What does the new TB117-2013 mean to you?

16 12 2013

California has approved a new  flammability standard for residential furniture that is receiving widespread praise among environmentalists.  But we’d like you to examine, with us, some details about the new standard that you’ll need to know to keep you and your family safe from these extremely toxic chemicals.

California is the only state in the U.S. with a mandatory flammability standard for residential furniture.  The original law, TB117, was passed with all the good will in the world – to protect people from dying in house fires by giving them time to escape.  But  as is often the case, there were unintended consequences – we have found that the fire retardant chemicals are linked to cancer, developmental problems, reduced IQ and impaired fertility –  and more.  These chemicals  both persist (i.e, last a long time) and  bioaccumulate (i.e., are absorbed at a rate greater than that at which the substance is lost – leading to a risk of chronic poisoning) in human systems.  And the final straw:  ironically, the chemicals don’t protect us from fires – they just allow the material not to fail the flammability test.  In actual fires, the materials do burn, and just as massively as untreated foam,  and that releases toxic smoke into the air; one pundit has said that firefighters have more to fear from the smoke  than from the actual fire.

Recently, there has been growing pressure to change California’s “Technical Bulletin 117”, which required furniture manufacturers to inject flame retardant chemicals into the polyurethane foam used in all upholstered furniture sold in the state.  (Please note: the law only pertained to filling materials.) Because California is such a huge market, this law has become a de facto national standard. This pressure was fueled by a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune entitled “Playing with Fire” (click here to read the articles) , and more recently by the HBO film, Toxic Hot Seat, both of which exposed the considerable health risks of flame retardant chemicals, as well as the attempts by the chemical industry to thwart attempts at reform.

Why are flame retardant chemicals required in polyurethane foam?  Answer:  Because polyurethane is basically solid gasoline, which means it’s basically an accelerant.   The old test required that it pass a test by withstanding an open flame for 12 seconds before igniting.  Because this is impossible, the chemicals were added to prevent ignition.

What makes the new TB117-2013 different is that the test methods have changed.  Legislators decided to amend the manner in which flammability is measured.  They reasoned that most house fires start from smoldering cigarettes, which cause the fabric to smolder and catch fire – not from within the cushion in the foam.   They thought that upholstery cover fabrics play a more important role in fire behavior performance than filling materials – flames start on the fabric,  not from deep within the cushions, so the best way to prevent the foam from igniting is to make sure that the surface materials do not smolder in the first place.

So the new test did away with the 12 second open flame test and replaced it with a smolder-only test.  In this test, a lighted cigarette (not an open flame) is placed on the surface of the furniture.   If charring occurs which is 2 inches or less, the furniture is considered to pass.  This is a much easier test to pass than the open flame test.

So the new TB117-2013 enables foam manufacturers to reduce or eliminate flame retardant chemicals – but it doesn’t forbid their use.   The new law was designed to enable manufacturers to eliminate the flame retardants, but if they choose to use them it’s not illegal.  It’s up to manufacturers to decide how they plan to meet the new standard.

Most fabrics used in upholstery today are  synthetics or synthetic blends (natural fiber/synthetic).  And synthetics are created from crude oil – so they too are basically solid gasoline.  An accelerant.  Fabrics can be fire retarded easily and cheaply, and it’s very commonly done.  So although the foam manufacturers can (if they so choose) eliminate flame retardant chemicals in the foam, the burden of passing a smolder test now falls on the fabric.  It seems to me that the flame retardant chemicals are now just going to be found in the fabrics rather than the foam.

The new law was originally supposed to go into effect on July 1, 2014, but manufacturers, who said they “needed the additional times to deplete current supplies and effectuate the new regulatory changes” extended the new date to January 1, 2015.  However, starting in January, 2014, manufacturers will be able to sell furniture with a “TB117-2013” tag – so consumers should make sure to ask whether the sofa or chair has been treated with flame retardant chemicals.  Manufacturers are not required to disclose whether they use flame retardants or not, and few label their products.

If you really want to be sure, the Center for Environmental Health can test foam to detect the presence of flame retardants.  The tests only indicate whether certain elements are present, such as chlorine or bromine.  If so, it is likely the foam was treated with flame retardants.  If you want information on how to use this free service, click here.

Even if the foam is  tested and found not to contain flame retardants, that is by no means a clean bill of health for your sofa, because the fabrics may well contain flame retardants.  And a TB117-2013 label on a piece of furniture is not a guarantee that there are no flame retardants used in the piece.

And we think it’s pretty critical to add this final caveat – flame retardant chemicals are just ONE of the many chemicals which may be found in your fabrics.  Textile production uses a lot of chemicals,  most of which have toxicity profiles as equally unsavory as flame retardants: consider formaldehyde, perfluorocarbons (PFC’s), benzene, APEO’s, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) and Bisphenol A in synthetics, and heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium.  So to limit yourselves to eliminating flame retardant chemicals from the fabrics or furniture you live with  - as wonderful as that is – means you’re not seeing the forest for the trees.

How to avoid toxins in fabrics – and other products

6 12 2013

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

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

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

At least in theory, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why our children are at risk

18 11 2013

We hear about deaths from cancer – and how the rates are going down  (1). And that’s fabulous – but the sad fact is that the incidence of cancer seems to be going up (2).   The reason is complicated – we’re getting older, true –  but we’re also getting better at fighting it:

Cancer Research UK

Cancer Research UK

The number of new cancer cases have increased 0.6% every year since 1975 – overall, that’s an increase of 21% in the past 36 years (3) . What I find particularly disturbing is the rise in the reported incidence of cancer among young children and adolescents, especially brain cancer, testicular cancer, and acute lymphocytic leukemia. Sadly, after injuries and violence, cancer is the leading cause of death in our children (4).

