Microplastics found in tap water

21 09 2017

The Guardian, in early September 2017, released a report that microplastic contamination has been found in tap water in countries around the world. What this means for the seven billion people on earth, no one yet knows. All the experts can agree on is that, given the warning signs being given by life in the oceans, the need to find out is urgent.

Scores of tap water samples from more than a dozen nations were analysed by scientists for an investigation by Orb Media .[1] Overall, 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibres. Bottled water may not provide a microplastic-free alternative to tapwater, as the as it was also found in a few samples of commercial bottled water tested in the United States for Orb.

The US had the highest contamination rate, at 94%, with plastic fibres found in tap water sampled at sites including Congress buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, and Trump Tower in New York. Lebanon and India had the next highest rates.

Why should you care? Microplastics have been shown to absorb toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other illnesses, and then release them when consumed by fish and mammals. If fibers are in your water, experts say they’re surely in your food as well – baby formula, pasta, soups and sauces whether from the kitchen or the grocery. It gets worse. Plastic is all but indestructible, meaning plastic waste doesn’t biodegrade; rather it only breaks down into smaller pieces of itself, even down to particles in nanometer scale. Studies show that particles of that size can migrate through the intestinal wall and travel to the lymph nodes and other bodily organs.

The new analyses indicate the ubiquitous extent of  microplastic contamination in the global environment. Previous work has been largely focused on plastic pollution in the oceans, which suggests people are eating microplastics via contaminated seafood. But the wholesale pollution of the land was hidden. Tap water is gathered from hills, rivers, lakes and wells, sampling the environment as it goes. It turns out that tiny fibres of plastic are everywhere.

Orb Media

“We have enough data from looking at wildlife, and the impacts that it’s having on wildlife, to be concerned,” said Dr Sherri Mason, a microplastic expert at the State University of New York in Fredonia, who supervised the analyses for Orb. “If it’s impacting [wildlife], then how do we think that it’s not going to somehow impact us?”

Plastics often contain a wide range of chemicals to change their properties or color and many are toxic or are hormone disruptors. Plastics can attract other pollutants too, including dioxins, metals and some pesticides. Microplastics have also been shown to attract microbial pathogens. Research on wild animals shows conditions in animal guts are also known to enhance the release of pollutants from plastics. “Further,” as the review puts is, “there is evidence that particles may even cross the gut wall and be translocated to other body tissues, with unknown consequences”. Prof Richard Thompson, at Plymouth University, UK, told Orb: “It became clear very early on that the plastic would release those chemicals and that actually, the conditions in the gut would facilitate really quite rapid release.” His research has shown microplastics are found in a third of fish caught in the UK.

This planktonic arrow worm, Sagitta setosa, has eaten a blue plastic fibre about 3mm long. Plankton support the entire marine food chain. Photograph: Richard Kirby/Courtesy of Orb Media

Does any of this affect people? The only land animals in which the consumption of microplastic has been closely studied are two species of earthworm and a nematode.[2]

The scale of global microplastic contamination is only starting to become clear, with studies in Germany finding fibers in all of 24 beer brands tested[3] , as well as in honey and sugar .[4] A study revealed a rain of microplastics falling on Paris from the air, dumping between 3 and 10 tons a year on the city.[5] The same team found microplastics in an apartment and hotel room. “We really think that the lakes [and other water bodies] can be contaminated by cumulative atmospheric inputs,” said Johnny Gasperi, at the University Paris-Est Créteil, who did the Paris studies. “What we observed in Paris tends to demonstrate that a huge amount of fibres are present in atmospheric fallout.”

This research led Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at King’s College London, to tell a UK parliamentary inquiry in 2016: “If we breathe them in they could potentially deliver chemicals to the lower parts of our lungs and maybe even across into our circulation.” Having seen the Orb data, Kelly told the Guardian that research is urgently needed to determine whether ingesting plastic particles is a health risk.[6]

Another huge unanswered question is how microplastics get into our water and food. A report from the UK’s Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management[7] says the biggest proportion are fibers shed by synthetic textiles and tire dust from roads, with more from the breakdown of waste plastics. It suggests the plastic being dumped on land in Europe alone each year is between four and 23 times the amount dumped into all the world’s oceans.

A lot of the microplastic debris is washed into wastewater treatment plants, where the filtering process does capture many of the plastic fragments. But about half the resulting sludge is ploughed back on to farmland across Europe and the US, according to recent research published in the Journal Environmental Science & Technology[8]. That study estimates that up to 430,000 tons of microplastics could be being added to European fields each year, and 300,000 tons in North America. “It is striking that transfers of microplastics – and the hazardous substances bound to them – from urban wastewater to farmland has not previously been considered by scientists and regulators,” the scientists concluded. “This calls for urgent investigation if we are to safeguard food production,” they say in a related publication.

Plastic fibres may also be flushed into water systems, with a recent study finding that each cycle of a washing machine could release 700,000 fibers into the environment. Tumble dryers are another potential source, with almost 80% of US households having dryers that usually vent to the open air. Rains could also sweep up microplastic pollution, which could explain why the household wells used in Indonesia were found to be contaminated.

