School uniforms, a daily requirement for over 30,000 D.C. students, are often made with potentially harmful chemicals called PFAS, a study published last week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found. 

Often called “forever chemicals,” PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) represent a group of compounds that do not break down naturally with the ability to remain in the environment almost indefinitely and to build up in people’s blood. Manufacturers commonly use them to make products waterproof, non-stick or, as in the case of school uniforms, stain resistant. 

But over the last few decades, researchers have linked some of these chemicals to a long list of health issues including cancer, immune dysfunction, liver damage, high cholesterol and high blood pressure during pregnancy.

“If you have a really, really nice rain jacket that you might use to, you know, climb Mount Everest, you don’t want water to pass through it,” said Jamie DeWitt, a researcher from East Carolina University who studies the effects of PFAS and who did not participate in the study.

“On something like a school uniform, you have to ask, does the uniform need to be resistant to stains? Are PFAS essential?” DeWitt asked.

Children’s exposure to these chemicals remains especially concerning because they are smaller and still developing, which may cause increased health impacts, the study’s authors noted. They tested 30 different school uniforms and all of them contained some level of fluorine, an indicator of PFAS. 

Researchers continue to work to determine how PFAS are absorbed by the skin, DeWitt said, noting that most people will face higher levels of exposure through their food and water. Still, the study’s authors note that school uniforms, unlike waterproof outerwear, sit directly against children’s skin for hours. 

“Many businesses don’t know whether the supplies they use contain PFAS,” said DeWitt who added it would take a company’s commitment to determine the chemicals used in their supply chains.

At Risse Brothers School Uniforms in Prince George’s County, manager Marcus Cooper said while he doubts most of the clothing items sold at his store were stain resistant, he couldn’t be sure. 

Meanwhile, at nearby Flynn O’Hara Uniforms, some button-down shirts, pants and skirts feature tags which read, “stain resistant and wrinkle-free.”

About three-quarters of all D.C. public schools mandate some form of uniform. Low-income students and students of color make up a disproportionate number of the 33,000 students attending those schools. Out of 54 public schools in wards 5, 7 and 8, only four do not require them while 71 of the city’s 86 Title I schools have uniform policies. 

Rick Morrisey, a manager at Flynn O’Hara, said one customer asked him about the PFAS study after seeing it in the news. He responded that he did not know about [the study] but that the company’s corporate offices would address problems if they existed. 

Over at Risse Brothers, Cooper said no customers have raised any concerns related to the study. 

“What I’ve understood from watching the PFAS science unfold and community and organizational activism unfold is that consumers have a lot of power,” DeWitt said. “So, if parents don’t want this in their children’s clothing, they need to speak up.”

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