National Academy of Sciences

National Academy of Sciences

At the risk of showing my bias, in case there are those among you who didn’t already know, I think part of the problem is because our environment contains many chemicals that are known to cause these cancers. But I’m not alone: the New York Times, in a recent editorial, urged the reform of the current law which purports to protect Americans from these chemicals (5), and the 2011 report of the President’s Cancer Panel has said that the “true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated.” (6)

Besides cosmetics, shampoos, detergents and building products, fabric processing uses a wide variety of synthetic chemicals, many of which remain in the fabrics. A short list of the many chemicals used in textile processing – many of which remain in the fabrics we live with – includes the following chemicals, which are all linked to cancer:

• Formaldehyde is known to cause cancer (and asthma), yet rates of formaldehyde in indoor air have grown from 14 ppb in 1980 to 200 ppb in 2010 – and these rates are increasing.
• Higher rates of chemicals called Polychlorinated Biphenyls, or PCBs, used in the production of plastics – and therefore all synthetic fabrics – also are linked with higher rates of leukemia.
• Benzene, used in the production of nylon and other synthetics, in textile dyestuffs and in the pigment printing process – is linked to leukemia, breast cancer, lymphatic and hematopoietic cancers.
• Chromium Hexavalent compounds, used in leather tanning, and the manufacture of dyes and pigments, are linked to lung, nasal and nasopharyngeal cancers.
• Bisphenol A, used in the production of polyester and other synthetic fibers and as an intermediate in the production of dyestuffs, is an endocrine disruptor linked to breast and prostate cancer.

Children are at greater risk because they are exposed at a higher rate than adults, their behaviors exacerbate exposure and they have increased susceptibility to the chemicals:

Pound for pound, children breathe twice as much air as an adult, drink two and a half times as much water, and eat three to four times more. Also – the typical newborn weighs 1/20th that of an adult male, but the infant’s surface area is just 1/8th as great. This means that the infant’s total skin area is 2.5 times more per unit of body weight than an adult (7).
Their breathing rates, at rest, are higher than those of adults, and greater levels of physical activity can increase their breathing rates even further. Their play is often at ground level, while adults breathe four to six feet above the floor. So children have greater inhalation and dermal exposure to chemicals present on floors, carpets, grass or dirt, where heavier chemicals such as lead and particulates settle.

Children put everything into their mouths when exploring their environment. This increases their ingestion of substances in soil, household dust, floors and carpets, as well as the objects themselves.

Some children will gleefully jump into a lake – even before they could swim! This lack of fear as they grow can further increase their exposure to environmental hazards.

Childhood is characterized by rapid physical and mental growth. Accordingly, certain organs may not be fully developed and may be more vulnerable to injury. Children absorb, metabolize, and excrete compounds differently than adults.
• In some instances, children may be more susceptible than adults due to their increased rates of absorption or decreased rates of elimination of foreign compounds. In other cases, the opposite may be true. Children will absorb about 50 percent of lead ingested, whereas adults will absorb only about 10 to 15 percent(8). Kidneys are the principal pathway for elimination of most chemicals from the body. At birth an infant’s kidney’s filtration rate is a fraction of adult values; by age one the rate is at adult levels. (9)
• Longer lifetimes: many diseases initiated by chemical hazards take decades to develop, so early exposure to toxicants may be more likely to lead to disease than the same exposures experienced later in life.

The fetus is particularly sensitive to environmental toxicants (10). Chemicals can affect the children born to women exposed during pregnancy, while the women remain unaffected. For example, the children of women from Michigan who ate two to three meals of fish contaminated with PCBs per month for six years before pregnancy had lower birth weights, memory deficits at seven months and four years of age, and cognitive deficits persisted at eleven years of age (11). In Iraq, children born to women who during pregnancy inadvertently ate seed grain treated with mercury to prevent fungus had severe developmental and mental deficits  (12).

(1) Jemal A, Siegel R, Ward E, Hao Y, Xu J, Thun MJ. Cancer statistics, 2009. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians 2009;59(4):225–249.
(2) Data from cancer tracking suggest that childhood cancer is increasing, although the data is not consistent from year to year; the National Cancer Institute reported that for infants less than one year old, the rate of cancer rose by 36% from 1976-84, but some say that these increases are due to improved detection rather than representing true increases in cancer.
(3) Center for Children’s Health and the Environment, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine (http://www.pbs.org/odyssey/odyssey/toxics_brain_cancer.pdf)
(4) Ibid.
(5) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/19/opinion/a-toothless-law-on-toxic-chemicals.html?emc=eta1&_r=0
(6) http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/presidents-cancer-panel/
(7) Our Children at Risk, The Natural Resrouces Defense Council, http://www.nrdc.org/health/kids/ocar/chap2.asp
(8) Royce, S. and H. Needleman, Case Studies in Environmental Medicine: Lead Toxicity, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 1995.
(9) Bearer, C., “How Are Children Different from Adults?” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 103, supp. 6, September 1995, pp. 7-12.
(10) Birnbaum, L.S., “Endocrine Effects of Prenatal Exposures to PCBs, Dioxins, and Other Xenobiotics: Implications for Policy and Future Research,” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 102, no. 8, 1994, pp.676-679. Y.L. Guo et al., “Growth Abnormalities in the Population Exposed in Utero and Early Postnatally to Polychlorinated Biphenyls and Dibenzrofurans,” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 105, suppl. 6, September 1995, pp.117-122.
(11) Jacobson, J.L. et al., “The Transfer of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs) across the Human Placenta and into Maternal Milk,” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 74, 1984, pp.378-9. J. Jacobson et al., “Effects of In Utero Exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls and Related Contaminants on Cognitive Functioning in Young Children,” Pediatrics, vol. 116, 1990, pp.38-45. S.W. Jacobson et al., “The Effect of Intrauterine PCB Exposure on Visual Recognition Memory,” Child Dev, vol. 56,1985, pp.853-60. J.L. Jacobson et al., “Effects of Exposure to PCBs and Related Compounds on Growth and Activity in Children,” Neurotoxicol. Teratol., vol.12, 1990, pp. 319-26.
(12) Gilbert, S. G. and K. Grant-Webster, “Neurobehavioral Effects of Developmental Methyl-Mercury Exposure,” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 103, supp. 6, September 1995, pp. 135-142.

