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What to know about PFAS settlement and exposure: NPR

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A Thinx billboard is pictured in New York City in September 2021. The company is accused of misleading consumers about the safety of its period underwear, but denies all allegations and admits to no wrongdoing.

Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Thinx

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Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Thinx

A Thinx billboard is pictured in New York City in September 2021. The company is accused of misleading consumers about the safety of its period underwear, but denies all allegations and admits to no wrongdoing.

Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Thinx

If you live in the United States and have recently purchased Thinx underwear, you may soon be able to get some cash back.

That’s because the menstrual panty brand has just settled a class-action lawsuit alleging that its products — long marketed as a safer, more sustainable approach to menstrual hygiene — contain potentially harmful chemicals.

The plaintiffs say that third-party testing of the undergarments revealed the presence of short-chain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), man-made chemicals that are found in many consumer and industrial products, do not break down easily and have been linked to adverse health problems. effects. And they’re accusing the company of fraud and other deceptive practices as a result.

“Through its uniform, broad and national advertising campaign, [Thinx] has led consumers to believe that Thinx underwear is a safe, healthy and sustainable choice for women and that it does not contain harmful chemicals,” said the complaint filed in May 2022. “In reality, Thinx underwear contains chemicals harmful … that are a safety risk to the female body and the environment”.

Thinx denies these allegations, with a company spokesperson telling NPR in an email that PFAS was never part of its product design and that it will continue to take steps to ensure the chemicals are not added to its products. .

“The litigation against Thinx has been resolved, the settlement is not an admission of guilt or wrongdoing by Thinx, and we deny all allegations made in the lawsuit,” the spokesperson added.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York gave the settlement its preliminary approval. in December, more than two years after litigation began (this case combines two existing lawsuits filed in Massachusetts and California).

Class members were notified of the settlement this week. As part of this, Thinx has committed to paying up to $5 million to provide reimbursement, as well as making some changes to its marketing and production processes.

Anyone who purchased Thinx underwear between November 12, 2016 and November 28, 2022 can submit a claim online before mid-April to choose between a cash refund for up to three pairs of underwear purchased for $7 each or a voucher for 35% off a single purchase of up to $150 (for a maximum discount of $52.50).

Thinx will also take steps to ensure that PFAS are not intentionally added to undergarments at any stage of production and will adjust some of its marketing language, including disclosure of the use of antimicrobial treatments. It will also continue to have raw material suppliers sign a code of conduct and agreement certifying that PFAS are not being intentionally added to Thinx underwear.

Erin Ruben, attorney who represents several of the plaintiffs, told NPR in a telephone interview that she and her clients are satisfied with the terms of the settlement and happy that the case has brought the issue of PFAS in consumer products to the fore.

“When consumers demand transparency around these issues, I think companies have no choice but to listen,” added Ruben. “And so I hope that as consumers become more aware of the chemicals in the products they use every day, they will use their voice to let companies know that this is not something they want.”

The lawsuit does not accuse the product of causing harm

Ruben emphasizes that the case is about how Thinx marketed its product, not its potential health effects.

“The plaintiffs in this case brought their claims because … the presence of PFAS or other chemicals in undergarments would influence their purchasing decision,” she said. “This case is centered on marketing issues and has not alleged any claims related to personal injury resulting from the product.”

The lawsuit alleges that Thinx uses PFAS chemicals to “enhance the performance of undergarments, including, but not limited to, their ‘moisture wicking’ and ‘leak resistance’ qualities.”

He explains that the thousands of existing PFAS chemicals are all categorized as “long chain” or “short chain” based on whether they contain fewer or more than eight carbon atoms.

The long-chain chemicals — sometimes referred to as “everlasting chemicals” — are known to cause negative health effects and have been withdrawn from use in the U.S., the lawsuit says, adding that the short-chain chemicals are now being used. as substitutes in the garment industry.

This is despite the fact that there are no long-term studies to show whether they are safer for consumers, and that there is even some evidence that they pose similar health risks, he says. And the use of PFAS it also contradicts the company’s own advertisements for its products, the plaintiffs allege.

Per the complaint, Thinx said in several places on its website that its underwear has been rigorously tested and free of harmful chemicals, even claiming that the chemical compounds used in its anti-odor layer “sit on the surface of the underwear and not travel to your body.”

However, these claims were repeatedly disputed (and disappeared from their website around May 2021, according to the lawsuit).

In 2020, reporter Jessica Choy sent several pairs of Thinx underwear to a University of Notre Dame lab, which found high levels of fluoride and concluded that the underwear contained PFAS. She detailed these findings in an article for Mountain range (the Sierra Club magazine).

Thinx’s then-CEO Maria Molland released a statement following the article’s publication, reiterating the company’s strict testing standards. Molland said the company hired a toxicologist to review these findings, who confirmed that “there were no detectable long-chain PFAS chemicals” in the products (the lawsuit alleges the statement misrepresented the tests and results, further misleading customers).

Nicole Dickens, the plaintiff who first filed the complaint in New York, heard reports of chemicals in Thinx underwear around November 2020, according to court documents. She stopped buying the underwear and pursued independent third-party testing, which found “short-chain PFAS chemicals in Thinx underwear in material amounts and above trace.”

A growing body of research links PFAS exposure to health effects

PFAS have been used in consumer and industrial products since the 1940s, appearing in things like non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, some firefighting foams, and certain cosmetics.

People can be exposed to PFAS in a number of ways, including drinking contaminated water and eating food grown near sites that use PFAS or packaged in material that contains them.

PFAS can enter soil, water and air during production and use, and because these chemicals do not break down, they remain in the environment.

“Due to their widespread use and persistence in the environment, PFAS are found in the blood of people and animals worldwide and are present at low levels in a variety of food products and the environment. Some PFAS can accumulate in people and animals with repeated exposure over time,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Scientists are still working to understand the exact effects of PFAS exposure, but a growing body of evidence is linking it to harmful health outcomes.

Studies suggest that high levels of certain PFAS can lead to increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, decreased baby birth weight, increased risk of high blood pressure in pregnant women, and increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, according to with the CDC Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The CDC has also recognized that high levels of exposure can affect the immune system by suppressing the antibody response to vaccines – a particular concern during a global pandemic – and is working to understand how exposure can affect the COVID-19 disease.

If you’ve been exposed to PFAS and are concerned about your health, the CDC suggests talking to your doctor or getting a blood test, but cautions that “it’s unclear what the results mean in terms of potential health effects.”

What happens next?

This is the window of time in which the consumer can learn about the agreement and decide whether he wants to be part of it, explains Ruben.

They can apply for a refund or exclude themselves from the class if they wish to opt out of the settlement and pursue their own individual case later.

The benefit of joining a class-action settlement is that it comes at no cost to consumers — whereas someone looking to litigate individually would have to hire a lawyer and go through that process again, says Ruben.

It’s unclear how many members are in the class, although the May complaint says “at least thousands” of people could be affected across the country.

Ruben says lawyers will find out how many people have filed claims under the settlement before the final approval hearing is scheduled for May 24.

Ruben is working on other cases related to PFAS in products and believes this will be an area of ​​continued practice.

“I don’t think it’s showing any signs of slowing down because… consumers are telling us that they really care about these issues,” she adds.