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Sportswear Contains High Levels of BPA

Study shows high known toxin levels in athletic clothing with spandex and polyester.

Sportswear with BPA on hangers

Most fitness professionals live in their activewear practically 24/7. Recent testing conducted by the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) in Oakland, California, discovered high bisphenol A levels (BPA) in athletic clothing that contains spandex in combination with polyester.

BPA is an industrial chemical used to make polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. Many people don’t realize that it is widely used in manufacturing synthetic fabrics including polyester, nylon and spandex. Manufacturers use BPA to coat fabric fibers to strengthen them for easier production. What’s troubling about clothing made from fabrics containing BPA is that skin contact with these fabrics can transfer the chemical into our bodies. (Environmental Research, 2019; 176, 108575).

Studies show that BPA is an “endocrine disruptor,” which means that it interacts with estrogen, androgen and thyroid hormone receptors. “The problem with BPA is it can mimic hormones like estrogen . . . altering the concentrations of hormones in our bodies, and resulting in negative health effects,” said Jimena Dìaz Leiva, PhD, science director at CEH. “Even low levels of exposure during pregnancy have been associated with a variety of health problems in offspring. These problems include abnormal development of the mammary glands and ovaries that can increase the likelihood of developing breast or ovarian cancer later in life. These effects occur even at low levels of exposure like those seen in people today.”

This impact on natural hormone functioning affects the reproductive and nervous systems and metabolic and immune functioning, with an especially powerful impact on growth and development of infants, youth and adolescents. Studies reveal links between high BPA levels and prostate, breast and lung cancers. BPA is associated with increased risks of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, infertility and birth defects. It can disrupt cellular function, increase inflammation, negatively impact the gut microbiome, and lead to DNA damage and chromosomal mutations. Humans can absorb BPA through digestion, respiration or skin transfer.

Governments worldwide have set limits on acceptable human daily exposure levels to BPA, but standards vary widely. In 2015, the European Union changed its safe total daily intake of BPA to 4 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight per day. Canada recognizes a tolerable total daily intake of 25 mcg/kg bw/day. The United States set an acceptable total daily intake of 50 mcg/kg bw/day. California recognizes a maximum allowable daily dose level via skin exposure at 3 mcg/kg bw/day. California includes BPA in its list of chemicals known to cause reproductive toxicity pursuant to Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.

CEH began testing sports bras and athletic shirts that were predominantly made with polyester and spandex after finding, in 2021, high levels of BPA in socks made predominantly with polyester with spandex, including those made for infants. CEH began litigation with more than 100 different brands like Adidas, Reebok and Hanes after their socks were found to expose people to BPA at levels as high as 31 times over the safe limit, said Leiva. Here is a list of the specific brands identified.

“Throughout the past year, CEH has pushed those companies to agree to reformulate their products to remove all bisphenols including BPA. Some have already agreed to do so. We reached settlements with Walgreens, Mad Engine and Hypnotic Hats, and we know Hypnotic Hats agreed to remove all bisphenols,” Leiva said.

What is particularly concerning about BPAs in sports apparel is that sweat tends to pull chemicals out from fabric. Other research suggests that if you launder BPA containing clothes with garments without BPA, the BPA will be transferred to other clothing. If you cannot eliminate clothing with BPA, separate laundry to avoid contaminating other items.

CEH sent legal notices to eight brands of sports brands and six brands of athletic shirts. Sports bra brands include Athleta, PINK, Asics, the North Face, Brooks, All in Motion, Nike and FILA. The activewear shirt brands are the North Face, Brooks, Mizuno, Athleta, New Balance and Reebok. Legal notices request that the brands reformulate their products to remove all bisphenols. Read the notice of violation to the sports bra brands as well as the notice to athletic shirt brands.

“Keep in mind,” said Emily DiFrisco, CEH’s director of communications, “CEH’s investigations have only found BPA in polyester-based clothing with spandex. Our advice to the public: if you wear polyester and spandex clothing, we recommend limiting the [amount of] time you spend in your activewear by changing after your workout.”

For fitness professionals and their clients who want to support the CEH in their request that brands reformulate their products to remove all bisphenols, including, BPA, the CEH invites people to sign the CEH’s petition to fashion CEOs that asks them to remove BPA from clothing.

Shirley Eichenberger-Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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