10 reasons to make sure your sofa choices are upholstered with safely processed fabrics.

28 10 2013

If a fabric is identified as 100%  “cotton” – or even 100% “organic cotton”  —  it’s important to remember that processing the fiber, and then weaving it into fabric, is very chemically intense.  One-quarter of the total weight of the finished fabric is made up of synthetic chemicals, so it’s important to know that the chemicals used in your fabrics are safe! [1]

There have not been a lot of studies which show the effects that chemicals contained in a fabric have on humans as a result of using that fabric, perhaps because there are no interested parties other than universities and government entities.   But there are numerous studies which document the effects which the individual chemicals have on humans – perhaps because the textile industry is so fragmented that the few really large corporations with the resources to do this kind of research tend to finance research which supports  new products (such as DuPont’s PLA fibers or Teijin’s recycling efforts).  But there have been some, and we found the following:

  1. Formaldehyde is used often in finishing textiles to give the fabrics easy care properties (like wrinkle resistance, anti cling, stain resistance, etc.).  Formaldehyde resins are used on almost all cotton/poly sheet sets in the USA.
    1. Formaldehyde is a listed human carcinogen.  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 well documented skin rashes, 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]
      1. In January 2009, new blue uniforms issued to Transportation Security Administration officers 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.
      2. In 2008, more than 600 people joined a class action suit against Victoria’s Secret, claiming horrific skin reactions (and permanent scarring for 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.
      3. Contact dermatitis is a well-known condition, and there are many websites which feature ways to get help.
      4. A study by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found a link in textile workers between length of exposure to formaldehyde and leukemia deaths.[2]
    2. Dioxins:  Main uses of dioxin in relation to textiles is as a preservative for cotton and other fibers during sea transit,  and in cotton bleaching. It is also found in some dyestuffs.  Dioxin is known as one of the strongest poisons which man is able to produce. It causes cancer of the liver and lung, and interferes with the immune system, resulting in a predisposition to infectious diseases and embrional misgrowth.
      1. Studies have found dioxin leached from clothing  onto  the skin of participants:[3]  It was shown that these contaminants are transferred from textiles to human skin during wearing. They were also present in shower water and were washed out of textiles during washing. Extensive evidence was found indicating that contaminated textiles are a major source of chlorinated dioxins and furans in non-industrial sewage sludge, dry cleaning residues and house dust.
    3. Perfluorocarbons (PFC’s)  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. 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.

PFC’s are used in stain resistant finishes/fabrics such as Scotchgard, GoreTex, Crypton, Crypton Green, GreenShield, Teflon:

  1. PFC’s cause developmental and other adverse effects in animals.[4]
  2. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the more exposure children have to PFC’s (perfluorinated compounds), the less likely they are to have a good immune response to vaccinations (click here to read the study).[5]

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PFC’s:

  • Are very persistent in the environment.
  • Are found at very low levels both in the environment and in the blood of the U.S. population.
  • Remain in people for a very long time.
  • Cause developmental and other adverse effects in laboratory animals.

The levels of PFC’s globally are not going down – and in fact there are places (such as China) where the PFC level is going up. And as there is not a “no peeing” part of the pool, the exposure problem deserves international attention.

4. Tributylphosphate – or TBP – is used in the production of synthetic resins and as a flame-retarding plasticizer. It is also used as a primary plasticizer in the manufacture of plastics and as a pasting agent for pigment pastes used in printing. Because it is a strong wetting agent, it is used often in the textile industry.  In addition to being a known skin irritant (click here to see the MSDS with a warning that it causes eye and skin irritation), TBP also causes bladder cancer in rats. (2)

  1. Alaska Airlines flight attendants were given new uniforms in 2010; shortly thereafter many reported “dermal symptoms” (e.g., hives, rash, blisters, skin irritation), while some also referenced respiratory symptoms and eye irritation; some have more recently been diagnosed with abnormal thyroid function. The symptoms apparently occurred only while wearing the new uniforms. (To read the report filed with the Consumer Product Safety Commission by the Association of Flight Attendants, click here. )

The only fact which can be agreed upon between the union, the CPSC and the manufacturer is that some unknown percent of the fabric used to make the uniforms was “contaminated” with TBP, tributylphosphate, as reported by the manufacturer – but since not all the fabric was tested, it is unknown the final percentage of contaminated fabric.

5.  Acrylic fibers are made from acrolynitrile  (also called vinyl cyanide), which is a carcinogen (brain, lung and bowel cancers) and a mutagen, targeting the central nervous system. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acrylonitrile enters our bodies through skin absorption, as well as inhalation and ingestion.  It is not easily recycled nor is it biodegradeable.

  1. Women who work in factories which produce acrylic fibers have seven times the rate of breast cancer as the normal population [6] – those working with nylon have double the risk.

6.  Chemicals used in textile processing which are associated with the immune system include formaldehyde, benzenes, toluene, phthalates. In 2007, The National Institutes of Health and the University of Washington released the findings of a 14 year study that demonstrates those who work with textiles were significantly more likely to die from an autoimmune disease than people who didn’t [7].

  1. Allergies and asthma are both thought to be associated with impaired immune systems.   Twice as many Americans (not just children) have asthma now as 20 yrs ago[8] and 10% of American children now have asthma.[9]
  2. As well as allergies and asthma, there are numerous other ‘chronic inflammatory diseases’ (CIDs) such as Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis which seem to stem from impaired regulation of our immune systems.[10]

7.  Chemicals commonly used in textiles which contribute to developmental disorders (such as (ADD, ADHA, autism, Dyslexia): Bisphenol A, flame retardants, heavy metals (lead, mercury, cadmium), phthalates, PCB’s:

  1. Currently one of every six American children has a developmental disorder of some kind.[11]
  2. Bisphenol A  – used as a finish in the production of synthetic fibers: It mimics estrogens (is an endocrine disruptor) and can cause infertility and cancer.[12] 

8.  PCB’s :  used in flame retardants on fabrics; they are neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors and carcinogenic

  1. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) commissioned psychologists to study children whose mothers were exposed to PCB’s during pregnancy. The researchers found  that the more PCBs  found in the mother’s cord blood, the worse the child did on tests for things such as short-term memory. By age eleven, the most highly exposed kids had an average IQ deficit of 6.2 [13].

9.  Cancer – chemicals used in textile processing which are linked to cancer include formaldehyde, lead, cadmium, pesticides, benzene, vinyl chloride – as well as pesticides on crops: 

  1. all childhood cancers have grown at about 1% per year for the past two decades[14]
  2.  brain cancer in children increased nearly 40% from 1973 to 1994[15]
  3. the environmental attributable fraction of childhood cancer can be between 5% and 90%, depending on the type of cancer[16]

10.  Lead – used in the textile industry in a variety of ways and as a component in dyestuffs -  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.[17]     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.        Lead is used in the textile industry in a variety of ways and under a variety of names:

    1. Lead acetate:                        dyeing of textiles
    2. Lead  chloride                      preparation of lead salts
    3. Lead molybdate                   pigments used in dyestuffs
    4. Lead nitrate                         mordant in dyeing; oxidizer in dyeing(4)

Studies have shown that if children are exposed to lead, either in the womb or in early childhood, their brains are likely to be smaller.[18]

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.

 


[1] Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals, Springer, New York, 2004,  page 609; on behalf of the German Environmental Protection Agency.

[2] Pinkerton, LE, Hein, MJ and Stayner, LT, “Mortality among a cohort of garment
workers exposed to formaldehyde: an update”, Occupational Environmental
Medicine, 2004 March, 61(3): 193-200.

[3] Horstmann, M and McLachlan, M; “Textiles as a source of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurrans (PCDD/F) in human skin and sewage sludge”, Environmental Science and Pollution Research, Vol 1, Number 1, 15-20, DOI: 10.1007/BF02986918  SEE ALSO:  Klasmeier, K, et al; “PCDD/F’s in textiles – part II: transfer from clothing to human skin”, Ecological Chemistry and Geochemistry, University of Bayreuth,  CHEMOSPHERE, 1.1999 38(1):97-108 See Also:  Hansen,E and Hansen, C; “Substance Flow Analysis for Dioxin 2002”, Danish Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Project No.811 2003

[4] Philippe Grandjean, et al, “Serum Vaccine Antibody Concentrations in Children Exposed to Perfluorinated Compounds”, Journal of the American Medical Association,  january 25, 2012

[6] Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi: 10.1136/oem.2009.049817 (abstract: http://oem.bmj.com/content/67/4/263.abstract)
SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp
AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321

[7] Nakazawa, Donna Jackson, “Diseases Like Mine Are a Growing Hazard”, Washington
Post
, March 16, 2008.

