What are we doing to the children?

15 04 2014

Americans live in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, yet American children are less likely to live to age 5 than children in comparable nations – and I was shocked to find that America has the highest infant mortality rate in the industrialized world.[1]

infant-morality

Our children are especially vulnerable to the presence of toxic chemicals in their lives, and unfortunately this means that our children are sicker than we were as kids.

That is due to many different things, but one component can be found in changes to our environment. Since the middle of the last century, we have allowed a slew of chemicals (numbering now over 80,000) to be used in products – chemicals which were untested, many of which we now know to be harmful. In 2009, tests conducted by five laboratories in the U.S., Canada and Europe found up to 232 toxic chemicals in 10 umbilical cord blood samples of newborns. Substances detected for the first time in U.S. newborns included a toxic flame retardant chemical called Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) that permeates computer circuit boards, synthetic fragrances (Galaxolide and Tonalide) used in common cosmetics and detergents, and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFBA, or C4), a member of the notorious Teflon chemical family used to make non-stick and grease-, stain- and water-resistant coatings for cookware, textiles, food packaging and other consumer products.  Additionally, laboratory tests commissioned by Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Rachel’s Network have detected Bisphenol A (BPA) for the first time in the umbilical cord blood of U.S. newborns. The tests identified this plastics component in 9 of 10 cord blood samples from babies of African American, Asian and Hispanic descent. The findings provide hard evidence that U.S. infants are contaminated with BPA beginning in the womb.

Our immune systems can only take so much –  when the toxic burden reaches capacity we end up with the epidemic rates in inflammatory conditions like allergies and asthma.   Many experts feel that compromised immune systems have also contributed to the rise in autism, which needs no further dramatic numbers to define its horrific rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control – today, 1 in every 20 children will develop a food allergy and 1 in every 8 will have a skin allergy.[2] Allergies are a result of impacts on our body’s immune system. It is estimated that as much as 45% of children have type 2 diabetes.[3]

You would think that we’d rise up to protest these assults on our kids. But Greenpeace has a new report about the chemicals found in children’s clothing, entitled “A Little Story About Monsters in Your Closet”[4] . ( Click here to read the report.)  Their latest investigation revealed the presence of hazardous chemicals in clothing made by 12 very well known brands; from the iconic kid’s label Disney, to sportswear brands like Adidas, and even top-end luxury labels like Burberry.

The shocking truth is that no matter what type of kid’s clothes we shop for, there’s no safe haven – all of the tested brands had at least one product containing hazardous toxic monsters – toxic chemicals which mess with the normal development of our children’s bodies.

Greenpeace bought 82 items from authorized retailers in 25 countries, made in at least 12 different regions and found traces, beyond the technical limits of detection, of a number of banned and dangerous chemicals, including:

  • Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), chemicals found in 61% of the products tested and in all brands, from 1 mg/kg (the limit of detection) up to 17,000 mg/kg. NPEs degrade to nonylphenols (NP) when released into the environment; they hormone disruptors, persistent and bioaccumulative.
  • Phtalates, plastics-softeners banned in children’s toys because of toxicity and hormonal effects, were found in 33 out of 35 samples tested. A Primark t-shirt sold in Germany contained 11% phthalates, and an American Apparel baby one-piece sold in the USA contained 0.6% phthalates.
  • Organotins, fungicides banned by the EU and found in three of five shoe samples and three clothing articles (of 21 tested). Organotins impact thePe immune and nervous systems of mammals.
  • Per- and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) were found in each of 15 articles tested; one adidas swimsuit tested far higher than the limit set by Norway in 2014 and even by adidas in its Restricted Substances List.
  • Antimony was found in 100% of the articles tested; antimony is similar in toxicity to arsenic.

Greenpeace is calling on textile companies to recognize the urgency of the situation and to act as leaders in committing to zero discharge of hazardous chemicals and to our governments to support these commitments to zero discharge of all hazardous chemicals within one generation.

But it probably is most important that we, consumers with the all mighty dollar, demand that brands and governments make the changes that our children deserve. If you vote with your dollars, change will happen.

Click here to get the “Little Monsters: Field Guide to Hazardous Chemicals” from Greenpeace.

[1] World Health Organization (2013): World Health Statistics 2013.

[2] http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/02/childhood-food-skin-allergies-on-the-rise/

[3] Alberti, George, et al, “Type 2 Diabetes in the Young: The Evolving Epidemic”, American Diabetes Association, http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/27/7/1798.long

[4] http://www.greenpeace.org/eastasia/Global/eastasia/publications/reports/toxics/2013/A%20Little%20Story%20About%20the%20Monsters%20In%20Your%20Closet%20-%20Report.pdf





How to avoid toxins in fabrics – and other products

6 12 2013

In response to a post a few weeks back, Susan Lanham wrote to us:  “I initially signed on to get this blog because I thought you would give practical ways to avoid these carcinogens. However, they are so pervasive, and there doesn’t seem to be any practical way to avoid them, so that reading your blog just makes me feel helpless and hopeless. More and more I just delete without reading: it’s like diagnosing a disease early when there is nothing to be done for it.”

Yikes.  We certainly didn’t want to turn people off in despair!  There is much you can do armed with a bit of knowledge.

We have always thought that information is the great motivator – that if people knew what they were buying, then they would demand changes in those products.  Remember that each time you purchase something,  you’re ensuring that the product you bought will keep being produced, in the same  way.  If you support new ideas, find that creative way to use something or insist that what you buy meets certain parameters, then new research will be done to meet consumer demand and new processes will be developed that don’t leave a legacy of destruction.

At least in theory, right?

The reality is that change takes a long time, and we’re living in a toxic soup now – so what can we do to protect ourselves right now?

And after all, just because almost anything can kill you doesn’t mean fabrics should.  So here’s my list of things you can do to begin to protect yourself from toxins in fabrics:

  1. Buy only GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabrics if you can  – for everything, not just sheets and pajamas – starting now.   If you can’t find GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabrics, try to use 100% organic natural fibers.  Certifications are a shorthand which allows us to accept that the certified products are safe, but if you want to get granular, you can find out what they’re certifying (i.e., what the certifications are telling you).  Be sure to differentiate between, for example, a GOTS certified fiber and a GOTS certified fabric.  Big difference:  A product which uses GOTS certified fibers only may have been processed conventionally, which means it could be full of chemicals of concern.
  2. If it’s cheap, it probably has hidden costs, like your health or our ecosystem.  It’s expensive to go against the flow, and natural fibers cost way more than synthetics, even though the price of crude is going up.  So pay more, use less.
  3. Never buy anything made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or acrylic (which can be used as finishes or backings as well as fibers) and generally avoid other synthetics (such as polyester).  They ALL start with toxic inputs (like ethylene glycol), but the profiles of both PVC and acrylic makes polyester look benign by comparison.  In that same vein, avoid fabrics that are pretending to be something they’re not – polyester can be made to look like practically anything (one of the things we love about it), but it won’t have the characteristics of the natural fibers that make them such good choices for us.
  4. If you must use synthetic fibers, the best choice would be GRS Gold level recycled polyester.  This new certification means that the recycled content really is  95-100%, with the added assurance that chemicals used in the manufacture abide by the GOTS standards (eliminating endocrine disrupting chemicals, heavy metals, and a long list of other chemicals of concern); water is treated and workers are given minimal rights.
  5. Never buy wrinkle-free or permanent-press anything and pass on any stain protection treatments. The wrinkle free finishes are formaldehyde resins, and there simply are no safe stain protection treatments.
  6. Fly less.  (I never said these would be easy, but it’s good to know, right?)  In this case my issue is not with the carbon footprint (which is tremendous) but because the fabrics are so drenched in flame retardants that people who fly often have elevated levels of PBDEs in their blood – and you already know that PBDEs and their ilk are to be avoided as much as possible.  Same is true of fabrics on cruise ships.
  7. Trust your nose.  If a fabric stinks, what does that tell you about it?
  8. Ask questions!  If they can’t tell you what’s in it, you probably don’t want to live with it.
  9. Get involved and become informed! Force the federal government to fulfill its obligation to protect us from harm – join something (like a Stroller Brigade, sponsored by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families or Washington Toxics Coalition, for example) and urge your representatives to support the Safe Chemicals Act.  And share what you’ve learned.  This is an evolving industry, and we’re all looking for answers. But I know you’re just ONE person – and the problems do seem overwhelming.  Can just ONE person change the world? Margaret Meade said that committed people, banding together, is the only thing that ever has.
  10. Be aware of greenwashing.  This doesn’t mean waiting for the perfect product but it does mean honesty in letting you (the consumer) know exactly what is in the fabric.  If you see a green claim, Google the company name + environment and see what pops up.  If it’s a big company, do they spend a significant portion of their R&D budget on green initiatives?  What percent of their product offerings are “green” vs. “conventional”?