True cost of a conventional sofa

8 11 2013

Buying a sofa is a big committment: it dominates the room, costs a lot, and should be presentable for at least 10 years. So let’s say that you’ve cruised the stores, sat in the sofas, lifted them, pushed and probed – and decided on a version that looks and feels right. And you’ve made sure that your choice contained all the ingredients for a high quality sofa – hardwood frame (check), 8 way hand-tied springs (check); high density foam (check), and a decorative fabric that will last the entire 10 – 20 year estimated life of the sofa.

But is it organic?

Most people wouldn’t give that question a second thought, but we think it’s a critical question. Why? Well, let’s just assume you’ve chosen a conventionally produced sofa. That means:

1. The hardwood is not FSC certified, which means it comes from a forest that is not managed. That means you’ve chipped away at your children’s inheritance of this Earth by supporting practices which don’t support healthy forests, which are critical to maintaining life: forests filter pollutants from the air, purify the water we drink, and help stabilize the global climate by absorbing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. They provide habitat for 90% of the animal and plant species which live on land. Forests are commercially important, too; they yield valuable resources like wood, rubber and medicinal plants, including plants used to create cancer drugs. Forest certification is like organic labeling for forest products. If you have chosen a sofa which uses plywood, medium density fiberboard (MDF) or Glue Laminated Beams (Glulam), then you will also be living with formaldehyde emissions. To read more about why FSC certification is important, click here.

2. The sofa uses either polyurethane or soy foam. Even high density polyurethane foam – as well as soy foam, the new media darling – emits methyloxirane, which causes cancer and genetic mutations , and toluene, a neurotoxin . Your polyurethane/soy foams oxidize over time, sending these chemicals into the air, where you can breathe them in.  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. And because polyurethane and soy foams are basically solid gasoline, they often require flame retardant chemicals. To read more about soy and poly foams, click here  and here.

From blog.greensciencepolicy.org

From blog.greensciencepolicy.org

3. Your sofa uses fabric – made of anything from cotton to linen or polyester – which was produced without regard to the kinds of chemicals used in dyestuffs, processing or finishes. Fabrics are, by weight, about 25% synthetic chemicals, and textile processing uses some of the most dangerously toxic chemicals known – among them, lead, mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A (BPA), flame retardants such as pentaBDE, PFOA.

There are no requirements that manufacturers disclose the chemicals used in processing – chemicals which remain in the finished fabrics. Often the chemicals are used under trade names, or are protected by legislation as “trade secrets” in food and drug articles – but fabrics don’t even have a federal code to define what can/cannot be used  –  because fabrics are totally unregulated in the U.S., except in terms of fire retardancy or intended use. It’s pretty much a free-for-all. Many studies have linked specific diseases with work in the textile industry – such as autoimmune diseases, leukemia and breast cancer. Some of the chemicals used in processing evaporate into your home’s air (such as formaldehyde), others (like lead) will be available in house dust – because every time you sit down or brush against the fabric, microscopic particles abrade and fly into the air. And remember, your skin is a permeable membrane. We are just beginning to understand how even tiny doses of certain chemicals may switch genes on and off in harmful ways during the most sensitive periods of development, and how the endocrine system involves a myriad of chemical messengers and feedback loops. 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.  So 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, for example. For more on these issues, click here  and here

4. Finally, glues, varnishes, paint all contribute to the toxic load of evaporating chemicals if conventional products have been used on your sofa.

We are often asked about the perceived higher cost of going organic – but really, isn’t the true cost of a conventional sofa more than anybody should have to bear?

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
, 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.

Choosing a fabric for your new sofa

14 10 2013

Design decisions influence our health –so your choice of a sofa fabric could influence you and your family in ways far beyond what you imagined.  Our children start life with umbilical cords infused with chemicals that affect the essence of human life itself  -   the ability to learn, reason and reproduce.  And fabric – which cocoons us most of the time, awake and asleep – is a contributor to this chemical load.  One thing I know for sure is that the textile industry uses lots of chemicals. During manufacturing, it takes from 10% to 100% of the weight of the fabric in chemicals to produce that fabric.(1) And the final fabric, if made of 100% natural fibers (such as cotton or linen), contains about 27% , by weight, chemicals(2) – let’s not even talk about synthetic fabrics.

Since 1999, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has tested Americans every two years in order to build a database of what are called “body burdens,”(3) in order to help toxicologists set new standards for exposure and definitively link chemicals to illness, or else decouple them. The study attempts to assess exposure to environmental chemicals in the general U.S. population – and the more chemicals they look for, the more they find: The CDC started with 27 worrisome chemicals in 1999 and now tests for 219. Their findings have shown that no matter whether you’re rich or poor; live in the center of a city or a pristine rural community; east coast, west coast or in between; are elderly or newborn; Republican, Democrat or Socialist – you have BPA in your blood, as well as polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDE)s – which can retard a fetus’s neurological development; perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – which impairs normal development; perchlorate – which can keep the thyroid from making necessary hormones and methyl tert-butyl ethers (now banned in most states) and mercury.

And the correlation between chemicals to illness seems to be on the rise (4) – certainly from studies done linking various chemicals to human disease and illness, but also because the spectrum of both “rare” and “common” illnesses is on the rise. The National Institutes of Health defines a rare disease as one affecting 200,000 or fewer Americans. Yet 25 – 30 million Americans suffer from one of the nearly 6,800 identifiable rare diseases. That compares to the 40 million Americans with one of the three “major” diseases: heart disease, cancer or diabetes.