[11] Boyle, Coleen A., et al, “Trends in the Prevalence of Developmental Disabilities in U.S. children, 1997-2008”, Pediatrics,  February, 2011.

[12] Grant, Christine; Hauser, Peter; Oxenham, William, “Improving the Thermal Stability of Textile Processing Aids”, www.ntcresearch.org/pdf-rpts/AnRp04/C01-NS08-A4.pdf

[13] Shulevitz, Judith, “The Toxicity Panic”, The New Republic, April 7, 2011.

[15] New York Times, “New Toxins Suspected as Cancer Rate Rises in children”, September 29, 1997

[16] Gouveia-Vigeant, Tami and Tickner, Joel, “Toxic Chemicals and Childhood Cancer: a review of the evidence”, U of Massachusetts, May 2003

[17] ‘Safe’ levels of lead still harm IQ”, Associated Press, 2001

[18] Dietrich, KN et al, “Decreased Brain Volume in Adults with Childhood Lead
Exposure”, PLoS Med 2008 5(5): e112.





Sofa cushions – foam, soy foam or latex?

12 09 2013

So we have produced the frame and put in the suspension system.  Next in line are the cushions – something soft to sit on.

In an upholstered piece of furniture, the cushions need a filler of some kind.  Before plastics, our grandparents used feathers, horsehair or wool or cotton batting.  But with the advent of plastics, our lives changed.  Polyurethane foam was introduced as a cushion component in furniture in 1957 –  only a bit more than 50 years ago – and quickly replaced latex, excelsior, cotton batting, horsehair and wool because it was CHEAP!  Imagine – polyfoam cushions at $2 vs. natural latex at $7 or $8.  Price made all the difference.  Today, Eisenberg Upholstery’s website says that “easily 25% of all furniture repairs I see deal with bad foam or padding. The point is start with good foam and you won’t be sorry.”

Cushions are generally measured by two values:

  • The density or weight per cubic foot of polyurethane foam. The higher the number the more it weighs.   Foam that has a density of 1.8 foam, for example, contains 1.8 lbs of foam per cubic foot and foam that is 2.5 foam would have 2.5 lbs of foam per cubic foot.  Density for sofa cushions ranges between 1.6 and 5 or even 6.
  • The second measurement tells you the firmness of the foam  (called the IFD  – the Indentation Force Deflection). The IFD is the feel of the cushion, and tells you how much weight it takes to compress the foam by one third. The lower IFD will sit softer. The higher IFD will sit firmer.  IFD numbers range between 15 to 35

What many people don’t realize is that the density and firmness numbers go hand in hand – you can’t look at one without the other.  They are expressed as density/firmness, for example: 15/30 or 29/52.  The first, 15/15 means that 1.5 pounds of foam per cubic foot will take 30 pounds of weight to compress the foam 33%.  The second example means that 2.9 pounds per cubic foot of foam will take 52 pounds of weight to compress the block one third.

The foam is then wrapped with something to soften the edges – for example,  Dacron or polyester batting, cotton or wool batting or down/feathers.

Lowest quality sofas will not even wrap the (low quality) foam; higher quality sofas have cushions that are made from very high quality foam and wrapped in wool or down.  But as you will see, the foam is itself very problematic.

You will now commonly find in the market polyurethane foam, synthetic or natural latex rubber and the new, highly touted soy based foam.  We’ll look at these individually, and explore issues other than embodied energy :

The most popular type of cushion filler today is polyurethane foam. Also known as “Polyfoam”, it has been the standard fill in most furniture since its wide scale introduction in the 1960’s because of its low cost (really cheap!).  A staggering 2.1 billion pounds of flexible polyurethane foam is produced every year in the US alone.[1]

Polyurethane foam is a by-product of the same process used to make petroleum from crude oil. It involves two main ingredients: polyols and diisocyanates:

  • A polyol is a substance created through a chemical reaction using methyloxirane (also called propylene oxide).
  • Toluene diisocyanate (TDI) is the most common isocyanate employed in polyurethane manufacturing, and is      considered the ‘workhorse’ of flexible foam production.
    • Both methyloxirane  and TDI have been formally identified as carcinogens by the State of California
    • Both are on the List of  Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
    • Propylene oxide and TDI are also among 216 chemicals that have been proven to cause mammary tumors.       However, none of these chemicals have ever been regulated for their potential to induce breast cancer.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers polyurethane foam fabrication facilities potential major sources of several hazardous air pollutants including methylene chloride, toluene diisocyanate (TDI), and hydrogen cyanide.   There have been many cases of occupational exposure in factories (resulting in isocyanate-induced asthma, respiratory disease and death), but exposure isn’t limited to factories: The State of North Carolina forced the closure of a polyurethane manufacturing plant after local residents tested positive for TDI exposure and isocyanate exposure has been found at such places as public schools.

The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has yet to establish exposure limits on carcinogenicity for polyurethane foam. This does not mean, as Len Laycock explains in his series “Killing You Softly”, “that consumers are not exposed to hazardous air pollutants when using materials that contain polyurethane. Once upon a time, household dust was just a nuisance. Today, however, house dust represents a time capsule of all the chemicals that enter people’s homes. This includes particles created from the break down of polyurethane foam. From sofas and chairs, to shoes and carpet underlay, sources of polyurethane dust are plentiful. Organotin compounds are one of the chemical groups found in household dust that have been linked to polyurethane foam. Highly poisonous, even in small amounts, these compounds can disrupt hormonal and reproductive systems, and are toxic to the immune system. Early life exposure has been shown to disrupt brain development.”

“Since most people spend a majority of their time indoors, there is ample opportunity for frequent and prolonged exposure to the dust and its load of contaminants. And if the dust doesn’t get you, research also indicates that toluene, a known neurotoxin, off gases from polyurethane foam products.”

I found this on the Sovn blog:

“the average queen-sized polyurethane foam mattress covered in polyester fabric loses HALF its weight over ten years of use. Where does the weight go? Polyurethane oxidizes, and it creates “fluff” (dust) which is released into the air and eventually settles in and around your home and yes, you breathe in this dust. Some of the chemicals in use in these types of mattresses include formaldehyde, styrene, toluene di-isocyanate (TDI), antimony…the list goes on and on.”

Polyurethane foams are advertised as being recyclable, and most manufacturing scraps (i.e., post industrial) are virtually all recycled – yet the products from this waste have limited applications (such as carpet backing).  Post consumer, the product is difficult to recycle, and the sheer volume of scrap foam that is generated (mainly due to old cushions) is greater than the rate at which it can be recycled – so it  mostly ends up at the landfill.  This recycling claim only perpetuates the continued use of hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals.

Polyfoam has some hidden costs (other than the chemical “witch’s brew” described above):  besides its relatively innocuous tendency to break down rapidly, resulting in lumpy cushions, and its poor porosity (giving it a tendency to trap moisture which results in mold), it is also extremely flammable, and therein lies another rub!

Polyurethane foam is so flammable that it’s often referred to by fire marshals as “solid gasoline.” When untreated foam is ignited, it burns extremely fast. Ignited polyurethane foam sofas can reach temperatures over 1400 degrees Fahrenheit within minutes. Making it even more deadly are the toxic gasses produced by burning polyurethane foam –  such as hydrogen cyanide. The gas was also implicated in the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people, including Great White guitarist Ty Longley, and injured more than 200 others. Tellingly, a witness to that fire, television news cameraman Brian Butler, told interviewers that “It had to be two minutes, tops, before the whole place was black smoke.”   Just one breath of superheated toxic gas can incapacitate a person, preventing escape from a burning structure.

Therefore, flame-retardant chemicals are added to its production when it is used in mattresses and upholstered furniture.   This application of chemicals does not alleviate all concerns associated with its flammability, since polyurethane foam releases a number of toxic substances at different temperature stages. For example, at temperatures of about 800 degrees, polyurethane foam begins to rapidly decompose, releasing gases and compounds such as hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, acetronitrile, acrylonitrile, pyridine, ethylene, ethane, propane, butadine, propinitrile, acetaldehyde, methylacrylonitrile, benzene, pyrrole, toluene, methyl pyridine, methyl cyanobenzene, naphthalene, quinoline, indene, and carbon dioxide.

According to the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, polyurethane foam in furniture is responsible for 30 percent of U.S. deaths from fires each year.

