Are kids’ backpacks treated with PFAS “forever chemicals” like other water-resistant fabrics such as raincoats? Several Mamavation community members reached out to us asking about what brands of backpacks were the safest for their young children.
To answer this question, Mamavation sent 19 kids’ school backpacks off to an EPA-certified laboratory looking for indications of PFAS “forever chemicals” and found that 68% of those backpacks had detectable organic fluorine, a marker for PFAS. Want more details?
You’ve trusted Mamavation to bring you topics like best children’s probiotics tested for indications of PFAS, best organic mattresses, & best yoga pants without PFAS in the crotch, now join us for our latest PFAS consumer study on indications of PFAS in kids’ backpacks. Use the clickable table of contents to find the raw data at the bottom of this post.
Disclosure: This consumer study is released in partnership with Environmental Health News. Scientific reviews were performed by (1) Terrence Collins, Teresa Heinz Professor of Green Chemistry & Director of the Institute for Green Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, (2) Linda S. Birnbaum, Scientist Emeritus and Former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program & Scholar at Residence at Duke University, North Carolina University, & Yale University, (3) Pete Myers, Chief Scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, and Co-Author of Our Stolen Future, & (4) Scott Belcher, Associate Professor with the Center for Environmental & Health Effects of PFAS at North Carolina State University. This post was medically reviewed by Sondra Strand, RN, BSN, PHN. Donations were provided by Environmental Health News and Mamavation community members. This post contains affiliate links.
Table of Contents
Mamavation Finds Indications of PFAS “Forever Chemicals” Inside Popular Backpacks for Kids
Mamavation’s EPA-certified laboratory found indications of PFAS “forever chemicals” inside popular backpacks after analyzing 19 kids’ backpacks.” PFAS are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that have been used for many decades as stain-resistant, oil-resistant, grease-resistant, & water-resistant chemicals in commerce. PFAS is found in many areas of our homes with some examples being cookware, makeup, drinking water, contact lenses & dental floss. These chemicals are linked to serious health effects, which we will discuss later. Because PFAS are so toxic, Mamavation has commissioned our own scientific studies on indications of PFAS inside products in order to make recommendations for kids’ backpacks using PFAS-free materials. Read Mamavation’s articles (see below) on these products to find which brands are organic-fluorine-free.
For this consumer study, Mamavation sent 19 backpacks marketed for children & teenagers from 18 brands to an EPA-certified laboratory looking for indications of toxic PFAS “forever chemicals.” Here’s what we found:
- 68% of kids’ backpacks tested had indications of PFAS “forever chemicals.” 13 detections from 19 backpacks marketed to children had organic fluorine above 10 parts per million (ppm) according to our lab,
- 31% of the kid’s backpacks we tested had over 100 parts per million (ppm) of organic fluorine, which is at a level the industry considers “intentionally added,”
- 36% of kids’ backpacks had less than 100 ppm organic fluorine, which is more consistent with contamination instead of being an intentionally added level.
- Ranges of organic fluorine, a marker of PFAS, were from 10 ppm to 335 ppm.
- Both the inside and outside of the backpacks were tested at the lab.
Linda S. Birnbaum, Scientist Emeritus and Former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program & Adjunct Professor at Duke University, North Carolina University, & Yale University, said, “This is incredibly disheartening. It’s imperative that kids’ backpacks are not coated with any type of PFAS compounds. Pregnant women and children are the most vulnerable in terms of human health impacts from PFAS. We need to ensure that priority is taken here and these companies attend to this immediately.”
PFAS “Forever Chemicals” Are Persistent & Have Serious Health Effects
PFAS “forever chemicals” are problematic to human health and the environment. They are considered ubiquitous, persistent, and toxic. Many of these PFAS chemicals can last for years or decades in our bodies. Pregnant women and children are the most vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemicals in the environment, like PFAS. The development of a child can be disrupted by toxic chemicals that mimic natural hormones in such a way that are permanent and profound. Therefore, it’s imperative to reduce the amount of PFAS your children are exposed to from food, water, and consumer products like backpacks. Mamavation is dedicated to helping you do that.
