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Evidence of Dangerous ‘Forever Chemicals’ Found in Bandages

5 minute read

Many brands of bandages may contain PFAS chemicals, according to a new report commissioned by Environmental Health News (EHN) and the consumer watchdog site Mamavation. Of the 40 bandages they analyzed in a lab, 65% contained signs of PFAS chemicals.

Also known as “forever chemicals,” because that’s approximately how long they linger in the environment, there are at least 12,000 types of PFAS. The health consequences of PFAS exposure are unclear. But this class of chemicals has been linked by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to increased risk of certain cancers, decreased fertility, high blood pressure in pregnant people, developmental delays and low birthweight in children, hormonal disruption, high cholesterol, reduced effectiveness of the immune system, and more. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences,  97% of Americans have PFAS in their blood. The chemicals are found in thousands of common products, including food packaging, adhesives, carpeting, clothing, furniture, varnish, cleaning products, shampoo and cosmetics. They are also widespread in the water supply and food chain, and even in the rain.

Mamavation and EHN have made it something of a mission to conduct regular checks of various products, sending samples to laboratories to test them for the presence of organic fluorine, which is found in the presence of PFAS and is easier to detect than the chemicals themselves. A positive result for fluorine is considered a presumptive indicator that PFAS are there as well. In recent years, the two groups have made news with their discovery of PFAS-related chemicals in contact lenses, tampons and sanitary pads, dental floss, diapers, condoms, and sports bras.

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To conduct the current analysis, the investigators selected 40 different bandage products from a variety of brands and sent them to a laboratory certified by the EPA. Bandages, of course, typically have two parts: the absorbent pad, which goes directly over the wound, and adhesive flaps. PFAS chemicals are sometimes added to the pads of bandages to help resist moisture, and to the flaps as an adhesive ingredient. Both were tested by the lab for fluorine levels at or exceeding 10 parts per million (ppm).

“Ten parts per million is the limit of detection, and that’s a large amount,” says Terrence Collins, professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University and one of the scientists involved in the study. “We know that with endocrine disruption, there is no safe dose. They fiddle with hormonal control.”

Of the 40 bandages tested, 26 had fluorine levels ranging from 10 PPM to 374 PPM. Of 16 bandages manufactured in black or brown skin tones for people of color, 10 fell into that contamination range.

Products varied widely in the amount of fluorine they contained, even within the same overall brand. Bandages from CVS Health and BAND-AID, for example, fell into all three categories—those with the lowest, middle, and highest levels of fluorine—depending on the exact product tested.

Among the products that fared the worst were BAND-AID OURTONE Flexible Fabric BR65 Bandages, which weighed in at the peak of 374 PPM on the adhesive portion and 260 PPM on the absorbent pad. Bandages on the lower end of fluorine contamination included BAND-AID Water Block Tough Strips, at 13 PPM on the flaps and nothing detected on the pad; and CVS Gentle Fabric Hypoallergenic Bandages, with 10 PPM on the pad and fluorine-free flaps.

In an email to TIME, a spokesperson for CVS said, “We’re in the process of reviewing and evaluating the information in Mamavation’s bandage report.” Kenvue, makers of BAND-AID, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The bandages without evidence of PFAS tended to come from smaller brands, such as Patch Bamboo Bandages for Kids With Coconut Oil, with nothing detected on the pad or the flaps; and dark brown TRU COLOR Skin Tone Bandages, which also had no detectable fluorine.

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While the pad, which makes direct contact with an open cut, would seem to present the greater contamination danger, mere contact with the skin via the adhesive flaps may be enough to allow PFAS to leach into the body, says Collins. “You have to assume that the body will have an affinity for a multitude of PFAS compounds.”

Bandages are just one possible route of exposure to PFAS. Our homes and personal care products are teeming with them. Though some PFAS may be excreted in urine and menstrual blood, once the chemicals get into the body, they can accumulate in the blood and tissues including the brain, liver, lung, bone, and kidney. 

There’s not much consumers can do, and fixing the PFAS problem will not be easy. In February, the EPA tightened limits on nine varieties of PFAS that had previously been less regulated. Additionally, legislation is pending or has been passed in seven states—California, Colorado, Maryland, Washington, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and Connecticut—to limit or prohibit PFAS in a range of consumer products, as well as in firefighting foam. But they are already ubiquitous in the environment.

“Once you make them, you can’t just crack a whip and call them back,” says Collins. “The stuff that’s out there will accumulate in living things that die and get covered up with sediment. A few thousand years from now,” he predicts, “you’ll be able to dig back and find the fluorine layer.”

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com