In conclusion, the benefits of polyfoam (low cost) is far outweighed by the disadvantages:  being made from a non-renewable resource (oil),  and the toxicity of main chemical components as well as the toxicity of the flame retardants added to the foam – not to mention the fact that even the best foams begin to break down after around 10 – 12 years of “normal use”.[2]

Now we see ads for a  new miracle product: a bio based foam made from soybeans, which is highly touted as “A leap forward in foam technology, conserving increasingly scarce oil resources while substituting more sustainable options,” as one product brochure describes it. Companies and media releases claim that using soy in polyurethane foam production results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, requires less energy, and could significantly reduce reliance on petroleum. Many companies are jumping on the bandwagon, advertising their green program of using foam cushions with “20% bio based foam” (everybody knows we have to start somewhere and that’s a start, right?).  As Len Laycock,  CEO of Upholstery Arts (which was the first furniture company in the world to introduce Cradle to Cradle product cycle and achieve the Rainforest Alliance Forest Stewardship Council Certification),  says  – who wouldn’t sleep sounder with such promising news?   (I have leaned heavily on Mr. Laycock’s articles on poly and soy foam, “Killing You Softly”, for this post.)

As with so many over hyped ‘green’ claims, it’s the things they don’t say that matter most.  While these claims contain grains of truth, they are a far cry from the whole truth. So called ‘soy foam’ is hardly the dreamy green product that manufacturers and suppliers want people to believe.

To begin, let’s look at why they claim soy foam is green:

  1. it’s made from soybeans, a renewable  resource
  2. it reduces our dependence on fossil  fuels  by  both reducing the amount of fossil fuel needed for      the feedstock  and  by reducing the energy requirements needed to produce the foam.

Are these viable claims?

It’s made from soybeans, a renewable resource:  This claim is undeniably true.   But what they don’t tell you is that this product, marketed as soy or bio-based,  contains very little soy. In fact, it is more accurate to call it ‘polyurethane based foam with a touch of soy added for marketing purposes’. For example, a product marketed as “20% soy based” may sound impressive, but what this typically means is that only 20 % of the polyol portion of the foam is derived from soy. Given that polyurethane foam is made by combining two main ingredients—a polyol and an isocyanate—in approximately equal parts, “20% soy based” translates to a mere 10% of the foam’s total volume. In this example the product remains 90% polyurethane foam and by any reasonable measure cannot legitimately be described as ‘based’ on soy. If you go to Starbucks and buy a 20 oz coffee and add 2-3 soy milk/creamers to it, does it become “soy-based” coffee?

It reduces our dependence on fossil fuels: According to Cargill, a multi-national producer of agricultural and industrial products, including BiOH polyol (the “soy” portion of “soy foam”), the soy based portion of so called ‘soy foam’ ranges from  5% up to a theoretical 40% of polyurethane foam formulations. This means that while suppliers may claim that ‘bio foams’ are based on renewable materials such as soy, in reality a whopping 90 to 95%, and sometimes more of the product consists of the same old petro-chemical based brew of toxic chemicals. This is no ‘leap forward in foam technology’.

It is true that the energy needed to produce soy-based foam is, according to Cargill, who manufactures the soy polyol,  less that that needed to produce the polyurethane foam.  But the way they report the difference is certainly difficult to decipher:  soy based polyols use 23% less energy to produce than petroleum based polyols, according to Cargill’s LCA.   But the formula for the foam uses only 20% soy based  polyols, so by my crude calculations (20% of 50%…) the energy savings of 20% soy based foam would require only 4.6%  less energy than that used to make the petroleum based foam.  But hey, that’s still a savings and every little bit helps get us closer to a self sustaining economy and is friendlier to the planet.

But the real problem with advertising soy based foam as a new, miracle green product is that the foam, whether soy based or not, remains a “greenhouse gas spewing pretroleum product and a witches brew of carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals”, according to Len Laycock.

My concern with the use of soy is not its carbon footprint but rather the introduction of a whole new universe of concerns such as pesticide use, genetically modifed crops, appropriation of food stocks and deforestation.  Most soy crops are now GMO:  according to the USDA, over 91% of all soy crops in the US are now GMO; in 2007, 58.6% of all soybeans worldwide were GMO.  If you don’t think that’s a big deal, please read our posts on these issues (9.23.09 and 9.29.09).  The debate still rages today.  Greenpeace did an expose (“Eating Up The Amazon”) on what they consider to be a driving force behind Amazon rainforest destruction – Cargill’s race to establish soy plantations in Brazil.  You can read the Greenpeace report here, and Cargill’s rejoinder here.

In “Killing You Softly“, another sinister side of  soy based foam marketing is brought to light:

“Pretending to offer a ‘soy based’ foam allows these corporations to cloak themselves in a green blanket and masquerade as environmentally responsible corporations when in practice they are not. By highlighting small petroleum savings, they conveniently distract the public from the fact that this product’s manufacture and use continues to threaten human health and poses serious disposal problems. Aside from replacing a small portion of petroleum polyols, the production of polyurethane based foams with soy added continues to rely heavily on ‘the workhorse of the polyurethane foam industry’, cancer causing toluene diisocyanate (TDI). So it remains ‘business as usual ‘ for polyurethane manufacturers.”

Despite what polyurethane foam and furniture companies imply , soy foam is not biodegradable either. Buried in the footnotes on their website, Cargill quietly acknowledges that, “foams made with BiOH polyols are not more biodegradable than traditional petroleum-based cushioning”. Those ever so carefully phrased words are an admission that all polyurethane foams, with or without soy added, simply cannot biodegrade. And so they will languish in our garbage dumps, leach into our water, and find their way into the soft tissue of young children, contaminating and compromising life long after their intended use.

The current marketing of polyurethane foam and furniture made with ‘soy foam’ is merely a page out the tobacco industry’s current ‘greenwashing’ play book. Like a subliminal message, the polyurethane foam and furniture industries are using the soothing words and images of the environmental movement to distract people from the known negative health and environmental impacts of polyurethane foam manufacture, use and disposal.

Cigarettes that are organic (pesticide-free), completely biodegradable, and manufactured using renewable tobacco, still cause cancer and countless deaths. Polyurethane foam made with small amounts of soy derived materials still exposes human beings to toxic, carcinogenic materials, still relies on oil production, and still poisons life.

So what’s a poor consumer to do?  We think there is a viable, albeit expensive, product choice: natural latex (rubber). The word “latex” can be confusing for consumers, because it has been used to describe both natural and synthetic products interchangeably, without adequate explanation. This product can be 100% natural (natural latex) or 100% man-made (derived from petrochemicals) – or it can be a combination of the two – the so called “natural latex”.   Also, remember latex is rubber and rubber is latex.

  • Natural latex – The raw material for  natural latex comes from a renewable resource – it is obtained from the sap of the Hevea Brasiliensis (rubber) tree, and was once widely used for cushioning.  Rubber trees are cultivated, mainly in South East Asia,  through a new planting and replanting program by large scale plantation and small farmers to ensure a continuous sustainable supply of natural  latex.  Natural latex is both recyclable and biodegradeable, and is mold, mildew and dust mite resistant.  It is not highly  flammable and does not require fire retardant chemicals to pass the Cal 117 test.  It has little or no off-gassing associated with it.    Because natural rubber has high energy production costs (although a  smaller footprint than either polyurethane or soy-based foams [3]),  and is restricted to a limited supply, it is more costly than petroleum based foam.
  • Synthetic latex – The terminology is very confusing, because synthetic latex is often referred to simply as  “latex” or even “100% natural latex”.  It is also known as styrene-butadiene rubber  (SBR).   The chemical styrene is  toxic to the lungs, liver, and brain.  Synthetic additives are added to achieve stabilization.    Often however, synthetic latex  can be made of combinations of polyurethane and natural latex, or a  combination of 70% natural latex and 30% SBR.  Most stores sell one of these versions under the term “natural latex” – so caveat emptor!    Being  petroleum based, the source of supply for the production of  synthetic latex is certainly non-sustainable and diminishing as well.

Natural latex is breathable, biodegradeable,  healthier (i.e., totally nontoxic, and mold & mildew proof) and lasts longer than polyfoam – some reports say up to 20 times longer.

Is there really a question as to which to buy?


[1] DFE 2008 Office Chair Foam;  http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/DFE2008_Office_Chair_Foam#Basics

[2] http://www.foamforyou.com/Foam_Specs.htm

[3] Op cit., http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/DFE2008_Office_Chair_Foam#Basics





What’s the “new” asbestos?

1 05 2013

What does asbestos have to do with fabrics?

Asbestos has been used in fabrics for centuries – the story goes that Roman soldiers (or, depending on the story, wealthy Persians) would clean asbestos napkins by throwing them into the fire – and they’d emerge clean and white. During the Middle Ages, some merchants would sell crosses made of asbestos, which looked just like wooden crosses, and claim they were from the “true cross” – the very same cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. To prove it they’d show that the cross wouldn’t burn.