Here are some of the health effects of different PFAS “forever chemicals:”
- Reduction in immunity
- Reduced vaccination response
- Increased risk of allergies & asthma in young children
- Affected growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children
- Increase cholesterol levels
- Metabolic diseases like obesity & diabetes
- Cardiovascular disease
- Lowered a woman’s chance of getting pregnant
- Lowered male fertility
- Increased risk of kidney & testicular cancers
- Causes endocrine disruption
- Disrupted normal thyroid function
It’s also very clear based on biomonitoring evidence from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that PFAS are in essentially all Americans. Therefore, these impacts can harm most Americans.
Pete Myers, Chief Scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, and Co-Author of Our Stolen Future ads,
“Given all the recent attention in the media to PFAS in common consumer products and the health concerns these exposures bring, you might think that companies would already have worked to ensure the backpacks they make for kids would be PFAS free. It’s very disheartening to see that many companies have yet to respond to this serious evidence, and continue to sell backpacks to kids that contain PFAS.”
General Tips on How to Avoid PFAS Around Children
It’s not possible to avoid all PFAS exposure around children because it’s so ubiquitous in the environment, however, it’s possible to lessen the amount they are exposed to. Focus your efforts on reducing overall exposure in areas you can control like inside your home. Instead of fretting about the issue, vote with your dollar, share valuable information with friends and family, and let your elected representatives know how you feel about this issue.
Here are some things Mamavation can help you with to lessen the amount of PFAS your family is exposed to:
Food / Beverages/ Water
- Make sure your children wash their hands before they eat (super important)
- Purchase a water filter that can reduce PFAS,
- Cook most of your food at home from scratch using organic ingredients whenever possible,
- Avoid eating fast food as much as possible (in addition to the food having a myriad of additives, it’s mostly because of processing, handling, cookware, & packaging issues)
Cookware / Bakeware
- Swap to safer cookware without PFAS coatings
- Opt for PFAS-free bakeware & small kitchen appliances: air fryers, waffle makers, cupcake & muffin pans, baking sheets, cookie sheets, & sheet pans, indoor grills & paninis, & toaster & toaster ovens.
- Use safer silicone-based parchment paper or cupcake liners,
- If you must use a straw, use ones made from stainless steel, bamboo, or some of these disposable plastic-free straws tested for PFAS
- Swap to a safer dental floss
- Purchase safer personal care products, like makeup or contact lenses, when they come of age
- Look for PFAS-free feminine care products: period underwear, tampons, & sanitary pads
- Look for jackets and bedding that don’t use PFAS for waterproofing,
- Avoid clothing that uses terms like “water-proof” “stain-proof” or “wrinkle-free” in advertising
- Look for safer active gear for older girls like yoga pants without PFAS in the crotch & sports bras without PFAS in the nipple guard fabric
Indoor Air Quality
- Get a strong air purifier and put it close to the entertainment equipment (like your television or computers) & inside bedrooms
- Try to dust, vacuum, and mop weekly to avoid PFAS and fire retardants in indoor air
- Safer baby equipment: Strollers, Car Seats, Baby Crib Mattresses, & Kids’ Play Couch
- We’ve also tested the most popular children’s probiotics for you!
- Opt for PFAS-free ski wax, car wax, & guitar strings if your children are exposed to these items
What Type of Backpacks Will Mamavation Recommend? — The Ones Without PFAS
If you look at recommendations online about children’s backpacks, most of those recommendations revolve around durability, convenience, or price. There are some additional green-friendly posts you’ll find that say to avoid all synthetic materials and opt for cotton or hemp instead. Mamavation considered all the synthetic materials that we found but still believes that avoiding PFAS would be the most relevant step to take. Up until about now, very few parents have been aware of PFAS inside children’s backpacks, so this is the very first study looking at the most popular brands. Mamavation is taking a different approach to our recommendations and basing them solely on which backpacks do not have indications of PFAS “forever chemicals” to make our top picks. We believe this is the most health-protective action you can take.
Most backpacks we found for children in preschool, kindergarten, grade school, or middle school were made from polyester or nylon fabric. We also found some backpacks that were mostly cotton material or a cotton blend. These small backpacks were made to carry simple school supplies like folders, pens & pencils, a lunch box, laptops, and water bottles. Most have a main compartment, side pockets, front pockets, shoulder straps, and adjustable straps for comfort. But not all are durable. The best backpacks have plenty of features for convenience with none of the toxic PFAS.
There’s good news and bad news. The good news is as time has gone by and more awareness has been created, the options that brands have for safer waterproofing are increasing. However, the bad news is most things that are advertised as “waterproof” are still using a type of PFAS in their materials.