That does it for fabrics, but here are a few more things you can do to protect yourself :

  • Take off your shoes in the house – simple and easy, and it prevents lots of pesticides and other chemicals from being tracked in.
  • Vacuum and/or dust regularly –because the dust in our homes has been proven to contain lots of chemicals – wafted there from the other products in our homes.
  • Filter your water. You’d be surprised to read the list of really bad chemicals found in most tapwater in the United States – if you’re interested, read the series called “Toxic Waters” which was published in the New York Times.
  • Avoid polyurethane (i.e., poly foam, found in cushions and many other products) if you’re in the market for a new sofa or mattress, look for 100% natural – and certified – latex.
  • Read the labels of your grooming products – avoid anything that includes the words “paraben” (often used as a suffix, as in methylparaben) or “phthalate” (listed as dibutyl and diethylhexyl or just “fragrance”). If there isn’t an ingredients list, log on to cosmeticsdatabase.com, a Web site devised by the Environmental Working Group that identifies the toxic ingredients of thousands of personal-care products.
  • About plastics: Never use plastics in the microwave. Avoid “bad plastics” like PVC and anything with “vinyl” in its name. And don’t eat microwave popcorn, because the inside of a microwave popcorn bag is usually coated with a chemical that can migrate into the food when heated. It has been linked to cancer and birth defects in animals.
  • As Michael Pollan says: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I’d add: eat organic as much as possible, support local farmers and don’t eat meat and fish every day. Grow an organic garden – one of the most powerful things you can do! If you can only purchase a few organic foods, there are lots of lists that tell you which are the most pesticide-laden.
  • Replace cleaning products with non toxic alternatives – either commercially available cleaning products (avoiding ammonia, artificial dyes, detergents, aerosol propellants, sodium hypochlorite, lye, fluorescent brighteners, chlorine or artificial fragrances) or homemade. You probably can do most cleaning with a few simple ingredients like baking soda, lemon juice and distilled white vinegar. Lots of web sites offer recipes for different cleaners – I like essential oils (such as lavender, lemongrass, sweet orange, peppermint, cedar wood and ylang-ylang) in a bucket of soap and hot water. It can clean most floors and surfaces and it won’t kill me.
  • And now that we mention it, avoid using any product which lists “fragrance” as an ingredient.

I know that even that is a daunting list – it’s really hard to avoid some products and growing an organic garden just isn’t in the cards for some of us.  But if you do even some of these things your health – and ours! – will benefit.  Not to mention all the living things on Earth which depend on our good stewardship of this planet.





What you can do to avoid toxins

27 06 2013

North-Cascades-e1346800825850I’ll be taking a few weeks off so instead of sitting in front of the computer I’ll be hiking in the mountains and sitting by a lake. Have a wonderful fourth, and see you in August.

Last week I promised you the list of things to do to avoid toxins in your life. In putting together the list, it all became a bit overwhelming and I found myself asking whether it would really make a difference. I mean, the chemicals in use are so pervasive and ubiquitous that I wasn’t sure whether my puny attempts at reducing exposure would result in any improvements. Like that old adage: you can’t buy health – can you protect yourself from exposure? I mean, they found GMO wheat in a remote field in Oregon. Then I ran across the Michael Pollan piece in the New York Times (for the full article, click here) in which he talks about what we can do to fight climate change and it seems to reflect my own feelings about chemical exposure:

Why bother? That really is the big question facing us as individuals hoping to do something about climate change, and it’s not an easy one to answer. I don’t know about you, but for me the most upsetting moment in “An Inconvenient Truth” came long after Al Gore scared the hell out of me, constructing an utterly convincing case that the very survival of life on earth as we know it is threatened by climate change. No, the really dark moment came during the closing credits, when we are asked to . . . change our light bulbs. That’s when it got really depressing. The immense disproportion between the magnitude of the problem Gore had described and the puniness of what he was asking us to do about it was enough to sink your heart.

But then he answers his own question: “Going personally green is a bet, nothing more or less, though it’s one we probably all should make, even if the odds of it paying off aren’t great. Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will.”

The fact that chemicals are not being directly linked to health issues is largely because of the long delay between time of exposure and effect, so causation is difficult to prove. As Ed Brown points out in his new documentary “Unacceptable Levels” (click here for more information), it’s only because these chemicals have been in our environment for so long that we can now start to monitor their results. Another reason it’s difficult to prove the effects of these chemicals is that we’re exposed to low levels of individual chemicals from different sources – and they enter your body and react with all the other chemicals found there. Yet chemicals are tested for safety only one by one. As Ken Cook points out, no doctor will prescribe a new drug for a patient before finding out what other drugs that patient is taking.

So, yes, it’s overwhelming but that’s okay. Now that you know, begin to read up a bit and learn what all the fuss is about. Then you can start to make some changes that might mean all the difference.

Back to my list: my top 11 suggestions to avoid toxins are below. If you can do even some of those, you’ll be ahead of the game:

• Take off your shoes in the house – simple and easy, and it prevents lots of pesticides and other chemicals from being tracked in.

• Vacuum and/or dust regularly –because the dust in our homes has been proven to contain lots of chemicals (want proof? click here )

• Filter your water. You’d be surprised to read the list of really bad chemicals found in most tapwater in the US – if you’re interested, read the series called “Toxic Waters” which was published in the New York Times. Click here.

• Buy only GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabrics if you can – for everything, not just sheets and pajamas – starting now. Never buy wrinkle-free or permanent-press anything and pass on any stain protection treatments. Fabrics – even those made of organic cotton – are, by weight, 27% synthetic chemicals. Click here to get started on what that means!

• Check the labels on your furniture. The California Furniture Flammability Standard essentially requires that cushioned furniture, children’s car seats, diaper-changing tables and other products containing polyurethane foam be drenched in flame retardants – and most manufacturers build to that standard, so don’t think you’re off the hook just because you don’t live in California. (Click here to read why that’s important). Check the labels on electronics, too. Avoid polyurethane if possible.

• Read the labels of your grooming products – avoid anything that includes the words “paraben” (often used as a suffix, as in methylparaben) or “phthalate” (listed as dibutyl and diethylhexyl or just “fragrance”). If there isn’t an ingredients list, log on to cosmeticsdatabase.com, a Web site devised by the Environmental Working Group that identifies the toxic ingredients of thousands of personal-care products.

• About plastics: Never use plastics in the microwave. Avoid “bad plastics” like PVC and anything with “vinyl” in its name. And don’t eat microwave popcorn, because the inside of a microwave popcorn bag is usually coated with a chemical that can migrate into the food when heated. It has been linked to cancer and birth defects in animals.

* As Michael Pollan says: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I’d add: eat organic as much as possible, support local farmers and don’t eat meat and fish every day. Grow an organic garden – one of the most powerful things you can do! If you can only purchase a few organic foods, there are lots of lists (EWG has a good one, click here) that tell you which are the most pesticide-laden.

• Replace cleaning products with non toxic alternatives – either commercially available cleaning products (avoiding ammonia, artificial dyes, detergents, aerosol propellants, sodium hypochlorite, lye, fluorescent brighteners, chlorine or artificial fragrances) or homemade. You probably can do most cleaning with a few simple ingredients like baking soda, lemon juice and distilled white vinegar. Lots of web sites offer recipes for different cleaners – I like essential oils (such as lavender, lemongrass, sweet orange, peppermint, cedar wood and ylang-ylang) in a bucket of soap and hot water. It can clean most floors and surfaces and it won’t kill me.