Chrysotile or white asbestos is the form that was used almost exclusively by the textile industry. While some types of asbestos are characterized by brittle, needle-like fibers, chrysotile asbestos fibers are as soft and pliable as cotton or flax, which makes them ideal for weaving into cloth. The special characteristics of asbestos (nearly fireproof, chemical resistance, and high tensile strength) means that from the 19th through the 20th centuries, it was used a lot for specialty applications in fabrics, such as:

• Theater, school auditorium, and other public building curtains and seating upholstery fabrics
• Firefighter and industrial worker protective garments and gloves
• Boiler and blast furnace cloths and blankets
• Welding blankets
• Circus and camping tents
• Military textiles
• Laboratory worker protective garments
• Public building displays such as banners, signage, flags, and much more

Asbestos is an example of one of the common misconceptions people today have about products made with “natural” ingredients. You often see the word natural applied to products to make them more appealing, and by implication we think they’re good (or at least not bad) for us.

Asbestos is a 100% natural product – a naturally occurring mineral that was plentiful and therefore inexpensive. But asbestos is one of those “natural” ingredients that can never be good for us, unlike water – another natural ingredient that we need (but only so much of – you can drown in too much of this good thing).

The first documented case of asbestos-related ailments occurred in 1897, when a Viennese physician attributed emaciation and pulmonary problems to asbestos dust inhalation. The first documented case of an asbestos-related death was reported in 1906 when the autopsy of an asbestos worker revealed lung fibrosis. In 1917 several studies observed that asbestos workers were dying unnaturally young.

Because many fabrics produced from the 1940s to the 1970s were made with asbestos fibers, textile workers were especially at risk of asbestos exposure. In fact, in 1947, an industry group called the Asbestos Textile Institute (ATI) commissioned a study on the risks of asbestos to textile factory workers and found that the industry should re-examine its threshold limit for asbestos exposure. But it was never acted upon – because the ATI believed it would damage the industry if it was made public.(1)

As the United States and many European countries began to look at the environmental and occupational health regulations surrounding the use of asbestos in products, world production has been shifted to third world countries. Although use has decreased substantially since the 1980s, it has not been eliminated.(2) Worldwide, 54 countries (including those in the European Union) have banned the new use of asbestos, in whole or in part. But in the United States, asbestos is still legally used in over 3,000 different consumer products, predominantly building insulation (and other building materials) – in fact, only six categories of products can NOT contain asbestos: flooring felt, rollboard, and corrugated, commercial, or specialty paper.(3)

So today, asbestos remains in millions of structures throughout the United States, 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 — like 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.

Today, many researchers and medical doctors have provided irrefutable evidence about the dangers of asbestos and asbestos exposure. When asbestos is broken up, its microscopic crystal particles can remain airborne for prolonged periods of time, and when inhaled can cause a multitude of health problems.

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.
Cancer — Cancer 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.

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.(4) 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.(5) 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? No – the U.S. EPA reports that asbestos related deaths are increasing.

asbestos

Asbestos is an example of a substance that is deadly, but not for a long time after exposure: certain chemicals, such as asbestos, have extraordinarily long latency periods – in other words, time from exposure to time disease is noted can be 20 – 50 years. The ongoing increase in asbestos mortality in the US is due largely to this 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. Dr. Richard Lemen, a former assistant U.S. surgeon general, estimates the death toll from asbestos at 500,000 people in the next 30 years.(6) In a 2005 study, RAND similarly projected 432,465 asbestos-related cancer deaths from 1965 through 2029; this number excludes fatal cases of asbestosis.(7)

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”(8) We hope this is not a precursor for other epidemics of chemicals with a similar latency period – which is why so often we hear of this chemical or that being the “new asbestos”, such as nanotechnology, PBDE’s or climate-change litigation for example – because these were all widely adopted before being well understood, yet 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.). And we keep harping on the fact that we continue to live with chemicals in many consumer products, including fabrics, that are full of chemicals that we know nothing about

Next week I’ll tell you what my nomination would be for the “new asbestos”.

(1)http://www.asbestos.net/exposure/risks/asbestos-industry-and-products
(2)In 2010, Washington State banned asbestos in automotive brakes starting in 2014.
(3)http://www.banasbestos.us/
(4)http://www.allaboutmalignantmesothelioma.com/asbestos-3-uses.htm
(5)Environmental Working Group, http://www.ewg.org/sites/asbestos/facts/fact1.php
(6)http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/07/21/97624/asbestos-us-legacy-may-be-half.html
(7) Ibid.
(8)http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.1002285





How to buy a “quality” sofa – part 3 (foam)

4 09 2012

In an upholstered piece of furniture, the cushions need a filler of some kind.  Before plastics, our grandparents used feathers, horsehair or wool or cotton batting.  But with the advent of plastics, our lives changed.  You will now commonly see polyurethane foam, synthetic or natural latex rubber and the new, highly touted soy based foam.

In putting together this information on foams, I  leaned heavily on a series of blog postings by Len Laycock (CEO of Upholstery Arts), called “Killing Me Softly”.   It saddens me to have found out that Upholstery Arts is no longer selling furniture.

The most popular type of cushion filler today is polyurethane foam. Also known as “Polyfoam”, it has been the standard fill in most furniture since its wide scale introduction in the 1960’s because of its low cost (really cheap!).  A staggering 2.1 billion pounds of flexible polyurethane foam is produced every year in the US alone.[1]

Polyurethane foam is a by-product of the same process used to make petroleum from crude oil. It involves two main ingredients: polyols and diisocyanates:

  • A polyol is a substance created through a chemical reaction using methyloxirane (also called propylene oxide).
  • Toluene diisocyanate (TDI) is the most common isocyanate employed in polyurethane manufacturing, and is considered the ‘workhorse’ of flexible foam production.
    • Both methyloxirane and TDI have been formally identified as carcinogens by the State of California
    • Both are on the List of Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
    • Propylene oxide and TDI are also among 216 chemicals that have been proven to cause mammary tumors. However, none of these chemicals have ever been regulated for their potential to induce breast cancer.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers polyurethane foam fabrication facilities potential major sources of several hazardous air pollutants including methylene chloride, toluene diisocyanate (TDI), and hydrogen cyanide.   There have been many cases of occupational exposure in factories (resulting in isocyanate-induced asthma, respiratory disease and death), but exposure isn’t limited to factories: The State of North Carolina forced the closure of a polyurethane manufacturing plant after local residents tested positive for TDI exposure and isocyanate exposure has been found at such places as public schools.

The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has yet to establish exposure limits on carcinogenicity for polyurethane foam. This does not mean, as Len Laycock explains, “that consumers are not exposed to hazardous air pollutants when using materials that contain polyurethane. Once upon a time, household dust was just a nuisance. Today, however, house dust represents a time capsule of all the chemicals that enter people’s homes. This includes particles created from the break down of polyurethane foam. From sofas and chairs, to shoes and carpet underlay, sources of polyurethane dust are plentiful. Organotin compounds are one of the chemical groups found in household dust that have been linked to polyurethane foam. Highly poisonous, even in small amounts, these compounds can disrupt hormonal and reproductive systems, and are toxic to the immune system. Early life exposure has been shown to disrupt brain development.”

“Since most people spend a majority of their time indoors, there is ample opportunity for frequent and prolonged exposure to the dust and its load of contaminants. And if the dust doesn’t get you, research also indicates that toluene, a known neurotoxin, off gases from polyurethane foam products.”

I found this on the Sovn blog:

“the average queen-sized polyurethane foam mattress covered in polyester fabric loses HALF its weight over ten years of use. Where does the weight go? Polyurethane oxidizes, and it creates “fluff” (dust) which is released into the air and eventually settles in and around your home and yes, you breathe in this dust. Some of the chemicals in use in these types of mattresses include formaldehyde, styrene, toluene di-isocyanate (TDI), antimony…the list goes on and on.”

Polyurethane foams are advertised as being recyclable, and most manufacturing scraps (i.e., post industrial) are virtually all recycled – yet the products from this waste have limited applications (such as carpet backing).  Post consumer, the product is difficult to recycle, and the sheer volume of scrap foam that is generated (mainly due to old cushions) is greater than the rate at which it can be recycled – so it  mostly ends up at the landfill.  This recycling claim only perpetuates the continued use of hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals.

Polyfoam has some hidden costs (other than the chemical “witch’s brew” described above):  besides its relatively innocuous tendency to break down rapidly, resulting in lumpy cushions, and its poor porosity (giving it a tendency to trap moisture which results in mold), it is also extremely flammable, and therein lies another rub!