Specifically with regard to fabrics: The 2010 AATCC (American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists) Buyer’s Guide  lists about 2,000 chemical specialties in over 100 categories offered for sale by about 66 companies, not including dyes. The types of products offered run the gamut from antimicrobial agents and binders to UV stabilizers and wetting agents. Included are some of the most toxic known (lead, mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A, PBDE, PFOA). There are no requirements that manufacturers disclose the chemicals used in processing – chemicals which remain in the finished fabrics. Often the chemicals are used under trade names, or are protected by legislation as “trade secrets” in food and drug articles – but fabrics don’t even have a federal code to define what can/cannot be used because fabrics are totally unregulated in the U.S., except in terms of fire retardancy or intended use. It’s pretty much a free-for-all.

Why does the industry use so many chemicals? What are they used for?

Most fabrics are finished in what is called “wet processing” where the process is accomplished by applying a liquid – which accomplishes some sort of chemical action to the textile – as opposed to “dry processing”, which is a mechanical/physical treatment, such as brushing. It is a series of innumerable steps leading to the finished textile, each one of which also has a complex number of variables, in which a special chemical product is applied, impregnated or soaked with the textile fiber of the fabric. A defined sequence of treatments can then be followed by another sequence of treatments using another chemical substance. Typically, treatments are arranged to permit a continuous mode of sequences.

The chemicals used can be subdivided into:
Textile auxiliaries – this covers a wide range of functions, from cleaning natural fibers and smoothing agents to improving easy care properties. Included are such things as:

  • Complexing agents, which form stable water-soluble complexes
  • Surfactants, which lowers the surface tension of water so grease and oil to be removed more easily
  • Wetting agents, which accelerates the penetration of finishing liquors
  • Sequestering agents
  •  Dispersing agents
  • Emulsifiers

Textile chemicals (basic chemicals such as acids, bases and salts)
      Colorants, such as:

  • Dyes
  •  Dye-protective agents
  • Fixing agents
  • Leveling agents
  • pH regulators
  • Carriers
  • UV absorbers

The chemicals used get very specific: for example, Lankem Ltd. is one such manufacturer of a range of textile chemicals. According to their website, their Kemtex AP, for example, is an “anti-precipitant” to be used “where dyes of opposing ionicity may be present in the same bath” and their Kemtex TAL is a levelling agent for wool which is a “highly effective level dyeing assistant for acid, acid milling and prematallised dyes on wool.”

In addition to the branded products supplied by chemical companies, which are made of unknown components because they’re proprietary, we know many chemicals are necessary to achieve certain effects, such as PBDEs for fire retardants, formaldehyde resins for crease resistance or PFOA’s for stain protection.
The chemicals used in these branded products to create the effects above include chemicals which have been proven to be toxic, or to cause cancers or genetic mutations in mammals (i.e., us too). The following is by no means an all-inclusive list of these chemicals:
• Alkylphenolethoxylates (APEOs)
• Pentachlorophenols (PCP)
• Toluene and other aromatic amines
• Dichloromethane (DCM)
• Formaldehyde
• Phthalates
• Polybrominated diphenyl ethers ( PBDE’s)
• Perfluorooctane sulfonates (PFOS)
• Heavy metals – copper, cadmium, lead, antimony, mercury among others

One of the presenters at the 2011 Living Building Challenge, inspired by writer Michael Pollan’s Food Rules,  shared a list of ways to choose products that remove the worst of the chemical contamination that plagues many products.

These rules apply to all products, including fabrics, so I’ve just edited them a bit to be fabric specific:

  • If it is cheap, it probably has hidden costs.
  • If it starts as a toxic input (like ethylene glycol in the manufacture of      polyester), you probably don’t want it in your house or office.
  • Use materials made from substances you can imagine in their raw or natural state.
  • Use carbohydrate-based materials (i.e., natural fibers) when you can.
  • Just because almost anything can kill you doesn’t mean fabrics should.
  • Pay more, use less.
  • Consult your nose – if it stinks, don’t use it.
  • If they can’t tell you what’s in it, you probably don’t want to live with it. (note: his is not just the fibers used to weave the fabric – did the processing  use specific chemicals, like heavy metals in the dyestuff, or formaldehyde in the finish?)
  • Avoid materials that are pretending to be something they are not.
  • Question materials that make health claims.
  • Regard space-age materials with skepticism.

(1)    Environmental Hazards of the Textile Industry, Hazardous Substances Research Centers, South and Southwest Outreach Program, US EPA funded consortium, June 2006.

(2)     Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts; German Environmental Protection Agency, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609.

(3)    What is a “body burden”: Starting before birth, children are exposed to chemicals that impair normal growth and development. Exposures continue throughout our lives and accumulate in our bodies. These chemicals can interact within the body and cause illness. And they get passed on from parent to child for generations.

(4)    World Health Organization; http://www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/en/index.html

Fabric and your carbon footprint

3 10 2013

In considering fabric for your sofa, let’s be altruistic and look at the impact textile production has on global climate change.  (I only use the term altruistic  because many of us don’t equate climate change with our own lives, though there have been several interesting studies of just how the changes will impact us directly, like the one in USA Today that explains that wet regions will be wetter, causing flash flooding;  dry regions will get drier, resulting in drought. And  …  a heat wave that used to occur once every 100 years now happens every five years (1)).

Bill Schorr

Bill Schorr

Although most of the current focus on lightening our carbon footprint revolves around transportation and heating issues, the modest little fabric all around you turns out to be from an industry with a gigantic carbon footprint. The textile industry, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, is the 5th largest contributor to CO2 emissions in the United States, after primary metals, nonmetallic mineral products, petroleum and chemicals.[2]  And the US textile industry is small potatoes when compared with some other countries I could mention.  Last week we explained that a typical “quality” sofa  uses about 20 yards of decorative fabric, plus 20 yds of lining fabric, 15 yds of burlap and 10 yds of muslin, for a total of 65 yards of fabric – in one sofa.