• And now that we mention it, avoid using any product which lists “fragrance” as an ingredient.

• Fly less – in this case my issue is not with the carbon footprint (which is tremendous) but because the fabrics are so drenched in flame retardants that people who fly often have elevated levels of PBDEs in their blood – and you already know that PBDEs and their ilk are to be avoided as much as possible (click here and here ).

• Get involved and become informed! Force the federal government to fulfill its obligation to protect us from harm – join something (like a Stroller Brigade, sponsored by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families or Washington Toxics Coalition, for example) and urge your representatives to support the Safe Chemicals Act.





Chromium in fabrics

28 02 2013

Art-Paints.comIn our ongoing series of looking at the different chemicals used in textile processing, we’re up to the C’s. This week’s topic is chromium.

Chromium (Cr) exists in several forms, which are described by different numbers in parentheses. The most common forms are elemental chromium (0), chromium (III), and chromium (VI). Chromium (III) occurs naturally in the environment and is an essential nutrient for the human body. Chromium (0) and chromium (VI) are generally produced by industrial processes.

Chromium VI, also called Hexavalent Chromium, is recognized as a human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program; The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that chromium VI is carcinogenic to humans. Chromium compounds are linked to lung cancer. Chromate-dyed textiles and chromate-tanned leather can cause or exacerbate contact dermatitis.

Chromium VI is used in textile manufacturing as a catalyst in the dyeing process and as a dye for wool (chrome dyes)(1). But you may know much more about it through its use in tanning leather.

Before the advent of synthetic dyes, all dyes came from natural sources such as minerals and plants. Often these dyes faded quickly if the dyed material was laundered. To fix or stabilize the color, chemical agents called mordants were used. Chemically, the mordant binds with the dye and the fibers of the material, preventing bleeding and fading. As early as 1820 the cotton and wool industries were using large amounts of chromium compounds (such as potassium bichromate) in the dyeing process. Red and green pigments developed from chromium compounds were also used for printing wallpaper during this period.

In 1822, a man named Andreas Kurtz moved to England and began producing potassium bichromate and selling it to the English textile industry at 5 shillings a pound. Competition soon drove the price down to 8 pence, about an eighth of the original price. This did not give Kurtz a satisfactory profit, so he began producing other chrome compounds, specifically chrome pigments. His chrome yellow achieved cult status when Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV, used it to paint her carriage. This was perhaps the origin of the “yellow cab,” an idea exemplified today in New York City taxis. Kurtz left his mark on the world of color; “Kurtz yellow” is still available in British color catalogues.

In the film Erin Brockovich (2001, Universal Studios) Pacific Gas and Electric is portrayed as a corporate giant that poisoned the water of the small town of Hinkley, California. The movie, which is based on a real lawsuit, suggests that high levels of chromium-6 in the groundwater were responsible for an eclectic range of diseases among residents there, including various cancers, miscarriages, Hodgkin’s disease and nosebleeds. In 2010, the Enironmental Working Group studied the drinking water in 35 American cities. The study was the first nationwide analysis measuring the presence of the chemical in U.S. water systems. The study found measurable hexavalent chromium in the tap water of 31 of the cities sampled, with Norman, Oklahoma, at the top of list; 25 cities had levels that exceeded California’s proposed limit of Chromium VI and it’s less toxic forms.

It is leather tanning for which chromium is perhaps best known, because the animal skins are first given a chrome bath to prevent decomposition. This step is the most environmentally harmful of the entire tanning process, generating 90% of the water pollution associated with tanning leather (3). And that’s saying a lot, because tanning is an environmental nightmare: skins are transferred from vat to vat, soaked and treated and dyed. Chemicals used include alcohol, coal tar , sodium sulfate, sulfuric acid, chlorinated phenols (e.g. 3,5-dichlorophenol), chromium (trivalent and hexavalent), azo dyes, cadmium, cobalt, copper, antimony, cyanide, barium, lead, selenium, mercury, zinc, polychlorinated biphenyels (PCBs), nickel, formaldehyde and pesticide residues. At the same time, toxic gases like ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and carcinogenic arylamines are emitted into the air(4). The smell of a tannery is the most horrifyingly putrid smell on earth.

According to the results of a three year study to address health impacts of pollution from the Blacksmith Institute, which works to solve pollution problems in the developing world, the tanning of leather is in the top 10 of the world’s worst pollution threats, at #5, directly affecting more than 1.8 million people (5).

(1) Duffield, P.A., et al, “Wool dyeing with Environmentally Acceptable Levels of Chrome in Effluent”, IWS Development Centre, West Yorkshire, England
(2) “EPA’s recommendations for enhanced monitoring for Hexavalent Chromium (Chromium-6) in Drinking Water: http://water.epa.gov/drink/info/chromium/guidance.cfm
(3) Blackman, Allen, “Adoption of Clean Leather-Tanning Technologies in Mexico”, discussion paper, Resources for the Future, August 2005
(4) Barton, Cat, “Workers pay high price at Bangladesh tanneries”, AFP, Feb. 2011
(5) http://www.globe-net.com/articles/2011/november/11/world’s-10-worst-toxic-pollution-problems/





Nanotechnology in the textile industry

1 08 2012

We did a post on the use of nanotechnology in the textile industry about two years ago, and new research has just settled the long-standing controversy over the mechanism by which  silver nanoparticles (the most widely used nanomaterial in the world) kills bacteria.    You know, all those new textiles that advertise that they’re bacteria  and odor free – they  are  even claimed to prevent colds and flu and never need washing![1]  Not to keep you in suspense:  the  research comes with a warning:  use enough.  If you don’t kill the bacteria, you make them stronger. In honor of this new study (summarized below) we’re re-posting our previous posts on nanomaterials:

Recently, I have been noticing various products claiming to have some kind of nanotechnology-based credential. Turns out that’s because the nanotech tsunami is just gaining steam – one tally says that over 10,000 products using nanotechnology are already on the market. In the food industry, the FDA says there are no nano-containing foods on the market in the U.S., yet DK Matai, Chairman of the Asymmetric Threats Contingency Alliance, says that the USA is the world leader in nano foods, followed by Japan, Europe and China[1]. The Environmental Working Group has done it’s own count of lotions, creams, sprays, washes, cosmetics and nutritional supplements on the market in the U.S. and has found close to 10,000 that contain nanoparticles. And there’s an app for that: The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies has an iPhone app called findNano, which urges users to photograph and submit information on a possible nanotech product for inclusion in its inventory.

Turns out that there are many who think the next Industrial Revolution is right around the corner – because of nanotechnology. They think that nanotechnology will radically transform the world, and the people, of the early 21st century. It has the capacity to change the nature of almost every human-made object. Whether that transformation will be peaceful and beneficial or horrendously destructive is unknown. So naturally it’s become very controversial. More about that later.

It seems the better term is really nanoscience.  Nanoscience is the study of things that are really really small: A nanometer is one billionth of a meter (10-9 m). This is roughly ten times the size of an individual atom. For comparison, 10 NM is 1000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. How small is that? “If a centimeter is represented by a football field, a nanometer would be the width of a human hair lying on the field,” offers William Hofmeister of the University of Tennessee Space Institute’s Center for Laser Applications.

From National Nanotechnology Initiative

Nanoparticles are bits of a material in which all three dimensions of the particle are within the nanoscale: nanotubes have a diameter that’s nanosize, but can be several hundred nanometers (nm) long or even longer.   A cubic centimeter of material, about the size of a sugar cube, has the same surface area of a half a stick of gum. But if you fill that cube with particles that are 1 nanometer in size, the surface area of all those particles is an astonishing 6,000 square meters, nearly the surface area of 3 football fields.Nanofilms or nanoplates have a thickness that’s nanosize, but their other two dimensions can be quite large. These nanoparticles can be designed into structures of a specific size, shape, chemical composition and surface design to create whatever is needed to do the job at hand. They can be suspended in liquid, ground into a powder, embedded into a composite or even added to a gas.