Polyurethane foam is so flammable that it’s often referred to by fire marshals as “solid gasoline.” Therefore, flame-retardant chemicals are added to its production when it is used in mattresses and upholstered furniture.   This application of chemicals does not alleviate all concerns associated with its flammability, since polyurethane foam can release a number of toxic substances at different temperature stages. For example, at temperatures of about 800 degrees, polyurethane foam begins to rapidly decompose, releasing gases and compounds such as hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, acetronitrile, acrylonitrile, pyridine, ethylene, ethane, propane, butadine, propinitrile, acetaldehyde, methylacrylonitrile, benzene, pyrrole, toluene, methyl pyridine, methyl cyanobenzene, naphthalene, quinoline, indene, and carbon dioxide. Of these chemicals, carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide are considered lethal. When breathed in, it deprives the body of oxygen, resulting in dizziness, headaches, weakness of the limbs, tightness in the chest, mental dullness, and finally a lapse of concsiousness that leads to death. Many of these are considered potential carcinogens or have been associated with a number of adverse health effects.

In conclusion, the benefits of polyfoam (low cost) must be evaluated with the disadvantages:  being made from a non-renewable resource (oil),  and the toxicity of main chemical components as well as the toxicity of the flame retardants added to the foam.

Natural or Synthetic latex: The word “latex” can be confusing for consumers, because it has been used to describe both natural and synthetic products interchangeably, without adequate explanation. This product can be 100% natural (natural latex) or 100% man-made (derived from petrochemicals) – or it can be a combination of the two – the so called “natural latex”.   Also, remember latex is rubber and rubber is latex.

  • Natural latex – The raw material for natural latex comes from a renewable resource – it is obtained from the sap of the Hevea Brasiliensis (rubber) tree, and was once widely used for cushioning.  Rubber trees are cultivated, mainly in South East Asia, through a new planting and replanting program by large scale plantation and small farmers to ensure a continuous sustainable supply of natural latex.  Natural latex is both recyclable and biodegradeable, and  is mold, mildew and dust mite resistant.  It is not highly flammable and does not require fire retardant chemicals to pass the Cal 117 test.  It has little or no off-gassing associated with it. Because natural rubber has high energy production costs (although a smaller footprint than either polyurethane or soy-based foams[2]),  and is restricted to a limited supply, it is more costly than petroleum based foam.
  • Synthetic latex – The terminology is very confusing, because synthetic latex is often referred to simply as “latex” or even “100% natural latex”.  It is also known as styrene-butadiene rubber  (SBR).   The chemical styrene is toxic to the lungs, liver, and brain.  Synthetic additives are added to achieve stabilization.    Often however, synthetic latex can be made of combinations of polyurethane and natural latex, or a combination of 70% natural latex and 30% SBR.  Most stores sell one of these versions under the term “natural latex” – so caveat emptor!  Being  petroleum based, the source of supply for the production of synthetic latex is certainly non-sustainable and diminishing as well.

Next I would like to talk about those new soy based foams that are all the rage, but I don’t want to bite off too much.   It’s a big topic and one that deserves its own post.   So that’s going to be next week’s post!





PERC – PCE – perchloroethylene

2 04 2012

The solvents used in dry cleaning establishments have long been known to effect human health.

Perchloroethylene  –  also called perchlorethylene, tetrachloroethylene, tetrachlorethylene, PCE, or PERC – is used for dry cleaning clothing and  fabrics. Perc removes stains and dirt without causing clothing to shrink or otherwise get damaged. You know that sweetish smell from a newly dry cleaned sweater?  That’s it.  PERC may also be an ingredient in spot removers, rug and upholstery cleaners, water repellents, aerosols, adhesives, sealants, wood cleaners and polishes, lubricants, typewriter correction fluid and shoe polish.

From "Greening the Apple" blogspot.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists PERC as a “likely carcinogen” and by the World Health Organization as a “probable carcinogen” because long-term exposure to perchloroethylene can cause leukemia and cancer of the skin, colon, lung, larynx, bladder, and urogenital tract; recent studies have been published linking PERC to breast cancer.[1] The US Environmental Protection Agency says that it causes liver and kidney damage in humans; workers exposed to large amounts of PERC experience memory loss and confusion; if you are pregnant, long-term exposure to perchloroethylene may damage a developing fetus.  Just not something you want to live with.

It has been found that homes with freshly dry cleaned clothing have perchloroethylene levels that are 2 to 30 times higher than average background levels.[2]   The U.S. Department of Labor, in its Occupational Safety & Health guidelines (OSHA), attempts to protect workers by limiting their exposure to PERC to 100 parts per million.[3]

Last year a high school student, Alexa Dantzler, looking for a memorable science-fair project, decided to look at what chemicals might remain in dry cleaned clothing.  But since she didn’t have access to the proper equipment, she emailed several chemistry professors with her idea and hit gold with Paul Roepe, then-chairman of Georgetown University’s chemistry department.  He took on the project “for fun.

According to The Washington Post (read article here):

… what started out as something to “sponsor the kid’s curiosity” prompted a chain reaction in the university lab: an email exchange, an invitation to collaborate and, last week, a paper published online in a peer-reviewed environmental journal. The paper gives new details about the amount of a toxic chemical that lingers in wool, cotton and polyester clothing after it is dry-cleaned.

“At the end of the day, nobody, I mean nobody, has previously done this simple thing — gone out there to several different dry cleaners and tested different types of cloth” to see how much of the chemical persists, said Roepe, who supervised the study.

Dantzler, with help from her mother, sewed squares of wool, cotton, polyester and silk into the lining of seven identical men’s jackets, then took them to be cleaned from one to six times at seven Northern Virginia dry cleaners. The cleaners, who were not identified, had no prior knowledge of the experiment.

She kept the patches in plastic bags in the freezer — to preserve the samples — and went to Georgetown once or twice a week to do the chemical analysis with two graduate students, Katy Sherlach and Alexander Gorka. The research team found that perchloroethylene, a dry cleaning solvent that has been linked to cancer and neurological damage, stayed in the fabrics and that levels increased with repeat cleanings, particularly in wool. The study was published online  in  Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.[4]

What they found is consistent with most regulations concerning fabrics:  that although there are voluntary guidelines for atmospheric concentrations of PERC in the workplace, there are no standards which exist for levels in dry-cleaned fabric.

According to the team, it is difficult to say how much risk consumers accept from wearing dry cleaned clothing for a year – or from breathing air from a closet full of dry cleaned clothes.  It’s most likely that the risk depends on how much and how long – sort of like UV exposure and cigarette smoke.

How much PERC did they find in the clothing?  The study found that cotton and polyester absorption of PERC leveled off after two or three cleaning cycles, but that levels in wool increased with each of six cycles.   Researchers calculated what they thought would happen if four people in a car each had on a freshly dry cleaned item of wool clothing.  After one hour of driving, with windows closed, the PERC circulating in the air would produce a level as high as 126 parts per million – which both exceeds the OSHA guidelines for workplace safety, as well as the limits widely recommended by industry and government scientists.

It’s possible that the dry cleaning delivery man might be exposed to more PERCE than the workers at the plant, who are covered by OSHA regulations.

And yes, Alexa Dantzler won first place in chemistry at last year’s Arlington county science fair.  Way to go Alexa!

How to minimize exposure to perchloroethylene:

    • One of the easiest ways to avoid PERC is by choosing alternatives to dry-cleaning your clothes. Be aware, however, that some non-PERC dry-cleaners use alternatives, sometimes called “hydrocarbon” treatments, that are also toxic. Wetcleaning, a professional alternative to perchloroethylene that uses biodegradable soaps  instead, is also available. Look for a cleaner near you at the Professional Wetcleaning Network’s website . There is ongoing research into different ways to dry clean without perc, so check local professionals to see what they might be looking into to move away from perc.
    • Another good option, but less available, is CO2 cleaning, which uses liquid carbon dioxide to clean clothes. Check the Pollution Control Center site at Occidental College for wet-cleaners and CO2 cleaners near you. Another resource is the National Clearing House for Professional Wet Cleaners.
      • If dry-cleaned goods have a strong chemical odor when you pick them up, ask your cleaner to dry them further. If it keeps happening, switch to a different cleaner.
      • Air out dry-cleaned garments by taking them out of the plastic sheath and hanging them briefly outdoors before bringing them indoors.
  • Some clothing labeled “Dry Clean Only” may be safely handwashed, according to Consumer Reports. “Dry Clean Only” labels are overused because manufacturers prefer to err on the side of caution.
    • Handwash plain-weave rayon and solid-colored silks separately in cool water, squeeze rather than wring, and lay flat to dry.
    • Wash sweaters in cold water by hand or machine; cashmere and cotton do best in the washing machine inside out; dry sweaters flat, except cotton sweaters, which can be machine-dried.
    • Angora sweaters and structured or lined garments should be sent to a professional cleaner, however.