Specialty Textiles like Backpacks are Commonly Treated with PFAS “Forever Chemicals” For Water Resistance
Many types of fabrics, like raincoats and backpacks, are coated with a type of PFAS “forever chemical” for water-resistant qualities. These chemicals are also referred to in the industry as waterproof membranes & durable water repellents (DWR). These types of coatings and membranes are also popular among backpacks. Coatings and membranes with PFAS chemicals are linked to environmental & health concerns because they are persistent, toxic, and ubiquitous in the environment.
In one recent peer-reviewed study by Toxic-Free Future (which is affiliated with the Mind the Store Campaign) they found PFAS in 100% of breast milk samples tested. They also found that the newer “short-chain” PFAS chemical that many companies switched to is also building up in people, particularly in breastmilk.
Lots of jacket companies (and we can only assume backpack companies) switched to a family of PFAS chemicals known as “C4” which are still persistent and may actually be more damaging to the environment and human health. This is a prime example of why it’s important for us to purchase products that are not coated or made with the entire class of PFAS “forever chemicals.”
Terry Collins, the Teresa Professor of Green Chemistry and Director of the Institute for Green Science at Carnegie Mellon University said:
“This Mamavation study helps parents to close off another exposure route by which PFAS chemicals might enter the bodies of their children. From my perspective as a chemist, once PFAS molecules get inside children, they’re staying for a long time—most will likely take a ride all the way to the grave. The adverse health effects Mamavation has highlighted are deeply concerning. Why can’t we handle PFAS chemicals reasonably as a society? Articles like this one are badly needed to provide end runs around regulatory regimes. It obviously shouldn’t be so. Today, there is no credible technological fix for dealing with the vast PFAS contamination of our world. Our only reasonable option is to stop making PFAS compounds for most of the current applications. Mamavation Mums, you could demand this!”
New PFAS-Free Membranes & Durable Water Repellants (DWR) Are Available
As the health effects of PFAS have become known, more and more alternatives have become available for brands to use as membranes (waterproofing fabric) and Durable Water Repellants (DWR) as treatments. Here are some of the products we were able to find that are available for use or that are already used by PFAS-free brands. This list was created using Greenpeace’s report PFC Revolution in the Outdoor Sector & The Green Science Policy Institute’s PFAS Central website.
PFAS Free Membranes Available to Brands
Membranes are fabrics that convey water repellency and/or stain repellency. Sometimes they are coated with DWR chemical coatings. The ones below are advertised to be PFAS-free, however, it’s important to also ensure they are also free from other chemicals of concern to avoid regrettable substitutions.
- Arnitel VT–flexible thermoplastic elastomer membranes claim to be 100% waterproof and 100% recyclable.
- CLIMALOOP membrane— windproof, waterproof, highly breathable, and made without PTFE, including a Sympatex membrane and Bionic Finish ECO DWR. (Used by Pyua outdoor brand)
- GreenShield & GreenShield Zero — GreenShield and GreenShield ZERO are based on amorphous silica nanoparticles that are also used for such applications as toothpaste and cosmetic creams.
- Nikwax Analogy Pump Liner— Uses a two-layer approach that consists of a face fabric made of ripstop polyester, treated with a PFAS-free DWR that deflects wind and rain and backed with a unique ‘pump liner’. (Used by Paramo Directional Clothing)
- Outdry Extreme ECO — PFAS-free membrane made for Columbia for Outdoor EXO products. Also combines PFAS free DWR.
- Sympatex — It is made of polyether/ester, a compound of polyester and polyether molecules.
- REPEL — New sewing thread membrane ideal for backpacks, footwear, athletic wear, uniforms, and workwear. REPEL will carry A&E’s PFCZERO™ designation as it contains no perfluorocarbons (PFC-free). It has been 3rd party tested on the seam and meets rain test method: ISO 22958-2005 (OR AATCC 61).
- TEXAPORE — Developed in-house by Jack Wolfskin based on polyurethane and is PFAS free.
PFAS-Free Durable Water Repellent (DWR)
PFAS-free durable water repellents (DWR) available today include formulations based on paraffin, silicone, fat-modified resin, acrylate/wax, and urethane. While some of these may deliver water repellency comparable to the C6 PFAS under certain circumstances, no one formulation is suitable for all applications. However, in order to avoid regrettable substitution, we would like to add that we are unsure whether each of these alternatives below are considered “safe.”
