Employee Group Raises Concerns That New Park Service Uniforms Could Increase Disease Risk

National Park Service

A federal employee advocacy group is raising concerns about new uniforms for workers at land-management agencies, saying the uniforms might put them at risk for diseases and have harmful effects on the environment.

In October, the National Park Service awarded a $60 million contract for new uniforms for 35,000 employees at the agency and six other Interior Department components, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers. Interior touted the new uniforms as being “better suited to the environmental demands and working conditions” of those who will wear them, citing features such as moisture wicking and stretchability. The contract calls for “advanced performance fabrics,” but also requires the use of antimicrobial materials. That concerns advocates for land management workers.

Studies by the Food and Drug Administration and others have linked antimicrobial products to the spread of drug-resistant “super bug” diseases, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said. The contract requires VF Imageware, the firm that will supply to the uniforms, to consider potential harmful substances used when manufacturing the uniforms. In its communications with the company and through open records requests with NPS, however, PEER said the company and government haven't provided details about what chemicals or other materials will go into making the uniforms.

Jeff Korth, a manager at VF, said he was “not sure we know” what products will be used for the uniforms and the company is still “trying to determine the styles that will have antimicrobial fabrics.” The Interior Department must approve each article of clothing—which will include jackets, shirts, pants, boots and other apparel—before VF begins manufacturing.

The FDA has noted some safety concerns with antimicrobial products. In a rule finalized last year, FDA declared that "certain active ingredients used in over-the-counter (OTC) consumer antiseptic products intended for use with water ... are not generally recognized as safe and effective."

Antimicrobial clothing has become increasingly popular for outdoor and exercise use, in part because it can help ward off insects. In announcing the award, NPS said the uniforms would include “UV and insect protection either as a function of garment weave or via applied treatments.” Typically, those garments use silver ions as the antimicrobial agent, but some rely on other compounds, such as triclosan or pyrethrins. Some studies have found using these chemicals and compounds in clothing can lead to new bacteria resistant to treatments against disease, and could make traditional medicines less effective. Additionally, over time, some research has posited the compounds wear off from the clothing after repeated washings and are subsequently released into public waterways and the food chain.

“No one has apparently even asked whether environmentally sensitive federal lands and waters will be subjected to doses of antimicrobial chemicals, insecticides and other commercial poisons every time these treated garments are washed,” said Kyla Bennett, a former Environmental Protection Agency scientist and attorney and now a director at PEER. “This information vacuum shows incredibly sloppy Park Service decision-making that is not just off-the-cuff but off-the-wall.”

Asked for comment on the contract, NPS could not provide a response by publication time. The agency did attempt to build some controls into the contract to address safety concerns.

“The contractor shall seek to balance performance characteristics and materials with reduced exposure to potential allergens, chemicals or other substances that may be harmful or induce sensitivities,” NPS wrote in its request for proposals. VF will have to deliver a “detailed specification” of fabric content, performance details and other specifications.  

Bennett said in some cases chemicals used as antimicrobials can be carcinogenic to humans. She added they can actually increase the risk of insect-borne illnesses, because their effectiveness is oversold and those using them neglect to take further protections.

“Because these things don’t work well,” Bennet said, “they might actually increase their risk of becoming sick because they become complacent.”

The scientific community has not yet reached consensus on the potential risks of antimicrobial clothing. A 2011 study from National Center for Biotechnology Information, a division of the National Institutes of Health, found no direct adverse effects on the skin of individuals wearing antimicrobial garments (though other NCBI research has warned of the dangers of antimicrobial resistance). A 2016 study by the American Chemical Society, a congressionally chartered scientific research organization, found antimicrobial clothing retained its benefits after repeated washings and the amount of nanosilver released varied depended upon the method by which it was applied to the garments. The study also concluded the impact of releases on fish embryos was negligible.

Bennett said she wants transparency from NPS.

“I would love to see them not use antimicrobial, but barring that, at the very least they should let the public know what it is they are paying for,” she said.

VF Imagewear has previously contracted with Customs and Border Protection to provide uniforms. The new uniforms for Interior employees will be available next spring and phased in over time.

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