panoply of PFAS chemicals present themselves to the body as fatty acids.

“The PFAS is involved in those metabolic pathways, but it mucks it up,” said Diamond. “For example, causing increased cholesterol levels. There’s some suggestion that higher exposure to certain PFAS can cause type 2 diabetes. There’s concern that dyslipidemia is causing kids to be obese.”

In the more formal language of the scientific paper, the health concerns arising from this wide array of chemicals reaches well beyond just childhood obesity.

“Children’s exposure to PFAS is of particular concern,” the study reads. “Due to their lower body weight and sensitive developmental period, children’s exposure may result in a greater body burden and higher health risks compared to adults. Prenatal and/or postnatal exposure to several well-studied PFAS, especially perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), was associated with overweight and obesity, neurodevelopmental and behavioural problems, dyslipidemia, immunity including vaccine response and asthma, renal function and age of menarche (puberty) in children.”

While the most immediate concern of Catholic parents may be for their children who must wear uniforms to school, the problems presented by PFAS treated textiles go much deeper. There are environmental hazards and there’s massive exposure to these chemicals among workers who manufacture school uniforms.

Environmentally, PFAS are entering the food chain and water systems. There’s a reason they are called “forever chemicals.”

That means PFAS are everywhere, including mother’s milk.

“And now we’re putting some of our kids in clothing where they’re going to get yet another dose of PFAS — not necessary,” said Diamond.

The effects on workers who dye, cut, sew and handle PFAS-infused textiles needs more study.

“Who is being very highly exposed? It’s those workers,” said Diamond.

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