- Arkophob FFR— offers water repellency levels to existing fluorine-free products available on the market that are similar to C6 fluorochemicals, without the C6 fluorochemicals.
- BIONIC-FINISH ECO–based on proprietary dendrimer technology, comes as a family of unique APEO-free, fluorine-free formulations suited for different materials and designed for different applications.
- CURB — Sciessent Curb durable water repellent (DWR) is a functional finish that adds liquid-shedding properties to fabrics. It causes liquid droplets to bead and roll off the surface of products and can be combined with odor control and antimicrobial technologies for ultimate product protection.
- Ecoguard-SYN (Conc) — fluorine-free specialty product for water repellency and rainproofing. Ecoguard-SYN (Conc) gives best results on synthetic fabrics and outerwear fabrics. The performance of Ecoguard-SYN (Conc) is very close to C6 fluorochemicals in terms of water repellency and durability.
- Ecorepel — based on long paraffin chains that wrap themselves in a spiral around the individual fibers which reduces surface tension so water droplets and even aqueous dirt with a much higher surface tension simply run off.
- HEIQ ECO Dry — Building a microscopic hydrophobic 3D surface structure to minimize contact points and provide durable water repellency. Creating a barrier with tightly packed functional polymer units provides repellency through steric hindrance.
- Iceberg — Typically combined with Gore-Tex membranes on shoes, so be careful to ensure you are getting the new PFAS free GORE-TEX line. This DWR is “fluoro-free.”
- miDori evoPel — Made from partially based plant-seed and can be used on renewable resources like GOTS organic clothing.
- NANOMYTE® SR-200EC — highly hydrophobic liquid coating that results in relatively thin, clear coatings with an easy-to-clean functionality. The thermally cured coating is mechanically robust, highly repellent to water and oils, and enhances lubricity, however, the key aspect is that the coating is free of fluorinated materials.
- NEOSEED series — PFAS-free DWR agents with water repellency comparable to conventional fluorine-based water repellents.
- Nikwax–waterproofing DWR that avoids all fluorocarbons, including PTFE, C6s & C8s.
- Organotex — using plant-based catalysts to bind water-repellent “fatty” polymers directly to the textile fibers.
- Polartec — Look specifically for these products: Hardface®, Power Shield®, Power Shield® Pro, NeoShell® and Windbloc® products. The technology will also extend to fleece and insulation treatments for greater moisture management on products like Thermal Pro® and Alpha®.
- Smartrepel® Hydro — protection keeps cotton, polyester, and polyamide textiles dry. The unique technology offers exceptional, durable water repellency and it is not based on fluorine.
- Teflon Ec0Elite — based on 60% renewably sourced plant-based raw materials, performance far exceeds other PFAS-free technologies, such as paraffin and silicones. (Please be aware that other Teflon products DO contain PFAS chemicals.)
- ZELAN R3 — contains 63% renewably sourced content derived from a variety of plant-based sources, carefully selected to be from non-genetically-modified (non-GMO) and non-food-source feedstock. Claimed to be up to three times more durable than existing non-fluorinated repellents.
- ZeroF — impregnation is produced on a fluorine-free polymer base.
Other Categories of Products Mamavation Has Tested for Indications of PFAS “Forever Chemicals”
Before we launch into the raw data from our lab, we wanted to remind you about all the other studies we have done on indications of PFAS “forever chemicals” inside the food and consumer products you may bring inside your home.
- Soft Contact Lenses
- Green Beauty Makeup
- Dental Floss
- Toilet Paper
- Period Underwear
- Sanitary Pads, Pantiliners, & Incontinence Pads
- Powdered Electrolytes
- Butter Wrappers
- Pasta & Tomato Sauces
- Nut Butters (Peanut butter, etc.)
- Cooking Oils (olive oil, almond oil, canola oil, etc)
- Activewear (Yoga Pants)
- Sports Bras
- Parchment Paper
- Cupcake Liners
- Plastic-Free Straws
- Children’s Probiotics
- Baby Strollers
Mamavation’s Consumer Study on Kids Backpacks & Indications of PFAS “Forever Chemicals”
Kids’ backpacks were purchased in greater Los Angeles, California, between August 2022 and July 2023. For this consumer study, all backpacks were purchased by Mamavation and none were donated. Each product was recorded in our database and then sent directly to the lab still inside its own packaging.
