Lead and fabrics

27 10 2010

We published a post about lead in fabrics about a year ago, but I thought it was important enough to remind you of the dangers of lead in fabrics, because we’re starting to see claims of “heavy metal free” dyestuffs used in fabrics.  What does that mean?

Lead is considered one of those “heavy metals’ , along with mercury, cadmium, copper and others – all highly toxic to humans.  “Heavy metal” is defined as any metallic element that has a relatively high density and is toxic or poisonous at low concentrations.

Heavy metals are natural components of the Earth’s crust. They cannot be degraded or destroyed.  Interestingly, small amounts of these elements are common in our environment and diet and are actually necessary for good health. Lead can even be found in natural fibers, such as cotton, flax and hemp, which can absorb it from the environment.
It’s when our bodies have to deal with large amounts of these heavy metals that we get into trouble.   Heavy metal poisoning could result, for instance, from drinking-water contamination (e.g. lead pipes), high ambient air concentrations near emission sources,  intake via the food chain or through skin absorption – and in the case of  crawling children, from inhaling carpet particles or other abraded textiles in dust.  For some heavy metals, toxic levels can be just above the background concentrations naturally found in nature. Therefore, it is important for us to inform ourselves about the heavy metals and to take protective measures against excessive exposure.  Lead accounts for most of the cases of pediatric heavy metal poisoning, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

Lead is a neurotoxin – it affects the human brain and cognitive development, as well as the reproductive system. Some of the kinds of neurological damage caused by lead are not reversible.  Specifically, it affects reading and reasoning abilities in children, and is also linked to hearing loss, speech delay, balance difficulties and violent tendencies. (1)

A hundred years ago we were wearing lead right on our skin. I found this article funny and disturbing at the same time:

“Miss P. Belle Kessinger of Pennsylvania State College pulled a rat out of a warm, leaded-silk sack, noted that it had died of lead poisoning, and proceeded to Manhattan. There last week she told the American Home Economics Association that leaded silk garments seem to her potentially poisonous. Her report alarmed silk manufacturers who during the past decade have sold more than 100,000,000 yards of leaded silk without a single report of anyone’s being poisoned by their goods. Miss Kessinger’s report also embarrassed Professor Lawrence Turner Fairhall, Harvard chemist, who only two years ago said: ‘No absorption of lead occurs even under extreme conditions as a result of wearing this material in direct contact with the skin’. “

This was published in Time magazine,  in 1934.  (Read the full article here. )

According to Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, “There are kids who are disruptive, then there are ‘lead’ kids – very disruptive, very low levels of concentration.” 
Children with a lead concentration of less than 10 micrograms ( µ) per deciliter (dl = one tenth of a liter) of blood scored an average of 11.1 points lower than the mean on the Stanford-Binet IQ test. (2)   Consistent and reproducible behavioral effects have been seen with blood levels as low as 7 µ/dl (micrograms of lead per tenth liter of blood), which is below the Federal standard of 10 µ/dl.   The image depicts what happens to human beings at the various levels of lead in blood.  Scientists are generally in agreement that there is no “safe” level of blood lead.  Lead is a uniquely cumulative poison:  the daily intake of lead is not as important a determinant of ultimate harm as is the duration of exposure and the total lead ingested over time.

Lead is widely  used in consumer products, from dyestuffs made with lead (leading to lead poisoning in seamstresses at the turn of the century, who were in the habit of biting off their threads) (3), to lead in gasoline, which is widely credited for reduced IQ scores for all children born in industrialized countries between 1960 and 1980 (when lead in gasoline was banned).  Read more about this here.

Lead is used in the textile industry in a variety of ways and under a variety of names:

  • Lead acetate                     dyeing of textiles
  • Lead chloride                   preparation of lead salts
  • Lead molybdate             pigments used in dyestuffs
  • Lead nitrate                     mordant in dyeing; oxidizer in dyeing(4)

Fabrics sold in the United States, which are used to make our clothing, bedding and many other products which come into intimate contact with our bodies, are totally unregulated – except in terms of required labeling of percentage of fiber content and country of manufacture.  There are NO laws which pertain to the chemicals used as dyestuffs, in processing, in printing,  or as finishes applied to textiles, except those that come under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, which is woefully inadequate in terms of addressing the chemicals used by industry.   With regard to lead, products cannot contain more than 100 ppm – despite many studies that show there is no safe level for lead. In fact, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) has announced that the 32 year old TSCA needs a complete overhaul (5), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  was quick to agree! (6).  Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA,  said on September 29, 2009 that the EPA lacks the tools it needs to protect people and the environment from dangerous chemicals.

Fabrics are treated with a wide range of substances that have been proven not to be good for us.  That’s why we feel it’s important to buy third party certified FABRICS, not just certified organic fibers (which do nothing to guarantee the dyestuffs or finish chemicals used in the fabric) such as GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) or Oeko Tex, both of which prohibit the use of lead in textile processing.

The United States has new legislation which lowers the amount of lead allowed in children’s products – and only children’s products.   (This ignores the question of  how lead  in products used by pregnant  women may affect their fetus.  Research shows that as the brains of fetuses develop, lead exposure from the mother’s blood can result in significant learning disabilities.)  The new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) had requirements to limit lead content in children’s products (to be phased in over three years) so that by August 14, 2011, lead content must be 100 ppm (parts per million) or less.