The textile industry is huge, and it is a huge producer of greenhouse gasses.  Today’s textile industry is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses (GHG’s) on Earth, due to its huge size.[3] In 2008,  annual global textile production was estimated at  60 billion kilograms (KG) of fabric.  The estimated energy and water needed to produce that amount of fabric boggles the mind:

  • 1,074 billion kWh of  electricity  or 132 million metric tons of coal and
  • between 6 – 9  trillion liters of water[4]

Fabrics are the elephant in the room.  They’re all around us  but no one is thinking about them.  We simply overlook fabrics, maybe because they are almost always used as a component in a final product that seems rather innocuous:  sheets, blankets, sofas, curtains, and of course clothing.  Textiles, including clothing,  accounted for about one ton of the 19.8 tons of total CO2 emissions produced by each person in the U.S. in 2006. [5] By contrast, a person in Haiti produced a total of only 0.21 tons of total carbon emissions in 2006.[6]

Your textile choices do make a difference, so it’s vitally important to look beyond thread counts, color and abrasion results.

How do you evaluate the carbon footprint in any fabric?  Look at the “embodied energy’ in the fabric – that is, all of the energy used at each step of the process needed to create that fabric.   Not an easy thing to do!  To estimate the embodied energy in any fabric it’s necessary to add the energy required in two separate fabric production steps:

(1)  Find out what the fabric is made from, because the type of fiber tells you a lot about the energy needed to make the fibers used in the yarn.  The carbon footprint of various fibers varies a lot, so start with the energy required to produce the fiber.

(2) Next, add the energy used to weave those yarns into fabric.  Once any material becomes a “yarn” or “filament”, the amount of energy and conversion process to weave that yarn into a textile is pretty consistent, whether the yarn is wool, cotton,  or synthetic.[7]

Let’s look at #1 first: the energy needed to make the fibers and create the yarn. For ease of comparison we’ll divide the fiber types into “natural” (from plants, animals and less commonly, minerals) and “synthetic” (man made).

For natural fibers you must look at field preparation, planting and field operations (mechanized irrigation, weed control, pest control and fertilizers (manure vs. synthetic chemicals)), harvesting and yields.  Synthetic fertilizer use is a major component of the high cost of conventional agriculture:  making just one ton of nitrogen fertilizer emits nearly 7 tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases.

For synthetics, a crucial fact is that the fibers are made from fossil fuels.   Very high amounts of energy are used in extracting the oil from the ground as well as in the production of the polymers.

A study done by the Stockholm Environment Institute on behalf of the BioRegional Development Group  concludes that the energy used (and therefore the CO2 emitted) to create 1 ton of spun fiber is much higher for synthetics than for hemp or cotton:

KG of CO2 emissions per ton of spun   fiber:
crop cultivation fiber production TOTAL
polyester USA 0.00 9.52 9.52
cotton, conventional, USA 4.20 1.70 5.90
hemp, conventional 1.90 2.15 4.05
cotton, organic, India 2.00 1.80 3.80
cotton, organic, USA 0.90 1.45 2.35

The table above only gives results for polyester; other synthetics have more of an impact:  acrylic is 30% more energy intensive in its production than polyester [8] and nylon is even higher than that.

Not only is the quantity of GHG emissions of concern regarding synthetics, so too are the kinds of gasses produced during production of synthetic fibers.  Nylon, for example, creates emissions of N2O, which is 300 times more damaging than CO2 [9] and which, because of its long life (120 years) can reach the upper atmosphere and deplete the layer of stratospheric ozone, which is an important filter of UV radiation.  In fact, during the 1990s, N2O emissions from a single nylon plant in the UK were thought to have a global warming impact equivalent to more than 3% of the UK’s entire CO2 emissions.[10] A study done for the New Zealand Merino Wool Association shows how much less total energy is required for the production of natural fibers than synthetics:

Embodied   Energy used in production of various fibers:
energy use in   MJ per KG of fiber:
flax fibre   (MAT) 10
cotton 55
wool 63
Viscose 100
Polypropylene 115
Polyester 125
acrylic 175
Nylon 250

SOURCE:  “LCA: New Zealand Merino Wool Total Energy Use”, Barber and Pellow,      http://www.tech.plym.ac.uk/sme/mats324/mats324A9%20NFETE.htm

Natural fibers, in addition to having a smaller carbon footprint in the production of the spun fiber, have many additional  benefits:

  1. being able to be degraded by micro-organisms and composted (improving soil structure); in  this way the fixed CO2 in the fiber will be released and the cycle closed.   Synthetics do not decompose: in landfills they release  heavy metals and other additives into soil and groundwater.       Recycling requires costly separation, while incineration produces  pollutants – in the case of high density polyethylene, 3 tons of CO2 emissions are produced for ever 1 ton of material burnt.[11] Left in the environment, synthetic fibers contribute, for example, to the estimated 640,000 tons of abandoned  fishing nets in the world’s oceans.
  2. sequestering  carbon.  Sequestering carbon is the process through which CO2 from the atmosphere is absorbed by plants through photosynthesis and stored as carbon in biomass (leaves, stems, branches, roots, etc.) and soils.       Jute, for example, absorbs 2.4 tons of carbon per ton of dry fiber.[12]

Substituting organic fibers for conventionally grown fibers is not just a little better – but lots better in all respects:

  • uses less energy for production,
  • emits fewer greenhouse gases
  • and supports organic farming (which has myriad environmental, social and health benefits).