Testing: Mamavation’s EPA-certified laboratory uses marker testing to identify the potential presence of PFAS “forever chemicals” in kids’ backpacks. Organic fluorine is a marker for PFAS because all PFAS chemicals are carbon-based compounds that contain fluorine. The specific lab method used to test for total fluorine was the Determination of Total Fluorine by Oxygen Flask Combustion and Ion-Selective Electrode. If total fluorine was observed at a detection level of 10 ppm or greater, the lab did the Determination of free Fluoride Ion in the product by Ion-Selective Electrode and then subtracted that from the Total Fluorine to determine the amount of organic fluorine. This marker testing is likely to show the presence of PFAS. Organic fluorine can also capture other fluoropolymers, pharmaceuticals, and common hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants, such as 1,1,1,2-tetrafluoroethane (commonly known as R-134a) and 2,3,3,3-tetrafluoropropene (commonly known as HFO-1234yf), which are also PFAS. None of which you want around your food, personal care products, or fabrics!
Scott Belcher, Ph.D. & Associate Professor with the Center for Environmental & Health Effects of PFAS at North Carolina State University says “fluoropolymers, such as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) or Gore-Tex®, are extremely common forms of PFAS that could be contributing to the organic fluorine found in kids backpacks. Methods used for detecting individual PFAS, such as PFOA or GenX, cannot directly identify PTFE. However, the analysis of total organic fluorine does account for all PFAS contaminants in kids’ backpacks, including PTFE. Therefore, this method of testing serves as a good ‘spot-check’ of consumer products.”
Not Our Favorite Kids Backpacks
These backpacks were sent to an EPA-certified laboratory looking for indications of PFAS “forever chemicals” and were found to have over 100 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine. These levels of chemicals are more likely in the range of “intentionally added.”
- Bentgo 2-n-1 Backpack & Insulated Lunch Bag- Dinosaurs — 196 ppm organic fluorine found on the inside and 335 ppm organic fluorine found on the outside.
- Bluefairy School Backpack for Young Girls/Boys in Pink hearts — 269 ppm organic fluorine found on the outside, non-detect on the inside.
- Jansport Superbreak One Black — 119 ppm found on the inside, non-detect results on the outside
- L.L.Bean Explorer Backpack Print III, NA, DkLoden Camo with 3M Scotchlight Reflective Material — 160 ppm organic fluorine found on the inside, 139 ppm organic fluorine found on the outside.
- Nike Brasilia JDI Kids Mini Backpack in Bliss / Pale Vanilla — 102 ppm organic fluorine on the inside, 218 ppm organic fluorine on the outside.
- REI Kids Tarn 18 Pack Daypack for Kids 8-12 — 241 ppm organic fluorine on the outside, 13 ppm organic fluorine on the inside.
Better Kids Backpacks
These backpacks were sent to an EPA-certified laboratory looking for indications of PFAS “forever chemicals.” Each one of these products had under 100 ppm organic fluorine, meaning the chemical exposure may not have been intentionally added. The detection level for these tests was all 10 parts per million, so please note some of these results are very close to that limit.
- Fjallraven Vardag 16 in Acorn — 17 ppm organic fluorine on the inside, non-detect on the outside.
- Land’s End DSN BTF Kids CM Med Prt Backpack — 12 ppm organic fluorine on the inside, non-detect on the outside.
- Marvel Backpack — 20 ppm organic fluorine on the inside, non-detect on the outside.
- Pottery Barn Kids Mackenzie Small Backpack in Planetary — 27 ppm organic fluorine on the inside, non-detect on the outside.
- Puma Duo Combo Pack & Lunchbox in pink/purple — 41 ppm organic fluorine found on the outside, non-detect on the inside.
- Terra Thread Earth Backpack in Burnt Orange — 16 ppm organic fluorine found on the outside, non-detect on the inside.
- Vera Bradley Small Backpack in Sea Air Floral Print — 10 ppm organic fluorine found on the outside, non-detect on the inside.
Best Kids Backpacks
These backpacks were sent to an EPA-certified laboratory looking for indications of PFAS “forever chemicals” and had non-detect results on the inside and outside of the backpack.