Many important functions of living organisms take place at the nanoscale. The human body uses natural nanoscale materials, such as proteins and other molecules, to control the body’s many systems and processes. A typical protein such as hemoglobin, which carries oxygen through the bloodstream, is 5 nms in diameter. Based on the definition of nanotech given above, biotech can be thought of as a subset of nanotech – “nature’s nanotechnology.”

Manipulating something so mind-bogglingly small is where the “technology” part comes in – it’s about trying to make technologies, such as computers and medical devices, out of these nanoscale structures. Nanotechnology is different from older technologies because unusual physical, chemical, and biological properties can emerge in materials at the nanoscale. Nano particles have different physical properties from their macro or life-size scale counterparts. For example, copper is an opaque mineral, but at the nano scale it is transparent. Some particles, like aluminum, are stable at macro scale but become combustible when reduced to nano-particles; a gold nanowire is twenty times stronger than a large bar of gold.

Molecular manufacturing is the name given to a specific type of “bottom-up” construction technology. As its name implies, molecular manufacturing will be achieved when we are able to build things from the molecule up, and we will be able to rearrange matter with atomic precision.

As I mentioned earlier, something so little understood is controversial, with many different points of view. These differences start with the very definition of nanotechnology, and moves on to what nanotechnology can achieve. Then there is the ethical challenge – what is the moral imperative about making technology that might help increase our lifespans available to all, for example?

Finally, the concern about possible health and environmental implications is perhaps the most controversial. The problem is that some properties of these tiny particles are unknown, and potentially harmful, and scientists are still trying to determine whether their size affects their toxicity. Scientists worry that the small particles used in nanotechnology could penetrate biological barriers designed to keep out larger particles; also we don’t have guidelines about how much we can safely ingest without harm. For more on possible harm to human health, click here.

Nanotechnology has been discovered by the textile industry – in fact, a new area has developed in the area of textile finishing called “Nanofinishing”. Making fabric with nano-sized particles creates many desirable properties in the fabrics without a significant increase in weight, thickness or stiffness, as was the case with previously used techniques. Nanofinishing techniques include: UV blocking, anti-microbial, bacterial and fungal, flame retardant, wrinkle resistant, anti-static, insect and/or water repellant and self-cleaning properties.

One of the most common ways to use nanotechnology in the textile industry is to create stain and water resistance. To do this, the fabrics are embedded with billions of tiny fibers, called “nanowhiskers” (think of the fuzz on a peach), which are waterproof and increase the density of the fabric. The Nanowhiskers can repel stains because they form a cushion of air around each cotton fiber. When something is spilled on the surface of the fabric, the miniature whiskers actually cohesively prop up the liquid drops, allowing the liquid drops to roll off. This treatment lasts, they say, for about 50 home wash cycles before its effectiveness is lost.    A corollary finish is that of using nanoparticles to provide a “lotus plant” effect which causes dirt to rinse off easily, such as in the rain.

Nanotechnology can also be used in the opposite manner to increase the ability of textiles, particularly synthetics, to absorb dyes. Until now most polypropylenes have resisted dyeing, so they were deemed unsuitable for consumer goods like clothing, table cloths, or floor and window coverings. A new technique being developed is to add nanosized particles of dye friendly clay to raw polypropylene stock before it is extruded into fibres. The resultant composite material can absorb dyes without weakening the fabric.

The other main use of nanoparticles in textiles is that of using silver nanoparticles for antimicrobial, antibacterial effects, thereby eliminating odors in fabrics. Nanoparticles of silver are the most widely used form of nanotechnology in use today, says Todd Kuiken, PhD, research associate at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN). “Silver’s antimicrobial property is one that suits a lot of different products, and companies pretty much run the gamut of how many consumer products they put it in.” 

PEN’s database of consumer products that contain nanoparticles lists 150 different articles of clothing, including athletic clothes, jogging outfits, camping clothing, bras, panties, socks, and gloves, that are treated with nano-silver because it kills the bacteria that cause odor.

The new research mentioned above was published in the American Chemical Society’s Nano Letters by  researchers at Rice University[2] , who found that the assumption that silver nanoparticles are toxic to bacteria is unfounded.

Scientists have long known that silver ions, which flow from nanoparticles when oxidized, are deadly to bacteria, and the assumption was made that silver nanoparticles were equally toxic. In fact, when the possibility of ionization is taken away from silver, the nanoparticles are practically benign in the presence of microbes, said Pedro Alvarez, George R. Brown Professor and chair of Rice’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department.[3]  He said the straightforward answer to the decade-old question is that the insoluble silver nanoparticles do not kill cells by direct contact. But soluble ions, when activated via oxidation in the vicinity of bacteria, do the job nicely.

To figure that out, the researchers had to strip the particles of their powers. “Our original expectation was that the smaller a particle is, the greater the toxicity,” said Zongming Xiu, a Rice postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the paper. “We found the particles, even up to a concentration of 195 parts per million, were still not toxic to bacteria,” Xiu said. “But for the ionic silver, a concentration of about 15 parts per billion would kill all the bacteria present. That told us the particle is 7,665 times less toxic than the silver ions, indicating a negligible toxicity.”  In fact, E. coli bacteria became stimulated by silver ions when they encountered doses too small to kill them.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted  it’s first-ever approval to use nanosilver particles in fabrics in December 2011, and is based on a conditional four year registration. . “Conditional” means that the manufacturer must provide test results (within four years) showing how the nanosilver particles interact with the environment. However, the EPA has a long history of letting such approvals linter, and has already expressed concern about nanosilver particles impacts on health, saying the approval “will likely lead to low levels of human and environmental exposure and risks.”

Last year, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research examined what happens to silver nanoparticles in fabrics during washing – and found that these silver nanoparticles actually wash out of fabrics – so there is a high likelihood that the silver will spread into the environment. Another study found that socks treated with nanosilver lost, on average, half the nanoparticles embedded in the fabric during washing.

Among other well documented studies (see sites listed below) which have shown silver nanoparticles to be highly toxic to bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms is one by Duke University, in which it was found that silver nanoparticles negatively impacted the growth of plants – and also kills the beneficial soil microbes which sustain the plants. “Nanoparticles likely enter the environment through wastewater, where they accumulate in biosolids (sewage sludge) at wastewater treatment plants. One of the ways in which the sludge is disposed of is through land application, because it is valuable as a fertilizer. Whereas fertilizers add nutrients to the soil that are essential for plant growth, plants also depend on soil bacteria and fungi to help mine nutrients from the air and soil. Therefore, the antimicrobial effects of silver nanoparticles could have impacts at the ecosystem level—for example, affecting plants whose growth is dependent on soil-dwelling microorganisms.” Another study (Choi, Yu, Fernandez et al in Water Research 2010) found that once nanosilver is washed down the drain, it’s highly effective at killing the microorganisms used to treat sewage in wastewater treatment plants, which could lead to bigger problems with drinking-water safety.

The future for textile applications using nanotechnology is exploding due to various end uses like protective textiles for soldiers, medical textiles and smart textiles. Consider the T-shirt. Research is being done that will use nanotechnology-enhanced fabric so the T-shirt can monitor your heart rate and breathing, analyze your sweat and even cool you off on a hot summer’s day. What about a pillow that monitors your brain waves, or a solar-powered dress that can charge your ipod or MP4 player? The laboratory of Juan Hinestroza, assistant professor of Fiber Science and Apparel Design at Cornell University, has developed cotton threads that can conduct electric current as well as a metal wire can, yet remain light and comfortable enough to give a whole new meaning to multi-use garments. This technology works so well that simple knots in such specially treated thread can complete a circuit – and solar-powered dress with this technology literally woven into its fabric. Dr. Hinestroza designed the fabrics used in a Cornell Univesity fashion show by designer Olivia Ong, which guards the wearer against bacteria, repels stains, fights off allergies and oxidizes smog. And costs about $10,000 per yard to make.