A study published by Innovations Agronomiques (2009) found that 43% less GHG are emitted per unit area under organic agriculture than under conventional agriculture.[13] A study done by Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University found that organic farming systems used just 63% of the energy required by conventional farming systems, largely because of the massive amounts of energy requirements needed to synthesize nitrogen fertilizers. Further it was found in controlled long term trials that organic farming adds between 100-400kg of carbon per hectare to the soil each year, compared to non-organic farming.  When this stored carbon is included in the carbon footprint, it reduces the total GHG even further.[14] The key lies in the handling of organic matter (OM): because soil organic matter is primarily carbon, increases in soil OM levels will be directly correlated with carbon sequestration. While conventional farming typically depletes soil OM, organic farming builds it through the use of composted animal manures and cover crops.

Taking it one step further beyond the energy inputs we’re looking at, which help to mitigate climate change, organic farming helps to ensure other environmental and social goals:

  • eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisims      (GMOs) which is  an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity
  • conserves water  (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening      irrigation requirements and erosion)
  • ensures sustained  biodiversity
  • and compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric      carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire.

Organic agriculture is an undervalued and underestimated climate change tool that could be one of the most powerful strategies in the fight against global warming, according to Paul Hepperly, Rodale Institute Research Manager. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years)  provides convincing evidence that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions.

At the fiber level it is clear that synthetics have a much bigger footprint than does any natural fiber, including wool or conventionally produced cotton.   So in terms of the carbon footprint at the fiber level, any natural fiber beats any synthetic – at this point in time.   Best of all is an organic natural fiber.

And next let’s look at #2, the energy needed to weave those yarns into fabric.

There is no dramatic difference in the amount of energy needed to weave fibers into fabric depending on fiber type.[15] The processing is generally the same whether the fiber is nylon, cotton, hemp, wool or polyester:   thermal energy required per meter of cloth is 4,500-5,500 Kcal and electrical energy required per meter of cloth is 0.45-0.55 kwh. [16] This translates into huge quantities of fossil fuels  -  both to create energy directly needed to power the mills, produce heat and steam, and power air conditioners, as well as indirectly to create the many chemicals used in production.  In addition, the textile industry has one of the lowest efficiencies in energy utilization because it is largely antiquated.

(1)    http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/02/28/climate-change-remaking-america/1917169/

(2)    Source: Energy Information Administration, Form EIA:848, “2002 Manufacturing Energy Consumption Survey,” Form EIA-810, “Monthly Refinery Report” (for 2002) and Documentatioin for Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2003 (May 2005). http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/txt/ptb1204.html

(3)    Dev, Vivek, “Carbon Footprint of Textiles”, April 3, 2009, http://www.domain-b.com/environment/20090403_carbon_footprint.html

(4)    Rupp, Jurg, “Ecology and Economy in Textile Finishing”,  Textile World,  Nov/Dec 2008

(5)    Rose, Coral, “CO2 Comes Out of the Closet”,  GreenBiz.com, September 24, 2007

(6)     U.S. Energy Information Administration, “International Energy Annual 2006”, posted Dec 8, 2008.

(7)    Many discussions of energy used to produce fabrics or final products made from fabrics (such as clothing) take the “use” phase of the article into consideration when evaluating the carbon footprint.  The argument goes that laundering the blouse (or whatever) adds considerably to the final energy tally for natural fibers, while synthetics don’t need as much water to wash nor as many launderings.  We do not take this component into consideration because

  1. it applies only to clothing; even sheets aren’t washed as often as clothing while upholstery is seldom cleaned.
  2. is biodegradeable detergent used?
  3. Is the washing machine used a new low water machine?  Is the water treated by a municipal facility?
  4. Synthetics begin to smell if not treated with antimicrobials, raising the energy score.

Indeed, it’s important to evaluate the sponsors of any published studies, because the studies done which evaluate the energy used to manufacture fabrics are often sponsored by organizations which might have an interest in the outcome.  Additionally, the data varies quite a bit so we have adopted the values which seem to be agreed upon by most studies.

(8)     Ibid.

(9)    “Tesco carbon footprint study confirms organic farming is energy efficient, but excludes key climate benefit of organic farming, soil carbon”, Prism Webcast News, April 30, 2008, http://prismwebcastnews.com/2008/04/30/tesco-carbon-footprint-study-confirms-organic-farming%E2%80%99s-energy-efficiency-but-excludes-key-climate-benefit-of-organic-farming-%E2%80%93-soil-carbon/

(10)  Fletcher, Kate, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles,  Earthscan, 2008,  Page 13

(11) “Why Natural Fibers”, FAO, 2009: http://www.naturalfibres2009.org/en/iynf/sustainable.html

(12)  Ibid.

(13) Aubert, C. et al.,  (2009) Organic farming and climate change: major conclusions of the Clermont-Ferrand seminar (2008) [Agriculture biologique et changement climatique : principales conclusions du colloque de Clermont-Ferrand (2008)]. Carrefours de l’Innovation Agronomique 4. Online at <http://www.inra.fr/ciag/revue_innovations_agronomiques/volume_4_janvier_2009>

(14) International Trade Centre UNCTAD/WTO and Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL);    Organic Farming and Climate Change; Geneva: ITC, 2007.

(15) 24th session of the FAO Committee on Commodity Problems IGG on Hard Fibers of the United Nations

(16)  “Improving profits with energy-efficiency enhancements”, December 2008,  Journal for Asia on Textile and Apparel,  http://textile.2456.com/eng/epub/n_details.asp?epubiid=4&id=3296

True Cost of Fast Fashion

29 08 2013

Summer has been beautiful in Seattle this year – and I’ve been taking advantage of it.  My month turned into almost two months – I just couldn’t bring myself back to the computer.  But now I’m refreshed and ready to go again.