[1] Aschengrau, A., et al., “Perchloroethylene-Contaminated Drinking Water and the Risk of Breast Cancer: Additional Results from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA”, Environmental Health Perspectives,  February 2003

[2] Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition (2011); U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program. http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/twelfth/profiles/Tetrachloroethylene.pdf

[4]  Sherlach, K; Gorka, A., Dantzler, A and Roepe, P.,  “Quantification of perchloroethylene residues in dry cleaned fabrics”, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry;  20 September 2011





Real life examples of the effects of our textile choices

10 02 2012

We’ve been told that using greener, healthier products of all kinds is a key way to avoid sickness and even serious diseases. Small children, being particularly vulnerable, undoubtedly need their parent’s help in this respect, so parents are urged to protect their children from exposure to the huge amount of additives, colors, toxins and chemicals which find their way into our food, products and houses.

But come on, seriously?  We’re all busy people and who has the time  – let alone the money – to make sure every product is safe.

That’s a good argument and one I work hard to dispute.  Which is why I like to find real life examples of what our textile choices (since this is a blog about fabrics) are really doing to us in the real world.

The first example you may have read about:  According to a study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association,  the more exposure children have to chemicals called perfluorinated compounds, the less likely they are to have a good immune response to vaccinations (click here to read the study).  “Routine childhood immunizations are a mainstay of modern disease prevention. The negative impact on childhood vaccinations from PFCs should be viewed as a potential threat to public health,” said Dr. Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health and the report’s lead author.

Perfluorinated compounds (PFC’s) have been used for decades  in many products, including stain resistant fabrics. In our blog post two years ago about PFC’s, we said: 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. (Click here to read that blog post about these chemicals in fabrics.)

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PFC’s:

  • Are very persistent in the environment.
  • Are found at very low levels both in the environment and in the blood of the U.S. population.
  • Remain in people for a very long time.
  • Cause developmental and other adverse effects in laboratory animals.

Studies in animals have shown that PFCs can weaken their immune systems,  but the effects in people have been poorly documented.  Dr.  Grandjean wanted to know if the same weakened immune system response seen in animals was happening in children.   So he led a team that studied nearly 600 kids in the remote  Faroe Islands, which lie about halfway between Scotland and Iceland.

The Faroese have levels of PFCs similar to those of U.S. residents. Grandjean figured if the chemicals were having an effect, it would show up in the way kids’ bodies responded to vaccinations.

Normally, a vaccine causes the production of lots of antibodies to a specific germ. But Grandjean says the response to tetanus and diphtheria vaccines was much weaker in 5-year-olds whose blood contained relatively high levels of PFCs.  “We were surprised by the steep negative associations, which suggest that PFCs may be more toxic to the immune system than current dioxin exposures,” said Grandjean. (1)

And how do fabrics contribue to exposure to PFC’s?  There are many finishes on the market that claim to provide soil and stain repellants for fabrics – all of which contain some form of PFC’s.  The only difference among them are they way they use the chemistry to achieve their results.   Among the more well known are:

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

So think about this the next time you’re about to buy children’s clothing that is stain resistant – or really any fabric in your house that claims stain resistance, since the fabric will expose you and your children to PFC’s.

This is not a frivolous concern, because the levels of PFC’s globally are not going down – and in fact there are places (such as China) where the PFC level is going up.  And as there is not a “no peeing” part of the pool, the exposure problem deserves international attention.

The second example involves yet another chemical which is used in textile processing which I had not known about.  But because the textile industry has one of the longest and most complicated industrial chains in the manufacturing industry that shouldn’t surprise me.

It seems that Alaska Airlines flight attendants were given new uniforms early last year.  Shortly after the attendants put on these new uniforms, many reported “dermal symptoms” (e.g., hives, rash, blisters, skin irritation), while some also referenced respiratory symptoms and eye irritation; some have more recently been diagnosed with abnormal thyroid function. The symptoms apparently occurred only while wearing the new uniforms.  (To read the report filed with the Consumer Product Safety Commission by the Association of Flight Attendants, click here. )

And now there is a lot of name calling between the uniform manufacturers and the union representing the flight attendants, but a few things are certain:

  1. Some unknown percent of the fabric used to make the uniforms was “contaminated” with TBP, tributylphosphate, as reported by the manufacturer  – but since not all the fabric was tested, it is unknown the final percentage of contaminated fabric.  Later testing of individual uniforms also indicated the presence of TBP, according to the report filed by the Association of Flight Attendants.
  2. Alaska Airlines and the manufacturer tells the flight attendants that these chemicals can be removed by washing or dry cleaning.

So.  But first, what is this substance?

Tributylphosphate – or TBP – is used in the production of synthetic resins and as a flame-retarding plasticizer.  It is also used as a primary plasticizer in the manufacture of plastics and as a pasting agent for pigment pastes used in printing.  Because it is a strong wetting agent, it is used often in the textile industry.

Many fabrics have resins applied as a functional finish – from crease and stain resistance to antibacterial resistance.   Often these resins have that other notorious skin sensitizer as a component – formaldehyde.   These finishes are designed to bind with the fabric and not wash or wear out – after all, how happy would you be with your new crease resistant pants if they wrinkled after one or two washes?  Or even 20?

In addition to being a known skin irritant (click here to see the MSDS with a warning that it causes eye and skin irritation), TBP also causes bladder cancer in rats. (2)

So we have a chemical which is often used in the textile industry in a number of different ways, which is known to cause skin and eye irritation in humans – and flight attendants are complaining of skin irritation after wearing uniforms that have been tested and are found to contain TBP (3).

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck:  seems a pretty good hypothesis that something in the fabric is causing the distress – and since tests found both TBP as well as formaldehyde in the fabrics, it seems logical to conclude that one or both might be the culprit.    I would also argue that wearing this fabric puts these flight attendants at risk of cancer – not something that they will get tomorrow, like the skin irritation – more like 20 years from now.

The flight attendants are between a rock and a hard place, because they must wear these uniforms in order to perform their jobs.  But what about the rest of us?  Why are we still supporting the production of fabrics which contain these chemicals which are doing us harm?  Why are we not acting to protect our children, these children who are suffering from what is being called an epidemic of chronic illness?(4) .  Asthma, autism, ADHD, allergies, juvenile diabetes, celiac disease, obesity and many other illness are growing at astounding rates – and even “healthy” children are showing signs of chronic immunological impairment and unhealthy physiological imbalances.  And we do not know why – though every scholar explaining the problem refers at some point to the chemical toxicity surrounding us.

I’m just mystified by the reasoning behind our choices.  I know a woman who is very well off (thereby negating the argument that cost might be a factor) who just had a baby – and though the products  that are both easily found and discussed in the media (like a cute, safe crib) were vetted for safety, harder-to-find products were just ignored.  “Cute” triumphed.  So the child wears darling dresses and sleeps on sheets and with blankets that are made of conventionally produced fabric.   Her skin is slowly absorbing the many processing chemicals used to make the fabric.  But she doesn’t have skin sensitivity to any of the processing chemicals, so there is no immediate effect and no effort to change buying habits.   But even though they can’t be seen, the changes are going on slowly, at the cellular level.    And some of the changes won’t be apparent right away  –  mom may not even be alive when the effect of this exposure becomes known –  while others might, such as those in the long sad list of neurological problems.  But because there is no outcry in the media, and we’re not paying attention,  who would link behavior problems with the fabric choices being made by mom every day?

(1) http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2012/01/pfcs-may-hinder-vaccine response/

(2) http://toxsci.oxfordjournals.org/content/40/2/247.short

(3) http://www.alaskamec.org/.pdf/Complaint%20from%20AFA%20to%20CPSC%2024%20Oct%202011.pdf

(4) Lambert, Beth, “A Compromised Generation“, Sentient Publications, 2010.





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.





Pesticide residues in cotton fibers

19 05 2011

We’re often asked if there are traces of pesticides in conventionally grown natural fibers – because people make the assumption that if pesticides are used on the plants, then there must be residuals in the fibers.  And because the chemicals used on conventional cotton crops are among the most toxic known, such as aldicarb ( which  can kill a man by just one drop absorbed thru the skin) and endosulfan (thought to be the most important source of fatal poisoning among cotton farmers in West Africa), as well as a host of confirmed carcinogens[1],   that seems a reasonable cause for concern.

But that question misses the whole point, as we’ll explain.

According to the modern agricultural industry,  cotton agriculture uses integrated pest management (IPM) systems to promote cotton’s environmental stance (author’s note:  reduction of costs doesn’t hurt either).

