Major athletic clothing brands sold worldwide, including in Canada, have been found to contain high levels of the toxic chemical BPA in their sports bras, shirts, shorts and leggings, according to a United States consumer watchdog group.
The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) on May 17 sent out legal notices to eight athletics brands after testing showed high amounts of bisphenol A (BPA) in the clothing they sold. This comes months after the group previously issued legal notices to a handful of other athletic companies and alerted consumers about the issue.
Brands that were tested included Adidas, Athleta, Champion, Fabletics, Kohl’s, New Balance, Nike, Patagonia, Pink, The North Face and Reebok. After testing the athletic clothing, CEH found BPA levels 40 times over the California limit.
Although the U.S. has not implemented a complete ban on BPA, states like California have imposed their own restrictions. Under California law, the maximum allowable level for BPA via skin exposure is three micrograms per day.
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Global News reached out to the above brands for a comment on the findings, but only Adidas got back by deadline.
“We are reviewing the report,” a spokesperson for Adidas said in an emailed statement.
“Safeguarding the health and safety of our consumers and protecting the environment is of paramount importance for us as a brand. Adidas is committed to following global best practices and complying with the strictest international safety requirements.”
Jimena Diaz Leiva, the science director at CEH, told Global News that activewear shirts, sports bras, leggings and shorts are the new product categories for which the CEH served legal notice.
“But we’re ongoing in this research, so there’s certainly more to come. It’s pretty ubiquitous. This type of fabric seems to be kind of a problem across a lot of brands.”
BPA is an industrial chemical used in making polycarbonate, a type of plastic commonly found in food and beverage containers such as cans and reusable water bottles.
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It has been linked to a variety of health problems, such as brain and behavioural issues in babies and children as well as high blood pressure and infertility. Some studies suggest exposure to BPA may make people more prone to obesity and even cause premature death.
The workout gear CEH tested included leggings, sports bras, athletic shorts and athletic shirts that are primarily made of polyester and also contain some spandex.
Where does Canada stand on BPA?
While Canada has previously acknowledged that BPA “may pose a risk to human life or health,” there is currently no comprehensive regulation in place similar to California’s.
However, Cassie Barker, the toxics senior program manager at Environmental Defence, an advocacy organization, said there are specific restrictions for the chemical in Canada.
For example, in 2010, the federal government formally declared BPA to be toxic and banned its use in baby bottles. Canada has set a limit on the amount of BPA that can be present in polycarbonate plastic baby food containers and in infant formula packaging.
“But that’s such a specific small use of where BPA is being used as a plasticizer,” Barker explained. “And they are in all kinds of other applications … in our cash receipts whenever we buy something, through what we consume, and then in these contact materials where we absorb BPA through our skin.”
While BPA is listed on Environment Canada’s list of toxic substances alongside arsenic, asbestos, lead and mercury, Health Canada also concludes that the current amount of BPA exposure Canadians get from food and beverage containers is low enough that it doesn’t pose a health risk when used in those products.
“It is important for Canadians to understand that just because a chemical may be detected in a consumer product or in our bodies, it does not necessarily mean it is causing harm,” a Health Canada spokesperson stated in an email to Global News.
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Health Canada explained to Global News via email that instead of using a specific safety limit for chemicals (like California did with BPA), it uses margins of exposure (MOE) as a metric to assess potential risks.
The MOE is calculated by establishing a level of exposure that is not anticipated to cause harm to human health and dividing it by the estimated level of human exposure, the spokesperson said. A higher MOE means a greater margin of safety between potential health effects and exposure to a substance.
Health Canada said in 2008, it conducted a risk assessment of BPA and found human exposure can result from food packing, the environment and from use of consumer products. However, reproductive and developmental toxicity effects were evaluated and found ” there were no health concerns for the general population at current levels of exposure, but that there was a potential concern for infants.”
Although Global News asked Health Canada about BPA in clothing such as sportswear, the regulator did not mention clothing in their response.
Under the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act, a company is not allowed to manufacture or import into the country, advertise or sell a product — such as sportswear — that is “a danger to human health or safety.”
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Health Canada also says it regularly monitors the marketplace and tests products to verify that products sold in the country are safe, including performing routine compliance verification on consumer products.
“It’s often left to industry to be their own gatekeeper on these issues, which is a huge problem,” Barker said. “We really need people to believe in the fact that what’s on the shelf is safe. We need the government to actually be doing that testing to make sure that things like BPA aren’t in contact with our bodies in all these ways throughout the day.”
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As a consumer, Barker said, it is challenging to determine the presence of BPA or other toxic chemicals in sports gear because such additives are often undisclosed and unlabeled in textiles that come into direct contact with our bodies.
“Ideally, companies would be phasing out all of these substances in our clothing so that we wouldn’t be trying to figure out whether there is a coating on our clothing that we wear so close to our bodies all day long,” she said.
The question of a safe threshold for BPA exposure remains debated, as conflicting studies present different conclusions, with some indicating potential health concerns even at low doses, while others suggest no significant risks.
Despite the ongoing debate, BPA has still been declared as a significant risk for cancers like breast, ovarian, cervical, prostate and lung, and has been linked to reproductive abnormalities, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
“For consumers, what we recommend right now is trying to limit … (the time) in your activewear,” Diaz Leiva said. “One thing you can do is try and take those clothes off afterward (your workout), and as much as you can, limit the exposure.”
“It’s very disappointing that in 2023, these major companies like Nike and Adidas don’t have chemical policies where they test their products before they go to market for these very harmful substances,” she added.
The exact motives for companies including BPA in their clothing are not fully clear, she said, speculating that it could be a deliberate choice or an unintended consequence of utilizing recycled materials.
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Barker believes that regardless of whether a company is aware of the presence of chemicals, it is their responsibility to know what’s in their products.
“If a plasticizer is being applied somewhere in their supply chain, that may not be easy to track,” she said. “But it is fairly easy to test that final product for the chemicals that are present and to address that before it hits the shelf.”
She added that as a consumer, she believes it’s crucial to actively voice concerns and inquire about the contents of the products from these companies.
“But I think even more important is to tell elected officials that you don’t want to have to be trying to figure out what’s in your products. You want them to make sure the rules are strong and comprehensive so that these products aren’t even coming into Canada in the first place.”
— with files from The Canadian Press