We’ve often had people question why organic sofas cost “so much” – and I’ll address that next week.  This week let’s talk about what has become known as “fast fashion” – the idea of moving the newest trends from the catwalk to the store quickly to capture the newest design trends.  And the consumers are responding:   A Cambridge University study[1] found that  people were buying a third more clothes in 2006 than they were in 2002, and women have four times as many clothes in their wardrobe than they did in 1980.  And they get

rid of a similar amount.   oscar-wilde-FAST-FASHION-quotes

Fast fashion is all about having trendy, cutting-edge looks NOW  – and at bargain prices.  Brands began competing against each other for market share by introducing more lines per year at lower costs, culminating in a situation where “fashion houses now offer up to 18 collections a year’ and the low cost, so called ‘value end’ is ‘booming; doubling in size in just 5 years.”[2]

So who’s paying for this fast fashion?

Turns out we all are.

Elizabeth Cline,  author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost Of Cheap Fashion, once described buying a pair of shoes at Kmart:  “I remember that the shoes just smelled toxic, like there were fumes coming off of them. That made me wonder what the environmental impact of what I was doing was.”[3]

The same thing happens to me when I pick up a cute whatever and then quickly put it down when I catch its chemical-y smell. What is the fast fashion we love actually made of?

Some really bad stuff, it turns out.

Greenpeace released a report entitled Toxic Threads[4] about the chemicals found in apparel produced by major brands (such as Gap, Levis, Mango, Calvin Klein, Zara and H&M).  They tested 141 articles of clothing they bought in 29 different countries – and all the articles tested contained either phthalates, nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) or azo dyes  –  and sometimes all three.  These chemicals are found in  clothing and are available to our bodies when worn next to the skin:

  • I think you know some of the health concerns regarding phthalates and hormone disruptors since there has been lots in the media about Bisphenol A (a synthetic estrogen) – surprisingly a component in textile processing.  A brand new study has linked phthalates to increased insulin resistance in teenagers, a condition that can lead to Type 2 diabetes.[5]
  • Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are a group of chemicals that mimic the human hormone estrogen.  NPEs are highly toxic to aquatic life, degrade into a long-lived chemical that builds up in the food chain, and may harm reproduction and development in humans.   Both the EU and Canada have passed laws regulating the use of NPEs.
  • And azo dyes can break down into amines which cause cancer – these too have been regulated in the EU and elsewhere around the world.

These chemicals were found in clothing we put on without a second thought, but they are available to our bodies when worn next to the skin – which is a permeable membrane.  Dermal contact is a major route of exposure for these chemicals.

On top of the effects to our personal health, the environment takes a beating too:  the textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of water on the planet, dumping untreated effluent (containing a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals) into our groundwater.  And we’re all downstream.

Garment Workers 02a (Reuters)     Most consumers still buy their clothes without thinking about the workers. Sadly, the price of cheap fashion today is slave labor and inhumane working conditions.

“Buyers pressure factories to deliver quality products with ever-shorter lead times. Most factories just don’t have the tools and expertise to manage this effectively, so they put the squeeze on the workers. It’s the only margin they have to play with.”[6]

A Sri Lankan factory owner interviewed by Oxfam demonstrates the pressure they are now under: “Last year the deadlines were about 90 days… [This year] the deadlines for delivery are about 60 days. Sometimes even 45… They have drastically come down.”[7]

The Clean Clothes Campaign, which tries to improve working conditions in the global garment industry, describes similar instances with garment workers in China: “We have endless overtime in the peak season and we sit working non-stop for 13 to 14 hours a day.  It’s like this every day – we sew and sew without a break until our arms feel sore and stiff.”

The collapse of the garment factory Rana Plaza in
Bangladesh in April, 2013 killed 1,129 people – and was the last in a long series of garment factory accidents that have killed over 2,000 garment workers since 2005[8].   Warnings not to use the building were ignored and workers were ordered to return or lose their jobs.  Even Pope Francis spoke out against the working conditions in the factory:

“A headline that really struck me on the day of the tragedy in Bangladesh was ‘Living on 38 euros a month’. That is what the people who died were being paid. This is called slave labour.”

The increase in the amount of clothes people consume also has consequences for the environment. More clothing is shipped and flown from the Far East to Europe than ever before and the life cycle of these garments is decreasing.   National Geographic says that clothing represents 5% of total garbage in landfills [9]– and in North America, that’s about 68 lbs. of waste per household per year.  And if that clothing is made of synthetics, they’ll be around long, long after we’re gone, leaching their chemicals into our groundwater.  So one thing you can do to help the environment is to buy natural fibers.   Here’s a video produced by Icebreaker Merino, which shows what happens to a t-shirt made of Merino wool, after just 6 months:

The sad fact is that fast doesn’t mean free – and the costs are high.

[1] http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/well-dressed

[2] http://www.ethicalfashionforum.com/the-issues/fast-fashion-cheap-fashion

[3] http://www.ethicalfashionforum.com/the-issues/fast-fashion-cheap-fashion


[5] http://www.livescience.com/38970-bpa-phthalates-teen-health.html

[6] “Trading Away Our Rights”, Oxfam,  2004; http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/rights.pdf

[7] http://www.ethicalfashionforum.com/the-issues/fast-fashion-cheap-fashion

[8] http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/20/world/asia/bangladesh-inside-garment-factory

[9] http://www.charterrecycling.com/recycling-facts

I know the polyester fabric costs less, but what else comes with it?