As the result, the use of chemicals on cotton crops is down:  On average “only” 20 lbs. of pesticides are applied to an acre of cotton today – as opposed to about 40 lbs. in the past. 

IPM is a great advance on the part of agriculture to use biological controls.  But 20 lbs. per acre is still a lot of really bad chemicals being used.  So the Bremen Cotton Exchange,[2]  on behalf of the industry, has sponsored a series of tests which were carried out by the Hohehnstein Research Institute  according to Oeko-Tex 100 Standard (also known as Eco Tex).  They tested for 228 possible substances including:

  • Formaldehyde
  • PCP
  • pH Value
  • Heavy Metals
  • Defoliants

All the test series confirm that the treatment and use of pesticides in cotton production, according to their report,  “does not pose any hazard for the processor of the raw material and none at all for the end consumer.”  This is the industry’s position, based on the test results from their studies.  On the other hand, there are other studies that do find pesticide residues in cotton textiles –  of nine different organochlorine pesticides at levels of 0.5 to 2 mg/kg.[3]  So there seems to be a difference of opinion as to whether there are pesticide residues in the cotton fibers or finished cloth.

But there is not much difference of opinion in the fact that pesticide residues pollute our soils.    Many different studies have found pesticide residues which pollute agriculture soils in various parts of the world. [4]

“Pesticide Residues in Soil & Water from Four Areas of Mali”, From Journal of Agricultural, Food & Environmental Sciences, Vol 1, issue 1, 2007

And just recently,  Science News reported that children exposed in the womb to pesticides have lower IQs than do kids with virtually no exposure.  According to Science News:

“Three new studies began in the late 1990s and followed children through age 7. Pesticide exposures stem from farm work in more than 300 low-income Mexican-American families in California, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and their colleagues report. In two comparably sized New York City populations, exposures likely trace to bug spraying of homes or eating treated produce.”

Among the California families, the average IQ for the 20 percent of children with the highest prenatal organophosphate exposure was 7 points lower compared with the least-exposed group.

“There was an amazing degree of consistency in the findings across all three studies,” notes Bruce Lanphear of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. And that’s concerning, he says, because a drop of seven IQ points “is a big deal. In fact, half of seven IQ points would be a big deal, especially when you see this across a population.”[5]

There is no dispute about the fact that cotton crops are grown using many millions of pounds of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.  And research shows that extensive and intensive use of synthetic fertilizers, soil additives, defoliants and other substances wreak terrible havoc on soil, water, air and many, many living things – such as in the study cited above.

So what is the point that’s being missed?  Because conventional agriculture – despite advances in IPM – uses so many chemicals which are bad for us, shouldn’t the crops be grown organically?  That cuts to the chase –  in organically raised crops, there would be no toxic residues in the fibers, nor would the chemicals be wreaking havoc on our soils, water and air.  So the question of whether there are pesticide residues in the fibers becomes moot.  And though the United States and other countries might have banned the use of some chemicals, such as DDT, they’re still in use in parts of the world.

We’ve often touted the benefits of organic agriculture, and this seems to be yet another.  We think organic farming is so important that we’ll spend some time on the subject in our next few posts – because there are some who say that organic farming is just not the answer.  Are we between a rock and a hard place?


[1] Five of the top nine pesticides used on cotton in the U.S. (cyanide, dicofol, naled, propargite, and trifluralin) are known cancer-causing chemicals. All nine are classified by the U.S. EPA as Category I and II (dangerous chemicals).

[2] The purpose of the Bremen Cotton Exchange is “to maintain and promote the interests of all those connected with the cotton trade”.

[3] Zhang, X., Liao, Q and Zhang, Y, “Simultaneous determination of nine organochlorine pesticide residues in textile by high performance liquid chromatography, SEPU, 2007, 25(3), 380-383.

[4] http://www.scribd.com/doc/55465538/Insecticide-Residues-on-Cotton-Soils ALSO: Journal of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences, Vol 1, Issue 1, 2007; “Pesticide Residues in Soil and Water from Four Cotton Growing Areas of Mali, West Africa   ALSO: Luchini, LC et al., “Monitoring of pesticide residues in a cotton crop soil”, Journal of Environmental Science and Health, January 2000, 35(1): 51-9  SEE ALSO: http://www.bashanfoundation.org/ivan/ivanmapping.pdf





What are endocrine disruptors?

13 04 2011

Many chemicals used in textile processing – and elsewhere in consumer products – have been identified as “endocrine disruptors”.  I never paid too much attention to “endocrine disruptors” because it didn’t sound too dire to me – I preferred to stick to something like “carcinogens” because I knew those caused cancer.   I knew that endocrine disruptors had something to do with hormones, but I didn’t think that interfering with acne or my teenager’s surliness was much of a concern.  Boy was I wrong.

What is an “endocrine disruptor”?

The Environmental Protection Agency defines an endocrine disruptor as an external agent that interferes in some way with the role of natural hormones in the body.  (Hmm.  Still doesn’t sound too bad.)

The endocrine system includes the glands (e.g., thyroid, pituitary gland, pancreas, ovaries, or testes) and their secretions (i.e., hormones), that are released directly into the body’s circulatory system. The endocrine system controls blood sugar levels, blood pressure, metabolic rates, growth, development, aging, and reproduction.  “Endocrine disruptor” is a much broader concept than the terms reproductive toxin, carcinogen, neurotoxin, or teratogen. Scientists use one or more of these terms to describe the types of effects these chemicals have on us.

How do they work?  This is from The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC):

Humans and wildlife must regulate how their bodies function to remain healthy in an ever-changing environment. They do this through a complicated exchange between their nervous and endocrine systems. The endocrine systems in humans and wildlife are similar in that they are made up of internal glands that manufacture and secrete hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers that move internally, start or stop various functions, and are important in determining sleep/wake cycles, stimulating or stopping growth, or regulating blood pressure. Some of the most familiar hormones in humans or wildlife are those that help determine male and female gender, as well as control the onset of puberty, maturation, and reproduction. An endocrine disruptor interferes with, or has adverse effects on, the production, distribution, or function of these same hormones. Clearly, interference with or damage of hormones could have major impacts on the health and reproductive system of humans and wildlife, although not all of the changes would necessarily be detrimental.

But why the fuss over endocrine disruptors and why now?  After all,  scientists had known for over fifty years that DDT can affect the testes and secondary sex characteristics of young roosters[1].

And for almost as long, it has been well known that daughters born to women who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen, early in their pregnancies had a greatly increased risk of vaginal cancer. [2]

And it has been known for over 25 years that occupational exposures to pesticides could “diminish or destroy the fertility of workers.”[3]

It wasn’t until Theo Colborn, a rancher and mother of four who went back to school at age 51 to get her PhD in zoology, got a job at the Conservation Foundation and began to put the pieces together that the big picture emerged.  Theo’s job was to review other scientists’ data, and she noticed that biologists investigating the effects of presumably carcinogenic chemicals on predators in and around the Great Lakes were reporting odd phenomena:

  • Whole communities of minks were failing to reproduce;
  • startling numbers of herring gulls were being born dead, their eyes missing, their bills misshapen;
  • and the testicles of young male gulls were exhibiting female characteristics.

Colborn correlated this data with the presence in the water of organochlorine compounds such as PCBs, DDT, and dieldrin, some of which have hormone-mimicking effects and build up in fatty tissue. Often, the offspring of creatures exposed to chemicals were worse off than the animals themselves.  Colborn concluded that nearly all the symptoms could be traced to things going awry in the endocrine system.

In 1991, Colborn called together a conference, whose participants included biologists, endocrinologists and toxicologists as well as psychiatrists and lawyers, at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin. They produced what become known as the “Wingspread Statement,” the core document of the endocrine-disruption hypothesis, in which these researchers concluded that observed increases in deformities, evidence of declining human fertility and alleged increases in rates of breast, testicular and prostate cancers, as well as endometriosis  are the result of “a large number of man-made chemicals that have been released into the environment”.[4]

Endocrine disruption—the mimicking or blocking or suppression of hormones by industrial or natural chemicals— appeared to be affecting adult reproductive systems and child development in ways that far surpassed cancer, the outcome most commonly looked for by researchers at the time. Potential problems included infertility, genital abnormalities, asthma, autoimmune dysfunction, even neurological disorders involving attention or cognition. In one early study that Colborn reviewed, for instance, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  commissioned psychologists to study children whose mothers ate fish out of the Great Lakes. The researchers found that the children “were born sooner, weighed less, and had smaller heads” than those whose mothers hadn’t eaten the fish. Moreover, the more  PCBs that were found in the mother’s cord blood, the worse the child did on tests for things such as short-term memory. By age eleven, the most highly exposed kids had an average IQ deficit of 6.2.[5]

The endocrine disruptor hypothesis first came to widespread congressional attention in 1996, with the publication of the book Our Stolen Future – by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers.[6]

In the years since the Wingspread conference, many of its fears and predictions have been fleshed out by new technologies that give a far more precise picture of the exquisite damage that toxins can wreak on the human body – and especially on developing fetuses, which are exquisitely sensitive to both the natural hormone signals used to guide its development, and the unexpected chemical signals that reach it from the environment”[7]

Thanks to a computer-assisted technique called microarray profiling, scientists can examine the effects of toxins on thousands of genes at once (before they could study 100 at a time at most). They can also search for signs of chemical subversion at the molecular level, in genes and proteins. This capability means that we are beginning to understand how even tiny doses of certain chemicals may switch genes on and off in harmful ways during the most sensitive period of development.

