What to know about settlement and PFAS exposure: NPR

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

Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Thinx

If you live in the US and have recently purchased Thinx underwear, you may be able to get your money back soon.

That’s because the period panty brand settled a class action lawsuit that claimed its products, long marketed as a safer, more sustainable approach to menstrual hygiene, contained potentially harmful chemicals.

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

“With its unified, widespread, nationwide advertising campaign, [Thinx] In a May 2022 complaint, Thinx led consumers to believe that Thinx Underwear was a safe, healthy and sustainable choice for women and was free of harmful chemicals. is a safety hazard for the female body and the environment.”

Thinx denies the claims, with a company spokesperson telling NPR in an email that it will continue to take steps to ensure that PFAS were never part of its product design and that the chemical is not added to its products.

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

The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York gave preliminary approval to the decision in December, more than two years after the trial began (the case consolidates two existing lawsuits filed in Massachusetts and California).

Class members were notified of the settlement this week. As part of this, Thinx agreed to pay up to $5 million to provide compensation, as well as to make some changes to its marketing and manufacturing processes.

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

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

Erin Reuben, Attorney at Law representing several plaintiffs, said in a phone interview with NPR that he and his clients were pleased with the terms of the settlement and that the case focused on the issue of PFAS in consumer products.

“When consumers demand transparency about these issues, I think businesses have no choice but to listen,” Ruben added. “And so I hope that as consumers become more aware of the chemicals in the products they use every day, they use their voices to let businesses know that’s not something they want.”

The claim does not accuse the product of causing harm

Reuben emphasizes that it’s about the way Thinx markets its product, not the potential health effects.

“The plaintiffs in this case brought their case because … the presence of PFAS or other chemicals in underwear would influence their purchasing decisions,” he said. “This case is based on marketing concerns and no claim of personal injury as a result of the product.”

The lawsuit alleges that Thinx uses PFAS chemicals to enhance the underwear’s performance, including but not limited to its “moisture wicking” and “leak proof” qualities.

It explains that the thousands of PFAS chemicals in existence are classified as “long-chain” or “short-chain” based on whether they contain fewer or more than eight carbon atoms.

Long-chain chemicals, sometimes called “permanent chemicals,” are known to cause adverse health effects and have been phased out in the United States, the suit says, adding that short-chain chemicals are used as substitutes in the clothing industry. .

That’s despite a lack of long-term studies showing whether they’re safer for consumers, and even some evidence that they pose similar health risks, he says. And the use of PFAS The plaintiffs also claim that the company’s advertising of its products contradicts it.

According to the complaint, Thinx claims on its website that its underwear is rigorously tested and free of harmful chemicals, even claiming that the chemical compounds used in its anti-odor layer “remain on the surface of the underwear and do not harm it,” according to the complaint. journey into your body.”

However, these claims have been repeatedly disputed (and allegedly disappeared from the website in May 2021).

In 2020, reporter Jessica Choy sent several pairs of Thinx underwear to a University of Notre Dame laboratory, which found high levels of fluoride and concluded that the underwear contained PFAS. He elaborated on these findings in his paper Sierra (Sierra Club magazine).

Maria Molland, CEO of The Thinx, released a statement after the article was published reiterating the company’s strict testing standards. Molland said the company engaged a toxicologist to review those findings, which confirmed there were “no detectable long-chain PFAS chemicals” in the products (a statement the lawsuit claims misrepresents the tests and results, further confusing customers).

In November 2020, plaintiff Nicole Dickens, who filed the first complaint in New York, heard reports of chemicals in Thinx underwear, court documents say. She stopped buying the underwear and requested independent third-party testing, which found “materials and short-chain PFAS chemicals in Thinx underwear in excess of trace amounts.”

A growing body of research is linking PFAS exposure to health effects

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

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

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

“Because of their widespread use and persistence in the environment, PFAS are found in the blood of humans and animals worldwide and are present at low levels in a variety of foods and in the environment. Some PFASs can accumulate in the environment. Humans and animals are repeatedly exposed over time,” said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Purchase Centers.

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

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

The CDC has also recognized that high-level 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 the exposure may affect 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 warns that “it’s not clear what the results mean in terms of possible health effects.”

What will happen next?

Ruben explains that this is the window when consumers can learn about the settlement and decide if they want to be a part of it.

They can either file a claim for compensation or remove themselves from the class later if they want to opt out of the settlement and continue their individual work.

The advantage of joining a class-action settlement is that it doesn’t cost consumers anything — whereas someone who wants to sue on an individual basis would have to hire a lawyer and go through the process all over again, Ruben says.

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

Ruben says attorneys will find out how many people have filed suit under the settlement shortly before a May 24 final approval hearing.

Ruben is working on other cases involving PFAS in products and believes this will be an ongoing area of ​​expertise.

“I think it shows no signs of slowing down because … consumers are telling us that they really care about these issues,” he adds.

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