A group of children in school uniforms looking out the window at school.

A Very Unwelcome Lesson in Toxic Chemicals

Parents may like the sounds of a stain-resistant school uniform for their kids, until they learn about the hidden risks within many of these garments.


Around 20% of North American public schools require school uniforms, but according to a new study, many of these uniforms may be harmful to students’ health. The study identified high levels of hazardous chemicals in the materials used by some Canadian and American uniform manufacturers.

The research included contributions from Miriam Diamond, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto, and was published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — also known as PFAS — are a group of chemicals that can be hazardous to the environment and human health. These chemicals are found in certain textiles, industrial products, and packaging materials, and in Canada, the use of some of these chemicals is prohibited.

Despite this, PFAS continue to be found in many products across the country. And because these chemicals last so long in the environment, their effects will be felt for many years to come.

Textiles — especially those used in clothing — represent one area of particular concern. PFAS can often be found in stain-resistant clothing, and since we’re in direct contact with our clothing for long periods of time, these PFAS have the potential to pose serious risks to our health.

To learn more about this risk, the team behind the study analyzed 72 children’s textile products marketed as stain-resistant in Canada and the USA. Stain-resistant fabrics are attractive for parents of young children, but they’re often created by coating the fabrics in chemicals.

The researchers found that 65% of the fabrics they investigated contained fluorine, which is classified as a PFAS. Particularly worrisome, however, was the fact that these fluorine concentrations were highest in school uniforms: clothing which parents and children often have no say over.

“What was surprising about this group of samples was the high detection frequency of PFAS in the garments required for children to wear,” said Graham Peaslee, a professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame and co-author of the study, in a press release.

“Children are a vulnerable population when it comes to chemicals of concern, and nobody knows these textiles are being treated with PFAS and other toxic chemicals.”

In recent years, PFAS have been demonstrated to contribute to cancer, liver damage, and decreased fertility, among other health issues. The results of this study indicate that these hazardous chemicals are common in children’s clothing, and highlight the need for stronger regulations going forward.

The results also highlight actions that could be taken by school boards to help keep children safe. Since parents typically don’t have a say in where to purchase school uniforms, school boards should consider seeking out manufacturers that don’t use PFAS in their textiles. They could also urge suppliers to be transparent about their manufacturing processes.

Peaslee added that the authors “hope one of the outcomes of this work would be increased labeling of textiles to fully inform the purchaser of the chemicals used to treat the fabric prior to sale.”

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.