The endocrine disruption hypothesis has also unleashed a revolution in toxicity theory. The traditional belief that “the dose makes the poison” (the belief that as the dose increases, so does the effect; as the dose decreases, so does its impact)  has proven inadequate in explaining the complex workings of the endocrine system, which involves a myriad of chemical messengers and feedback loops.

Experimental data now  shows conclusively that some endocrine-disrupting contaminants can cause adverse effects at low levels that are different from those caused by high level exposures.  For example, when rats are exposed in the womb to 100 parts per billion of DES, they become scrawny as adults.  Yet exposure of just 1 part per billion causes grotesque obesity.[8] Old school toxicology has always assumed that high dose experiments can be used to predict low-dose results. With ‘dose makes the poison’ thinking, traditional toxicologists didn’t pursue the possibility that there might be effects at levels far beneath those used in standard experiments. No health standards incorporated the possibility.

Jerry Heindel, who heads a branch of the National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) that funds studies of endocrine disruptors, said that a fetus might respond to a chemical at “one hundred-fold less concentration or more, yet when you take that chemical away, the body is nonetheless altered for life”.  Infants may seem fine at birth, but might carry within them a trigger only revealed later in life, often in puberty, when endocrine systems go into hyperdrive. This increases the adolescent’s or adult’s chances of falling ill, getting fat, or becoming infertile – as is the case with DES, where exposure during fetal development doesn’t show up until maturity.

And not just the child’s life, but her children’s lives too.  “Inside the fetus are germ cells that are developing that are going to be the sperm and oocytes for the next generation, so you’re actually exposing the mother, the baby, and the baby’s kids, possibly,” says Heindel.[9]

So it’s also the timing that contributes to the poison.

According to Our Stolen Future, “the weight of the evidence says we have a problem. Human impacts beyond isolated cases are already demonstrable. They involve impairments to reproduction, alterations in behavior, diminishment of intellectual capacity, and erosion in the ability to resist disease. The simple truth is that the way we allow chemicals to be used in society today means we are performing a vast experiment, not in the lab, but in the real world, not just on wildlife but on people.”

Now that I know what “endocrine disruptor” means, I’m not dismissing them any more as mere irritants.


[1] Burlington, F. & V.F. Lindeman,  1950. “Effect of DDT on testes and secondary sex

characteristics of white leghorn cockerels”. Proc. Society for Experimental Biology

and Medicine 74: 48–51.

[2] Herbst, A., H. Ulfelder, and D. Poskanzer. “Adenocarcinoma of the vagina: Association of maternal stilbestrol therapy with tumor appearance in young women,” New England Journal of Medicine, v. 284, (1971) p. 878-881.

[3] Moline, J.M., A.L. Golden, N. Bar-Chama, et al. 2000. “Exposure to hazardous substances

and male reproductive health: a research framework”. Environ. Health Perspect.

108: 1–20.

[4] Shulevitz,Judith, “The Toxicity Panic”, The New Republic, April 7, 2011.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Colborn, Theo, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers. Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? A Scientific Detective Story. New York: Penguin. (1996) 316 p.

[9] Shulevitz,Judith, op. cit.





Do you believe everything you’re told?

30 03 2011

Most of the time, we try to share information with you (which tends to be impersonal), but blogs are supposed to be personal.  Last week, I had a personal experience I have to talk about.  It was an experience that was entirely daunting, and defined for me the kind of mountain we’re trying to climb.

I had taken a very small hand knotted rug into a local business which specializes in cleaning rugs of all kinds.  The clerk was a personable young man who was writing up the order.  After “Name”, “Address” and “Telephone number” he asked whether I wanted their stain repellent applied to the rug.

Reader, I couldn’t help myself:  not only did I decline, but I mentioned that these stain repellents are (and yes, I used the word) :   toxic.  I mean, fibers ARE something I know a bit about and I had done some research into stain repellents.  Here’s a synopsis of those blogs on finishes in case you missed our blog post about them (click here and here to read those posts):

All stain repellent finishes used in textiles (such as Scotchguard, GoreTex, NanoTex,  Crypton, Teflon) are based on fluorotelomer chemistry – which means it pertains to chemicals which become  perfluorocarbons (PFCs) when they are released into the environment.   PFC’s  break down in the body and in the environment to  Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) , Perfluorooctanyl sulfate (PFOS) and similar chemicals.  These are among the most persistent synthetic chemicals known to man.   Scientists noticed that PFOS  was showing up everywhere: in polar bears, dolphins, baby eagles, tap water and human blood. So did its cousin PFOA.    These two man-made perfluorochemicals (PFOS and PFOA) don’t decompose in nature. They kill laboratory rats at higher doses, and are toxic to humans, with health effects ranging from  birth or developmental effects, to the brain and nervous system, immune system (including sensitization and allergies) and some forms of cancer.  Once they are in the body, it takes decades to get them out – assuming you are exposed to no more.  According to Our Stolen Future, the “ PFOS story is likely to emerge as one of the apocryphal examples of 20th century experimentation with widespread chemical exposures: prolific use and almost no testing for safety, until unexpectedly and almost serendipitously, it is discovered as a contaminant virtually everywhere. And as is often the case in these stories, the company producing PFOS products possessed information hinting at its risks but chose not to share their data with regulators or the public for years.”[1]

Alarmed by the findings from toxicity studies, the EPA announced on December 30, 2009, that PFC’s 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 polyprominated 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 in 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.

In January 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approached the eight largest fluorocarbon producers and requested their participation in the 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program, and their commitment to reduce PFOA and related chemicals globally in both facility emissions and product content 95 percent by 2010, and 100 percent by 2015.

The fluoropolymer manufacturers are improving their processes and reducing their waste in order to reduce the amount of PFOA materials used. The amount  of PFOA in finishing formulations is greatly diminished and continues to go down, but even parts per trillion are detectable. Finishing formulators continue to evaluate new materials which can eliminate PFOA while maintaining performance but a solution is still over the horizon.  One critical piece in this puzzle is that PFOA is also produced indirectly through the gradual breakdown of fluorotelomers – so a stain resistant finish may be formulated with no detectable amounts of PFOA yet STILL produce PFOA when the chemicals begin to decompose.

Now back to me, standing in the office and trying to convey to this nice guy that the finish he’s proposing is not only toxic, but ubiquitous and on the EPA’s “chemicals of concern” list.

Well, the guy insisted that no, indeed, the finish they use is entirely safe and it can even be used around babies.

I was taken aback and thought that maybe they had discovered a new and safe stain repellent that I didn’t yet know about.  So giving him the benefit of the doubt, I asked what it is that they use.  He handed me their brochure:  it was  Teflon!

That means that the finish they’re pushing is just the same old story, based on perfluorocarbons (PFCs) chemistry, which is persistent and bio-accumulative.  This means that once it’s in your blood, your body can not get rid of it.  And it’s found in the blood of 90% of all Americans. 

In animal studies it causes cancer, physical developmental delays, endocrine disruption and neonatal mortality.[2] Do you think that’s safe?

So I tried to let the guy know that his “safe” finish really isn’t, but he clearly thought I was a fringe lunatic.  He even said that they couldn’t advertise something as being safe if it really wasn’t.  That was just like throwing fuel on my fire, because if you’ve been reading our blog – or indeed almost anything having to do with the EPA these days – you’ll know that the government has received much criticism for the absence of consumer protection from chemicals used in products.  There have been some celebrated products (such as sunscreen) which receive a lot of attention, but fabric is especially complex.

But there was clearly no way I was going to gain any ground with this guy, who was as anxious to get rid of me as I was to leave!  And because he can, because nobody is preventing this product from being used in our homes, he’s still telling young mothers that his finish is entirely safe for their babies.








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