And yet, there is mounting evidence that nanotechnology requires special attention. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Andrew Maynard, science advisor to the Project on Emerging Technologies (PEN), from Technology Review:

  • “Individual experiments have indicated that if you develop materials with a nanostructure, they do behave differently in the body and in the environment.
  • We know from animal studies that very, very fine particles, particles with high surface area, lead to a greater inflammatory response than the same amount of larger particles. We also know that they can enter the lining of the lungs and get through to the blood and enter other organs. There is some evidence that nanoparticles can move into the brain along the olfactory nerve, so this is completely circumventing the blood-brain barrier.
  • There really isn’t any consensus on how you go about evaluating the risks associated with carbon nanotubes yet. In cell cultures, you have to have some idea what kind of response you’re looking for. We already know in some studies that the lungs see carbon nanotubes almost as biological materials–they don’t see it as a foreign material. But then because of that, they start building up layers of collagen and cells around these nanotubes. They almost see them as a framework for building tissue on. Now, that actually may be a good thing in parts of the body, but in the lungs you end up using up the air space. But without that information, you wouldn’t necessarily know what were the appropriate cell tests to do in the first place.
  • The thing that concerns me is, there is very much a mind-set that is based on the conventional understanding of chemicals. But nanomaterials are not chemicals. They have a structural component there as well as a chemical component.

At the recent meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), more than 20 studies were presented on the fate of nanoparticles once they enter the environment, and nearly all found that these materials were building up in organisms, such as earthworms, insects, and fish, and having subtle effects on their abilities to survive

The Rodale website had some suggestions for those of us who are worried about smelly clothes: Try nature and a little common sense.

  • Pretreat. Before you wash your smelly gym clothes, sprinkle some baking soda on them, leaving it on for about an hour before laundering them to remove perspiration odors as well as stains.
  • Launder with care. Because sweat can be oily, it can build up on clothing, becoming difficult to remove with regular detergents and water. Add a cup of white vinegar to the rinse cycle; vinegar helps break through oils on fabric, and it serves as a deodorizer. Or hand-wash your clothes with shampoo, which is designed to cut through body oils.
  • Line-dry. Nothing cuts through bad odors like oxygen and sunlight. Let your clothes dry outside, rather than in a machine, and you’ll save energy, make your clothes last longer, and prevent offensive odors the next time you hit the gym. Read our Nickel Pincher’s line-drying story for the ultimate in line-drying advice.

Some other studies on toxicity of nanoparticles:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=nanotechnology-silver-nanoparticles-fish-malformation

http://www.nanotech-now.com/news.cgi?story_id=34185

http://nanosafety.ihep.ac.cn/2006/2006.15.pdf

http://www.klgates.com/files/Publication/2b1f4c2a-298b-4948-9ce7-69f1396b61ac/Presentation/PublicationAttachment/bbdf8cdc-be42-4fa6-b942-7263b449d0b3/Article_Stimers_Nanotech.pdf





Asbestos – and fire retardants.

24 10 2011

A half century ago, asbestos – a ” 100% natural” material by the way –  was hailed as the wonder fiber of the 20th century.   It was principally used for its heat resistant properties and to protect property (and incidentally, human lives) from the ravages of fire. Because of this, asbestos was used in virtually all industrial applications as well as the construction of buildings and sea-going vessels. In the United States, asbestos is still legally used in 3,000 different consumer products, predominantly building insulation (and other building materials), automobile parts such as brake pads, roofing materials, floor tiles. Since asbestos became known to be a potent human health risk, many manufacturers found alternatives to asbestos:  for example, since the mid-1990s, a majority of brake pads, new or replacement, have been manufactured instead with linings made of ceramic, carbon, metallic and aramid fiber( Twaron or Kevlar – the same material used in bulletproof vests).

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, three of the major health effects associated with asbestos exposure include:

  • Asbestosis —  a serious, progressive, long-term non-cancer disease of the lungs. It is caused by inhaling asbestos fibers that irritate lung tissues and cause the tissues to scar. The scarring makes it hard for oxygen to get into the blood. The latency period (meaning the time it takes for the disease to develop) is often 10–20 years. There is no effective treatment for asbestosis.
  • CancerCancer of the lung, gastrointestinal tract, kidney and larynx have been linked to asbestos. The latency period for cancer is often 15–30 years.
  •  Mesothelioma – Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that is found in the thin lining (membrane) of the lung, chest, abdomen, and heart. Unlike lung, cancer, mesothelioma has no association with smoking. The only established causal factor is exposure to asbesto  fibers. The latency period for mesothelioma may be 20–50 years. The prognosis for mesothelioma is grim, with most patients dying within 12 months of diagnosis.  This is why great efforts are being made to prevent school children from being exposed.

Worldwide, 52 countries (including those in the European Union) have banned the use of asbestos, in whole or in part.  In the United States, only six categories of products can NOT contain asbestos:  flooring felt, rollboard, and corrugated, commercial, or specialty paper. In addition, there is a ban on the use of asbestos in products that have not historically contained asbestos, otherwise referred to as “new uses” of asbestos.   

So today, asbestos remains in millions of structures throughout the country, as many people find out (to their dismay) when they are planning to repaint their home or do other remodeling tasks and must deal with the EPA rules for safe disposal or removal of products which may contain asbestos.   Millions of people are exposed at home or in their workplace by the monumental quantities of asbestos that remain in the built environment — the attic insulation in 30 million American homes, for instance — following decades of heavy use.  It also remains heavily used in brake shoes and other products, directly exposing auto mechanics and others who work with the materials, and indirectly exposing consumers and workers’ families.

No safe level of minimum exposure has ever been established for asbestos. Many of the first cases of mesothelioma were persons who never directly handled asbestos as part of their jobs. An early case in South Africa occurred in a young girl whose job it was to empty the pockets of miners before dry cleaning their clothes. The asbestos dust in the miners’ pockets made her fatally ill.[1]   People who have worked in plumbing, steel, insulation and electrical industries have very high chances of suffering from asbestos-related disease. In fact, they could have passed it on to their family members through the dust that could have clung to their shirts, shoes and other personal belongings.

Today, even though global asbestos use is down, there are more than 10,000 deaths per year due to the legacy of asbestos exposure.[2] Asbestos kills thousands more people each year than skin cancer, and kills almost as many people as are slain in assaults with firearms

With the science to back up the claims that asbestos is a serial killer, and with global use on the downward swing, wouldn’t you think that deaths from asbestos exposure would be going down?  Yet, the U.S. EPA reports that asbestos related deaths are increasing  and, according to the studies cited by the Environmental Working Group, many believe that  the U.S. asbestos disease epidemic may not even peak for another ten years or more.

This ongoing increase in asbestos mortality is due largely to the fact that asbestos-caused cancers and other diseases have a 20 to 50 year latency period, meaning that individuals exposed in the 1960s and 1970s are just now dying from their exposure. Better tracking accounts for the dramatic increase in mesothelioma mortality reported in 1999, but lung cancer deaths from asbestos are not reported at all, and asbestosis is still dramatically underreported even in worker populations where asbestos exposure is well established.

The legacy of asbestos, in the United States as in other countries such as the U.K. and Australia, is that the initial use of asbestos as a miracle fiber quickly gave rise to a burgeoning industry and adoption of asbestos in many products.   This happened long before any detrimental health effects were known, so now,  many years later,  asbestos related disease is killing significant numbers of people.  Environmental Health Perspectives last year published “The Case for a Global Ban on Asbestos”[3]

If you google “new asbestos” you can find many materials that people claim could be the “new asbestos” – nanotechnology, fly ash and climate-change litigation for example – because these are all being widely adopted before being well understood, and may well leave a legacy of death and destruction similar to that of asbestos.  Well, okay, litigation has not been known to kill directly, but you understand the point I’m trying to make.