19 06 2013

When plastic was introduced in 1869, it was advertised as being able to replace natural products like ivory and tortoiseshell in items such as jewelry, combs and buttons – so it would “no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.”(1)

What a success: Plastics are versatile – they can be hard or soft, flexible or brittle, and are durable, lightweight, formable – in fact, they’re so versatile that they’ve become a vital manufacturing ingredient for nearly every existing industry. They are practically ubiquitous. And now we’re beginning to find that our relationship with plastic is not healthy. Using dwindling fossil fuels to manufacture the stuff, plastic leaches toxic chemicals into our groundwater, litters landscapes and destroys marine life. As Susan Freinkel points out in her book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, it’s worth noting that discoveries of plastic’s toxic effects are being made in a world that is at least ten times more plastic than it was half a century ago. In the ’60s, an American might have used about 30 pounds of plastic a year – in 2011, 300 pounds. And we’re producing 300 million tons more every year.(2)

Plastics were marketed as “the material of the future”. And how true that is, because large polymers take practically forever to break down, so much of the plastic that has ever been manufactured is still with us, in landfills, in the plastic filled gyres found in our oceans (where the mass of plastic exceeds that of plankton sixfold) (3), and the stomachs of northern seabirds. And it will stay there for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Just as some chemicals can impact children’s bodies much more than adult bodies, Judith Shulevitz, writing in the New Republic, reminds us: “plastic totally dominates the world of the child. Children drink formula in baby bottles and water in sippy cups, eat food with plastic spoons on bright melamine trays, chew on bath books and rubber ducks, and, if they don’t do these things at your house, they’ll do them at someone else’s or at school, no matter how many notes you write or mad-housewife-ish you’re willing to appear.” (4)

There are many studies to support the belief that these plastics are changing us – but what has really changed is that the scientific understanding of how these chemicals are poisoning us has undergone a conceptual revolution – our grandchildren may see our current attitudes about living with these chemicals as being analogous to doctors in the 1950s who appeared in ads for cigarettes.

Old toxicological notions are being stood on their heads. Certainly, the old “dose makes the poison” notion, which was first expressed by Paracelsus in the 16th century and which means that a substance can only be toxic if it is present in a high enough concentration in the body – because all things are poisonous in the right amounts. He wrote: “All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy”. But today scientists are finding that timing of exposure might be the critical factor – a fetus might respond to a chemical at one-hundredfold less concentration or more than in an adult, and when the chemical is taken away the body is altered for life. Another theory is known as the “developmental origins of health and disease,” or DOHaD (for more about DOHaD, click here), and it paints a picture of almost unimaginably impressionable bodies, responsive to biologically active chemicals until the third generation.(5)

New methods have been developed which have taken the guesswork out of what were once theories: for example, biomonitoring now means that scientists can actually discover the degree to which people have been exposed to poisonous stuff when in the past their conclusions were largely guesswork; and microarray profiling, which means we’re beginning to understand how tiny doses of certain chemicals switch genes on or off in harmful ways during exquisitely sensitive periods of development.

Exposure to all that plastic has a cumulative effect. Now toxicologists can see that lots of tiny doses from many different estrogen-mimicking chemicals entering the body by multiple pathways can have a big impact. “If you’re being exposed to two-hundred fifty chemicals and only thirty of them have estrogenic activity, but they’re each very low, still, thirty of them might add up to be significant,” says Jerrold Heindel, of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

Judith Shulavith asks– if we live in this plastic environment – why we’re not sicker than we are? And sicker than we used to be? “The answer is, we’re healthier in some ways and sicker in others. Medical advances mean we’re likelier than ever to survive our illnesses, but all kinds of diseases are on the rise. Childhood cancers are up 20 percent since 1975. Rates of kidney, thyroid, liver, and testicular cancers in adults have been steadily increasing. A woman’s risk of getting breast cancer has gone from one in ten in 1973 to one in eight today. Asthma rates doubled between 1980 and 1995, and have stayed level since. Autism-spectrum disorders have arguably increased tenfold over the past 15 years. According to one large study of men in Boston, testosterone levels are down to a degree that can’t be accounted for by factors such as age, smoking, and obesity. Obesity, of course, has been elevated to the status of an epidemic.”(6)

There are many ways to explain upticks in rates of any particular ailment; for starters, a better-informed populace and better tools for detecting disease mean more diagnoses. Other environmental stressors include Americans’ weirdly terrible eating habits, our sedentary lifestyle, and stress itself. But why can’t we just figure this out and come to some conclusions about certain chemicals as the cause of certain diseases? John Vandenberg, a biologist, explains the difficulty : “Well, one of the problems is that we would have to take half of the kids in the kindergarten and give them BPA and the other half not. Or expose half of the pregnant women to BPA in the doctor’s office and the other half not. And then we have to wait thirty to fifty years to see what effects this has on their development, and whether they get more prostate cancer or breast cancer. You have to wait at least until puberty to see if there is an effect on sexual maturation. Ethically, you are not going to go and feed people something if you think it harmful, and, second, you have this incredible time span to deal with.”(7)

Which diseases, exactly, have fetal origins and which chemicals have the power to sidetrack development, and how, is the goal of a giant, 21-year study of 100,000 children called the National Children’s Study (NCS), under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. However, in 2013, it was announced that the decade-old effort would undergo radical restructuring to cut costs.(8)

Meanwhile, what can you do to protect yourself and your family, since the government isn’t doing that job?  I’ll have some ideas next week.

(1) Freinkel, Susan, “Plastic: Too Good to Throw Away”, The New York Times, March 17, 2011
(2) Ibid.
(3) Moore, C.J., et al, “Density of Plastic Particles found in zooplankton trawls from coastal waters of Northern California to the North Pacific Central Gyre”, Algalita Marine Research Foundation
(4) Shulevitz, Judith, “The Toxicity Panic”, The New Republic, April 7, 2011
(5) Ibid.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Groopman, Jerome, “The Plastic Panic”, The New Yorker, May 31, 2010.
(8) Belli, Brita, “Changes to Children’s Study Threaten its value, experts say”, Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative; 7 March 2013

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 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”.

(2)In 2010, Washington State banned asbestos in automotive brakes starting in 2014.
(5)Environmental Working Group, http://www.ewg.org/sites/asbestos/facts/fact1.php
(7) Ibid.


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