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This is terribly disconcerting — especially if you have young women in your life. 

It is worth the read. It’s a delicate subject, but it needs to be discussed. NOW. 

Earlier this month, the feminine hygiene company Thinx settled a class-action lawsuit for $5 million over using PFAS in its products. The company used PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, to improve the performance of its period underwear. Studies have linked PFAS to fertility problems, certain cancers, and other health risks. Consumers who purchased Thinx products between November 12th, 2016, and November 28th, 2022, had until April 12th, 2023, to submit an online claim to be eligible for partial cash reimbursement or a voucher for 35% off a single purchase. 

The class-action lawsuit focused on misleading marketing by the manufacturer, who claimed in advertisements that its products were sustainable, organic, and reusable. As part of the settlement, Thinx is required to change its marketing language and ensure that PFAS are not intentionally added to its products in the future.

Jessian Choy is credited with uncovering high levels of PFAS in Thinx products in 2020. Choy asked Dr. Graham Peaslee, a University of Notre Dame nuclear scientist, to test Thinx products. The testing uncovered that one pair of Thinx underwear contained 3,264 parts per million, and another contained 2,053 ppm of the forever chemicals.

In 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency updated its recommendations of lifetime exposures for four types of PFAS in drinking water but has yet to set a limit for other sources of PFAS exposure, such as food and consumer products. However, a 2017 Commission for Environmental Cooperation study revealed that PFAS could migrate from textiles into spit, sweat, and laundry water. And, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, about 97% of the United States population has PFAS in their bloodstream.

Consumer activist site Mamavation found 65% of period underwear tested had detectable levels of fluorine in either the outer or inner crotch layer.

The site sent 17 pairs of underwear from 14 different brands to an Environmental Protection Agency-certified laboratory to determine amounts of fluorine in the material over 10 parts per million.

Eleven pairs had detectable fluorine in them.

Dr. Ken Spaeth, chief of the division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Northwell Health, said that the presence of PFAS “would typically be a manufacturing issue.” And that “PFAS has some use in settings where a barrier is intended to be created for blocking moisture, so that may be the issue.'”

The health risks of PFAS appear to be far-reaching but are not fully understood. Links have been made to high blood pressure, cancer, and even infertility. The specific ways in which PFAS chemicals damage people’s health are unclear, but the fact that they affect a number of organ systems in the body is widely accepted. Dr. Spaeth remarked, “We don’t know the exact mechanisms; we just know the results of contamination. The full mechanism of injury is not fully known, but their ability to injure is certainly recognized nonetheless.’

“The ability for these chemicals to disrupt the signaling is part of its endocrine disruption activities. And it appears to be directly damaging of the cells of the liver and some of the other organ systems. The cancer-causing pathways seem to relate to a number of different cell toxic pathways of inflammation and potential damage to genes.”

PFAS in period underwear is particularly worrying, Dr. Spaeth said. 

“In consideration of the fact that this is underwear, the genitalia are particularly susceptible to absorption. The skin in and around the vagina become potential areas of uptake. Given some of the preliminary numbers, in terms of the levels that are found in some of these products, they would suggest that they’re quite high, so the potential for a substantial uptake has to be considered.”

The evidence for PFAS’ effect on fertility is mixed. Dr. Spaeth explains, “There is certainly some evidence to suggest that infertility may be an issue… These chemicals are endocrine disrupting. One of the ways that they are disturbing the endocrine system relates to the normal pathways and normal activities of hormone signaling, including estrogen and some of the other hormones that are critical in reproductive health for women. So there’s certainly that potential, but it’s not clear exactly the extent to which that would impact fertility in particular.”

PFAS can also be dangerous during several stages of pregnancy, including to the developing baby. They can also enter the body through the skin, as the particles are so small. Dr. Spaeth again explained, ‘Once they’re in the body… they can travel in the bloodstream and therefore potentially reach anywhere in the body.”

Authors of a 2016 review said that half of the studies they looked at found that PFAS exposure led to an increased time for women to get pregnant. 

On the other hand, a study in Minnesota in 2020 found that removing PFAS-contaminated water supplies led to fewer premature births, fewer babies born with low weight, and an increased fertility rate.

And researchers in Sweden found that women with double the amount of PFAS in their blood compared to other participants were 50% more likely to suffer a miscarriage.

Dr. Spaeth says, “It’s an additional exposure to a chemical that’s already in our bodies from a variety of sources. We’re all walking around with measurable levels of these PFAS chemicals in us already. Adding to that can only increase the risk of health effects. So in situations where one can identify additional exposures, it’s concerning for sure.” He added, “At the very least, these kinds of chemicals should not be in used in such ways that individuals are being exposed without some word of warning about it.”

Unfortunately, PFAS are here to stay. There’s little we can do about that. 

But what we CAN do is be aware and make conscious and intentional efforts to watch what choices we make as consumers. Here are several ways to reduce PFAS in our homes:

  • Read labels — research ingredients. 
  • Specifically, look for products that include “fluoro” or “perfluoro.” 
  • Avoid or reduce the use of non-stick cookware
  • Consider filtering your drinking water
  • TRY finding cosmetics that are trying to go PFAS-free.

There are other steps that can be taken. Have a look at this list for a few more in-depth ideas

It might not seem like much, but it’s being proactive, and being proactive is a big deal.