I’d like to nominate flame retardant chemicals used in our furniture, fabrics and baby products – as well as a host of other products – as being in the running for the new asbestos.  These chemicals are called halogenated flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers – commonly known as PBDE’s.  Women in North America have 10 to 40 times the levels of the PBDEs in their breast milk, as do women in Europe or in Asia. And these chemicals pass through the placenta and are found in infants at birth, making a double dose of toxins for young children when they are most vulnerable.  When tested in animals, fire retardant chemicals, even at very low doses, can cause endocrine disruption, thyroid disorders, cancer, and developmental, reproductive, and neurological problems such as learning impairment and attention deficit disorder.   In humans, these chemicals are associated with reduced IQ in children, reduced fertility, thyroid impacts, undescended testicles in infants (leading to a higher cancer risk), and decreases in sperm quality and function.Ongoing studies are beginning to show a connection between these chemicals and autism in children.(4)  Pregnant women have the biggest cause for concern because animal studies show negative impacts on brain development of offspring when mothers are exposed during pregnancy. And bioaccumulating PBDEs can stay in our bodies for more than a decade.

A study published last week in the Environmental Health Perspectives  points to California’s unique furniture flammability standard called Technical Bulletin 117, or TB117, as the major reason for high fire retardant levels in California. The California standard, passed in 1975, requires that polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture be able to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds without catching fire. Because there is no other state or federal standard, many manufacturers comply with the California rule, usually by adding flame retardants with the foam.

The startling and disturbing result of the published study in Environmental Health Perspectives is that Latino children born in California have levels of PBDE in their blood seven times higher  than do children who were born and raised in Mexico.[5]  In general, residents of California have higher rates of PBDE in their blood than do people in other parts of the United States.

A home can contain a pound or more of fire retardants that are similar in structure and action to substances such as PCBs and DDT that are widely banned. They leak out from furniture, settle in dust and are taken in by toddlers when they put their hands into their mouths. A paper published in Environmental Science & Technology [6] also finds high fire retardant levels in pet dogs. Cats, because they lick their fur, have the highest levels of all.

One troubling example is chlorinated Tris, a flame retardant that was removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s largely based on research done by Dr. Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist, after it was found to mutate DNA and identified as a probable human carcinogen.  In the journal Environmental Science and Technology, new research published in 2011 shows that chlorinated Tris was found in more than a third of the foam samples tested – products such as nursing pillows, highchairs, car seats and changing pads.[7]

Tris is now being used at high levels in furniture being sold in California to meet the California standard.

The benefits of adding flame retardants have not been proved. Since the 1980s, retardants have been added to California furniture. From 1980 to 2004, fire deaths in states without such a standard declined at a similar rate as they did in California. And when during a fire the retardants burn, they increase the toxicity of the fire, producing dioxins, as well as additional carbon monoxide, soot and smoke, which are the major causes of fire deaths.

So why are we rolling the dice and exposing our children to substances with the potential to cause serious health problems when there is no proven fire safety benefit?

Under current law, it is difficult for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to ban or restrict chemicals – current federal  oversight of chemicals is so weak that manufacturers are not required to label products with flame retardants nor are they required to list what chemicals are used.[8]. Even now, the agency has yet to ban asbestos!

“We can buy things that are BPA free, or phthalate free or lead free. We don’t have the choice to buy things that are flame-retardant free,” says Dr. Heather Stapleton, an assistant professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University. “The laws protect the chemical industry, not the general public.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been working on a federal flammability standard for upholstered furniture for 16 years. The current proposal would allow manufacturers to meet the flammability standard without fire retardants. An agency spokesman said that “additional research looking into consumer exposure and the impact of chemical alternatives is needed.”

This year, California State Sen. Mark Leno sponsored California Senate Bill 147, the Consumer Choice Fire Protection Act. The bill called for an alternative furniture flammability standard that would give consumers the choice to purchase furniture that is fire-safe and nontoxic.

However, aggressive lobbying in the form of multimillion-dollar campaigns from “Citizens for Fire Safety” and other front groups funded by three bromine producers –  Albemarle, Chemtura and Israeli Chemicals Ltd. –  resulted in a defeat of this bill in March, 2011.  Their main argument was that new flame retardants – similar in structure and properties to the old ones and lacking any health information – were safe.  This despite  opposition which included 30 eloquent firefighters, scientists, physicians and health officers representing thousands of Californians.

Although we stopped most uses of asbestos decades ago, workers and others inadvertently exposed continue to die from its long-term effects.  Let’s not add more chemicals to this sad list.


[5]  Eskenazi, B., et al., “A Comparison of PBDE Serum Concentrations in Mexican and Mexican-American
Children Living in California”,  http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.1002874

[6]  Vernier, Marta and Hites, Ronald; “Flame Retardants in the Serum of Pet Dogs and in their Food”, Environmental Science and Technology, 2011, 45 (10),  pp4602-4608.  http://pubs.acs.org/action/doSearch?action=search&searchText=PBDE+levels+in+pets&qsSearchArea=searchText&type=within&publication=40025991

[7]  Martin, Andrew, “Chemical Suspected in Cancer is in Baby products”, The New York Times, May 17, 2011.

[8]  Ibid.





Formaldehyde in your fabrics

4 01 2011

In January 2009, new blue uniforms were issued to Transportation Security Administration officers at hundreds of airports nationwide. [1] The new uniforms – besides giving officers a snazzy new look – also gave them  skin rashes, bloody noses, lightheadedness, red eyes, and swollen and cracked lips, according to the American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing the officers.  “We’re hearing from hundreds of TSOs that this is an issue,” said Emily Ryan, a spokeswoman for the union.

The American Federation of Government Employees blames formaldehyde. 

In  2008, an Ohio woman filed suit against Victoria’s Secret, alleging she became “utterly sick” after wearing her new bra.  In her lawsuit, the plaintiff said the rash she suffered was “red hot to the touch, burning and itching.”   As more people came forth (600 to be exact)  claiming horrific skin reactions (and permanent scarring to some) as a result of wearing Victoria Secret’s bras, lawsuits were filed in Florida and New York – after the lawyers found formaldehyde in the bras.

For years the textile industry has been using finishes on fabric that prevents wrinkling – usually a formaldehyde resin.   Fabrics are treated with urea-formaldehyde resins to give them all sorts of easy care properties such as:

  • Permanent press / durable press
  • Anti-cling, anti-static, anti-wrinkle, and anti-shrink (especially shrink proof wool)
  • Waterproofing and stain resistance (especially for suede and chamois)
  • Perspiration proof
  • Moth proof
  • Mildew resistant
  • Color-fast

That’s why you can find retailers like Nordstrom selling “wrinkle-free finish” dress shirts and L.L. Bean selling chinos that are “great right out of the dryer.”  And we’ve been snapping them up, because who doesn’t want to ditch the ironing?

According to the American Contact Dermatitis Society, rayon, blended cotton, corduroy, wrinkle-resistant 100% cotton, and any synthetic blended polymer are likely to have been treated with formaldehyde resins. The types of resins used include urea-formaldehyde, melamine-formaldehyde and phenol-formaldehyde.[2] Manufacturers often “hide” the word “formaldehyde” under daunting chemical names.  These include:

  • Formalin
  • Methanal
  • Methyl aldehyde
  • Methylene oxide
  • Morbicid acid
  • Oxymethylene

Not only is formaldehyde itself used,  but also formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Some of these are known by the following names:

  • Quaternium-15
  • 2-bromo-2nitropropane-1,3-diol
  • imidazolidinyl urea
  • diazolidinyl urea

Formaldehyde is another one of those chemicals that just isn’t good for humans.  Long known as the Embalmer’s Friend for its uses in funeral homes and high school biology labs, formaldehyde effects depend upon the intensity and length of the exposure and the sensitivity of the individual to the chemical. The most common means of exposure is by breathing air containing off-gassed formaldehyde fumes, but it is also easily absorbed through the skin.  Increases in temperature (hot days, ironing coated textiles) and increased humidity both increase the release of formaldehyde from coated textiles.