However there was an outcry from manufacturers of children’s bedding and clothing, who argued that the testing for lead in their products did not make sense, because:

  • it placed an unproductive burden on them, and
  • it required their already safe products to undergo costly or unnecessary testing.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission voted to exempt textiles from the lead testing and certification requirements of the CPSIA, despite the fact that lead accounts for most of the cases of pediatric heavy metal poisoning, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

So let me repeat here: the daily intake of lead is not as important a determinant of ultimate harm as is the duration of exposure and the total lead ingested over time.

Children are uniquely susceptible to lead exposure over time, and  neural damage occurring during the period from 1 to 3 years of age is not likely to be reversible.  It’s also important to be aware that lead available from tested products would not be the only source of exposure in a child’s environment.  Although substantial and very successful efforts have been made in the past twenty years to reduce environmental lead, children are still exposed to lead in products other than toys or fabrics. Even though it was eliminated from most gasoline in the United States starting in the 1970s, lead continues to be used in aviation and other specialty fuels. And from all those years of leaded gasoline, the stuff that came out of cars as fuel exhaust still pollutes soil along our roadways, becoming readily airborne and easily inhaled.   All lead exposure is cumulative – so it’s important to eliminate any source that’s within our power to do so.

(1) “ ‘Safe’ levels of lead still harm IQ”, Associated Press, 2001

(2) Ibid.

(3) Thompson, William Gilmsn, The Occupational Diseases, 1914, Cornell University Library, p. 215

[4] “Pollution of Soil by Agricultural and Industrial Waste”, Centre for Soil and Agroclimate Research and Development, Bogor, Indonesia, 2002.   http://www.agnet.org/library/eb/521/

(4) http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp13-c5.pdf

(5) http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/News/2009/January/29010901.asp

(6) http://www.bdlaw.com/news-730.html

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8 responses

18 03 2011
Shaun

Hi, do you know if there is any way to get lead out of fabric? For instance, does it come out with repeated washings, or is it more stubborn? I just bought a load of silk and am wondering if I can somehow reduce the probability of exposure before anyone ever touches it. (normally I only use recycled fabric for sewing projects but I was taken in with these amazing dupione silk colors…sigh)

19 03 2011
oecotextiles

Hi Shaun: It’s a common misconception to think that process chemicals can be washed out. It’s often suggested that washing the fabric will get rid of the toxic chemicals used during processing, like formaldehyde and lead. But think about it: these chemicals are used to provide certain characteristics, like wrinkle resistance (in the use of formaldehyde) or color (in the use of lead), so why would a manufacturer put in a wrinkle resistant finish or color that washes out? If that were the case, your permanent press shirts and sheets would suddenly (after a washing or two) need to be ironed. Do you find that to be the case? Lead is most often used as a component in the dye chemicals, and if it washed out then your fabrics would lose color. And especially with fiber reactive dyes, those dye chemicals are designed to bond with the fibers so as to NOT wash or wear out.
Manufacturers work long and hard to make sure these chemicals do NOT wash out. Studies have shown that formaldehyde, for example, does not wash out.
An additional issue with silk is that it is sold by the weight – so there is a process called weighting silk, in which chemicals are added to give weight to the finished fabric. Lead used to be the chemical of choice for that process, and is still used occasionally. We did a blog post on silk in June of last year, http://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/silk/. Finally, I have to point out that recycled fabrics go through the same processing and use the same dyestuffs, finishes, etc. as non-recycled polyesters. The only difference is the type of fiber used. I wish I had better news for you!

31 03 2011
Lisa Velez

I recently purchased a purse that had a sticker on it’s label, stating that “This product may contain lead a chemical known to the State of California to cause reproductive harm.” The purse was made in China as well. Do I need to worry about this product harming me or my family?

13 04 2011
oecotextiles

Hi Lisa: I think you have to worry more about the lead used in the manufacturing of the purse that was probably dumped into our environment without treatment – so it’s probably circulating in the groundwater of the planet. It becomes part of the environmental burden that we must bear. The best way to protect your family is not to buy products that contain lead in the first place, because every time you buy it you’re sending a message to the factory to produce more just like it. So even though the lead in the purse may not pose a risk, that factory continues to contribute to our lead pollution.

1 06 2012
manoj bhargava

what is the side effcte of lead for humen body in textile

5 06 2012
O Ecotextiles

We did a post on that on October, 27, 2010, http://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/lead-and-fabrics/ Hope that helps.

22 08 2012
Mercedes

I bougth a hair bow for my daughter in downtown LA. Would lead be found in the fabric? Would it harm her if I put it on her head or is lead only harmful when ingested? Please Let me know….Thanks in advance.

22 08 2012
O Ecotextiles

Lead in fabrics is transmitted into the body usually because microscopic pieces of fabric (which contain the lead) abrade and are then breathed in; they can also be absorbed into the skin when skin and fabric come in contact. I think that a hair bow, which may very well contain lead (or mercury or any of the other heavy metals) doesn’t pose much of a threat since there is small chance of abrasion and hair protects her scalp from coming in contact with the fabric.

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