Besides being associated with watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, difficulty in breathing, coughing, some pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs),  asthma attacks, chest tightness, headaches, and general fatigue,  as well as the rashes and other illnesses such as reported by the TSA officers, formaldehyde is associated with more severe health issues.  For example, it could cause nervous system damage by its known ability to react with and form cross-linking with proteins, DNA and unsaturated fatty acids.13 These same mechanisms could cause damage to virtually any cell in the body, since all cells contain these substances.  Formaldehyde can react with the nerve protein (neuroamines) and nerve transmitters (e.g., catecholamines), which could impair normal nervous system function and cause endocrine disruption. [3]

Medical studies have linked formaldehyde exposure with nasal cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen.  Studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have found formaldehyde to be a probable human carcinogen and workers with high or prolonged exposure to formaldehyde to be at an increased risk for leukemia (particularly myeloid leukemia)  and brain cancer. Read the National Cancer Institute’s factsheet here.

Formaldehyde is one of about two dozen chemical toxins commonly found in homes and wardrobes that are believed by doctors to contribute to Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS). Chemical sensitivities are becoming a growing health problem in the U.S. as the persistent exposure to harsh and toxic chemicals grows. One of the signs of increasing chemical sensitivities is the rise of contact dermatitis caused by formaldehyde resins and other chemicals used in textile finishes. Repeated exposure to even low levels of formaldehyde can create a condition called “sensitization” where the individual becomes very sensitive to the effects of formaldehyde and then even low levels of formaldehyde can cause an “allergic” reaction, such as those suffered by the TSA workers.

Countries such as Austria, Finland, Germany, Norway, Netherlands and Japan have national legislation restricting the presence of formaldehyde in textile products.  But in the United States, formaldehyde levels in fabric is not regulated.   Nor does any government agency require manufacturers to disclose the use of the chemical on labels.  Because it’s used on the fabric, it can show up on any product made from fabric, such as clothing.  And it can show up in any room of the house – in the sheets and pillows on the bed.  In drapery hanging in the living room.  The upholstery on the sofa.  Even in the baseball cap hanging by the door.

“From a consumer perspective, you are very much in the dark in terms of what (fabric or) clothing is treated with,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization. “In many ways, you’re in the hands of the industry and those who are manufacturing our fabrics. And we are trusting them to ensure they are using the safest materials and additives.” [4]

“The textile industry for years has been telling dermatologists that they aren’t using the formaldehyde resins anymore, or the ones they use have low levels,” said Dr. Joseph F. Fowler, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Louisville. “Yet despite that, we have been continually seeing patients who are allergic to formaldehyde and have a pattern of dermatitis on their body that tells us this is certainly related to clothing.”

Often it’s suggested that washing the fabric will get rid of the formaldehyde.  But think about it:  why would a manufacturer put in a wrinkle resistant finish 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?  Manufacturers work long and hard to make sure these finishes do NOT wash out.  At least one study has found that there is  no significant reduction in the amount of formaldehyde after two washings. (5)

So we can add formaldehyde to the list of chemicals which surround us, exposing us at perhaps very low levels for many years.  What this low level exposure is doing to us has yet to be determined.


[1] “New TSA Unifroms Trigger a Rash of Complaints (Formaldehyde)”, The Washington Post, January 5, 2009, Steve Vogel.

[2] Berrens, L. etal., “Free formaldehyde in textiles in relation to formalin contact sensitivity”

[3] Thrasher JD etal., “Immune activation and autoantibodies in humans with long-term inhalation exposure to formaldehyde,” Archive Env. Health, 45: 217-223, 1990.

[4] “When Wrinkle-Free Clothing Also Means Formaldehyde Fumes”, New York Times, Tara Siegel Bernard, December 10, 2010

(5)  Rao S, Shenoy SD, Davis S, Nayak S.,  “Detection of formaldehyde in textiles by chromotropic acid method”. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol 2004;70:342-4.





What is “body burden” – and why is it important to you?

28 07 2010

I just found a website that threw me for a loop:  It’s called Sailhome (www.sailhome.org).

It was started by a regular guy – a physicist living in San Francisco who was the VP of marketing for a semiconductor intellectual property company – named Ron.   Ron’s son, born almost 10 years ago, began to show signs of being developmentally off track by age 2.  By age 3, Ron and his wife had three separate diagnoses trying to label his condition – Asperger’s, PDD-NOS, Autism.

Before age 4, he began receiving treatment guided by the DAN! Protocol.  DAN! doctors feel that autism is a disorder caused by a combination of lowered immune response, external toxins from vaccines and other sources, and problems caused by certain foods. It includes treatment to reduce toxic loads and pathogens, boost immunity, and heal from the complexities of toxic injury.  Some of the major interventions suggested by DAN! practitioners include:

  • Nutritional supplements, including certain vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and essential fatty acids
  • Special diets totally free of gluten (from wheat, barley, rye, and possibly oats) and free of dairy (milk, ice cream, yogurt, etc.)
  • Testing for hidden food allergies, and avoidance of allergenic foods
  • Treatment of intestinal bacterial/yeast overgrowth (with pro-biotics, supplements and other non-pharmaceutical medications)
  • Detoxification of heavy metals through chelation (a potentially hazardous medical procedure)

There are some who debate about whether this approach is safe, proven, or even “quackery”.
But it’s working for Ron’s son –  who is 9 years old in 2010, and largely recovered. Ron says that most people who meet him have no inkling he’s ever been “on the spectrum” – but that successfully navigating through each day’s toxic insults will probably remain a life-long challenge for him.

Sailhome was started by this regular guy, who says he  “parked my career for 6+ years in order to help my son recover, make sure my family stayed intact during the ordeal, and to develop this web site.”

The website is an attempt to “connect the dots”, so that we have a better understanding about how easily toxic exposures occur, the types of illness that results, and how to prevail.

It’s divided into three parts under “Concerns”:

  • Body Burden
  • Excitotoxins
  • Vaccines

I want to concentrate on the “Body Burden” section, because among the chemicals often found in our bodies (contributing to our body burden) are those used most often in textile processing.

Body burden refers to the accumulation of synthetic chemicals – found in substances like household cleaners, fabrics, cosmetics, pest repellants, computers, cell phones – which helped “modernize” our lives in the post World War II chemical age and which are now found in our own bodies. When we hear that some chemicals can damage the environment, we have forgotten that we ARE the environment, as David Suzuki reminds us.  Whatever is “out there” is also inside us.  We live , breathe and eat the products of our modern industrial era, for better or for worse.  Think of it as “the pollution inside people”.

You can get tons of information about body burden on Google, and studies litter the landscape with results showing the effects this chemical onslaught is having on us. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is running the National Biomonitoring Program (NBP) started in 1998. Every two years the NBP attempts to assess exposure to environmental chemicals in the general U.S. population.   Data covering 2001-2002 found that the average adult American body carried 116 toxic synthetic compounds. In other studies, similar chemicals have been detected in the placenta, umbilical cord blood, bloodstream, and body fat of infants as well as in the human breast milk they drink. In a study sponsored by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), researchers at two major laboratories found an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants in the umbilical cord of newborn babies,  indicating that babies are born “pre polluted”. 

Yet many people are not terribly concerned, because the industry and their government tells them that the chemicals found in products are present in such low quantities as to have no effect.  And scientists are trained to believe that “the dose makes the poison” – in other words, it’s commonly thought that a little bit won’t hurt you; that large doses always have greater effects than small doses.  But that simplistic approach overlooks greater harm that is being found at extremely small doses.  If all toxins behaved exactly the same way that might hold true.   But the effect of high doses cannot always be extrapolated to predict what happens at extremely low doses.

The effect of a ‘dose’ is not that simple.  Factors that must be considered include

• Size of dose

• Length of exposure

• Rate of absorption

• Timing

• Individual metabolism

• State of health and nutrition when exposed

• Concurrent exposure to other toxicants — including order of exposures and any  synergies

Here are some of the problems with the assumption that a low dose translates into low risk:

New research is demonstrating that harm can occur at much lower thresholds than previously considered possible.  Hormones, for example, play specific roles, at specific moments in time, throughtout a person’s life.  If the actions of hormones are prevented, interrupted, or increased then the effects can range from subtle to dramatic.

For example, exposure occurring at a young age can cause a subtle change in how a gene expresses itself. This can set up a low-level progression of conditions that eventually leads to some form of cancer.

In other cases the original disruption might occur at a key moment during development in the womb. The dramatic result might be a birth defect, mental retardation or miscarriage.

The amount of chemical necessary to cause these disruptions does not have to be large. A vanishingly small amount is all it takes — “just enough” to alter an event.   The mouse on the left is normal. The mouse on the right was exposed to 1 ppb DES while in the womb.   For years it was assumed that such low exposure would have no effect — until someone checked.

Toxins are often regulated based on finding the level of exposure that causes no harm. This is known as the ‘no observable adverse effects level’ (NOAEL).  But a NOAEL is derived by starting with a high dose and then reducing subsequent doses until no affect is observed misses other harm that can take place (from synergistic reactions with other chemicals in the body) at even lower doses.

These chemicals do not act in a vacuum and the effects cannot be isolated from other variables.  Harm can be amplified when chemicals are combined –  in other words, toxins can make each other more toxic.  For example, a dose of mercury that would kill 1 out of 100 rats, when combined with a dose of lead that would kill 1 out of 1000 rats – kills every rat exposed!  This is called synergistic toxicity.

The timing – and order –  of toxic exposure plays a much more significant role than previously recognized.  Exposures can happen one after the other, or all at once. Combinations of chemicals can produce:

  • Consequences that are significantly different than would be expected from individual exposures.
  • A range of combined acute and chronic effects.
  • Effects that can appear immediately  –  or sometime later.
  • Increased or unexpected harmful effects — including entirely new kinds of effects.

The possible combinations of exposure are huge and knowledge is limited about the effects of mixed exposures. Individual susceptibility adds to the complexity of exposure and resulting outcomes.   As a result, current safety standards based on high dose experiments don’t guarantee shelter from toxic levels of exposure.

Genetic susceptibility plays a role in body burden.  For instance, a large part of the population, possibly more than 20%, are unable to effectively excrete heavy metals. Their burden accumulates faster. Their illnesses are more obvious. They are the “canaries in a coal mine” in an environment that is increasingly toxic.  It’s becoming abundantly clear that both “rare” and “common” illnesses are on the rise, and research is making a connection with body burden. The National Institutes of Health defines a rare disease as one affecting 200,000 or fewer Americans yet:

  • 25 million Americans suffer from one of the nearly 6,000 identified rare diseases.  That rivals the 40 million Americans with one or more of the three “major” diseases: heart disease, cancer or diabetes.

Viruses, bacteria, yeasts, parasites, and mold aggravate body burden at any stage of life. New research demonstrates that viruses can increase susceptibility to heavy metals; or that they increase the uptake of PBDEs.  Beyond the better understood mechanisms of infection, research is revealing that some microorganisms interact directly with chemicals to enhance susceptibility to infection.

A common misconception is that “inactive ingredients will not interact”.
In fact many ingredients do interact, and it is possible for ingredients to change into different chemicals that also interact. A manufacturer may claim a product has been tested and proven to be 100% safe when used as directed. This might be true — there is no requirement to test for synergies.

These are just the highlights of Ron’s eye opening discussion.  Please take a few minutes exploring his web site and others, some of which I’ve listed below:

Resources:

www.sailhome.org

For presentation on PBS and hosted by Bill Moyers on our body burden, see http://www.pbs.org/tradesecrets/problem/bodyburden.html


For the Centers for Disease Control report: www.cdc.gov/exposurereport


For the EWG/Mount Sinai body burden report: www.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden/index.php


For the EPA study on extent of testing for modern chemicals: www.epa.gov/opptintr/chemtest/hazchem.htm


For ideas on what you can do: “Everybody’s Chemical Burden” by Shayna Cohen in The Green Guide #96 May/June 2003, www.thegreenguide.com





Soil and stain resistant finishes

3 02 2010

I grew up with Scotchgard on sofas, Teflon on non-stick pans and GoreTex on my raincoat.  These trademarked items were all made possible through the vast PFC (perfluorocarbon) family of chemicals which has transformed our lives – and the textile industry.  When applied to fabrics, they provide water and stain resistance.  These perfluorocarbons – commonly known as fluorocarbons – are among the most politicized and least understood chemicals used in the textile industry.  Until recently, they were thought to be biologically inert.  No one thinks so now.

The multi-billion dollar “perfluorocarbon” (PFC) industry has emerged as a regulatory priority for scientists and officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because of  a flood of disturbing scientific findings which have been  published  since the late 1990s.  These findings have elevated PFCs to the rogues gallery of highly toxic, extraordinarily persistent chemicals that pervasively contaminate human blood and wildlife the world over. Government scientists are especially concerned because unlike any other toxic chemicals, the most pervasive and toxic members of the PFC family never degrade in the environment.
Here’s a quick dictionary of perfluorochemicals from the Environmental Working Group to give you an overview:

  • Perfluorinated chemicals or Perfluorochemicals (PFC): A chemical family consisting of a carbon backbone fully surrounded by fluorine, which makes them impervious to heat, acid or other forces that typically break down chemical compounds. Sometimes referred to as ‘Teflon’ chemicals.
  • Fluorotelomer: Chemicals that become PFCs when they are released in the environment.  These are the chemicals applied to food packaging, stain resistant clothing, and carpet protection.
  • PFOA: Perfluorooctanoic acid. Breakdown product of fluorotelomers and backbone of many consumer products. Also used as a surfactant to produce PTFE, the Teflon in pans. Sometimes called C8.
  • PFOS: Perfluorooctanyl sulfate. Breakdown product of fluorotelomers that are based on 3M chemistry.
  • C8,  C6, et al: The range of chemicals that are identical to PFOA but with carbon backbones of varying length. PFOA/C8 has 8 carbons, C7 has 7, and so on. These are breakdown products of fluorotelomers.
  • PTFE: Polytetrafluoroetheylene. Polymer used for cookware and other non-stick applications. Brand names include Teflon and Silverstone. A physically expanded form of PTFE is used to make Gore-Tex. PFOA is an ingredient in the manufacture of PTFE.
  • Teflon: Teflon is a brand name, it is not a single chemical. Teflon can refer to PTFE or to a fluorotelomer or to any number of perfluorochemicals. Perfluorochemicals are often termed “Teflon” chemicals or as having “Teflon” chemistry.

Perfluorocarbons  break down within the body and in the environment to PFOA, PFOS and similar chemicals.  (Note: the chemistry here is quite dense; I’ve tried to differentiate between the groups.  Please let me know if I’ve made a mistake!)   They are the most persistent synthetic chemicals known to man. Once they are in the body, it takes decades to get them out – assuming you are exposed to no more. They are toxic in humans with health effects from  increased chloesterol to stroke and cancer. Alarmed by the findings from toxicity studies, the EPA announced on December 30, 2009, that PFC’s (long-chain perfluorinated chemicals)would be on a “chemicals of concern” list and action plans could prompt restrictions on PFC’s and the other three chemicals on the list. ( The other  three chemicals on the list are polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), phthalates and short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs)  Three of these four chemicals are used in textile processing.)

Although little PFOA can be found in the finished product, the breakdown of the fluorotelomers used on paper products and fabric treatments might explain how more than 90% of all Americans have these hyper-persistent, toxic chemicals in their blood. A growing number of researchers believe that fabric-based, stain-resistant coatings, which are ubiquitous, may be the largest environmental source of this controversial chemical family of PFCs.

There are many finishes on the market that claim to provide soil and stain repellants for fabrics.   Among the more well known are:

  • Scotchguard
  • Teflon
  • Zepel
  • NanoTex
  • GreenShield
  • Crypton Green

Each one of these finishes uses fluorocarbon chemistry to achieve their results; but they all go about it a bit differently.  And therein lies all the difference.

So when you ask for a treatment to make a sofa fabric soil and stain resistant, or a raincoat rain repellant, what does it mean for the environment?  Well, it sorta depends.  I thought we could cover each one of these in one post, but it gets complicated.  So next week we’ll look at individual finishes.








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