A magnified image of clothing microfibres from washing machine effluent. One study found that a fleece jacket can shed as many as 250,000 fibres per wash. Photograph: Courtesy of Rozalia Project

In Beirut, Lebanon, the water supply comes from natural springs but 94% of the samples were contaminated. “This research only scratches the surface, but it seems to be a very itchy one,” said Hussam Hawwa, at the environmental consultancy Difaf,  which collected samples for Orb.

Like so many environmental problems – climate change, pesticides, air pollution – the impacts only become clear years after damage has been done. If we are lucky, the plastic planet we have created will not turn out to be too toxic to life. If not, cleaning it up will be a mighty task. Dealing properly with all waste plastic will be tricky: stopping the unintentional loss of microplastics from clothes and roads even more so.

But above all we need to know if we are all drinking, eating and breathing microplastic every day and what that is doing to us, and we need to know urgently.

[1] https://orbmedia.org/stories/Invisibles_plastics

[2] Carrington, Damian, “We are living on a plastic planet. What does it mean for our health?”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/06/we-are-living-on-a-plastic-planet-what-does-it-mean-for-our-health

[3] Liebezeit, Gerd; “Synthetic particles as contaminants in German beers”, Journal of Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, Vol 31, 2014, Issue 9

[4] Liebezeit, Gerd; “Non-pollen particulates in honey and sugar”, Journal of Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, Vol. 30, 2013, Issue 12

[5] Dris, Rachid, et al., “Microplastic contamination in an urban area: case of greater Paris”, Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 2015, https://hal-enpc.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01150549v1

[6] Carrington, Damian, “People may be breathing in microplastics, health expert warns”, The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/09/people-may-be-breathing-in-microplastics-health-expert-warns

[7] http://www.ciwem.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Addicted-to-plastic-microplastic-pollution-and-prevention.pdf

[8] Nizzetto, Luca; Futter, Martyn and Langaas, Sindre; “Are agricultural soils dumps for microplastics of urban origin?”; Journal of Envornmental Science & Technology, Sept. 29, 2016, 50 (20), pp 10777-10779

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Why Cotton Inc. is supporting GMO cotton

19 08 2017

Shortly after GMO cotton was introduced, GMO cotton producers, citing advances based on new GMO cotton  and supported by a series of Cotton Incorporated conferences on sustainable cotton,  portrayed conventional cotton as the new “sustainable” choice and organic cotton as an old and inadequate solution that is as out-dated as last year’s fashions.  (Editor’s note:  They also redefined the term “sustainable” to include “growing profitability.”  I was contacted by Cotton Inc., and asked to insert this alternative view about the cotton industry, “Cotton Today” .)

GMO cotton was quickly adopted by cotton farmers, and millions of hectares of GMO modified cotton has been planted worldwide since its introduction in 1996.

Why did so many farmers pay for GMO seed – which cost more – and plant this new crop?  Bottom line: they were told that there was more money to be made from GMO cotton.    GMO cotton was supposed to have higher yields at the same time it was helping to reduce costs.  Cost savings in chemicals and manual labor was estimated at between 15 – 30%.   How did it reduce dependence on chemicals:

  • Farmers were told that GMO cotton was engineered to reduce insect pests so farmers could reduce their chemical dependence on pesticides, and buy less of them.  The gene coding for Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) was inserted into the cotton.  Bt is a protein that acts as a natural toxin to the larvae of certain moths, butterflies, beetles and flies (including the dred bollworm) and is harmless to other forms of life.  When the larvae feed on the cotton they are killed by the Bt protein – thereby eliminating the need for a broad spectrum insecticide.
  • GMO cotton was designed to be resistant to herbicides so that weed killers could be liberally sprayed on crops without worrying about killing the cotton plants.  It was genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate (marketed as Roundup in the USA and manufactured by Monsanto – remember this fact) which is a broad-spectrum herbicide, and toxic to humans at concentrations far below the recommended agricultural use levels.[1]

Not only could they make more money, but  GMO cotton crops were also promoted as helping tackle world hunger and poverty, and helping small farmers. If you were a cotton farmer, how could you resist?  They didn’t:  Today 86% of all United States cotton, 68% of all Chinese cotton, and 76% of all Indian cotton (three of the major cotton growing countries) is now GMO cotton.[2]

Initial results seemed that all they promised was true – early studies in 2002/2003 reported that pesticide and herbicide use was down and yields were up (by as much as 80%) for GMO cotton[3].  But these results were short lived.   Recent reports are full of data on GMO crops requiring ever more doses of chemical pesticides and herbicides to control pests which are mutating faster than even their worse case scenarios had envisioned, and becoming resistant to the genetic modifications found in GMO cotton.

study published by the Institute for Science in Society [4] reports that Bt cotton fields rarely have studies done on what the crops do to the soil itself; they found that soil growing Bt cotton had significantly fewer beneficial soil enzymes in the soil (which makes nutrients available to plants) and total biomass was reduced 8.9%.  This, they conclude, could even lead to dead soils, unable to produce food. One of the scientists working on this comparison is Michel Cavigelli of the USDA. He runs the USDA’s farm in Beltsville, MD to test organic vs. conventional agriculture. The organic systems in the USDA test revealed that organic:

  • Has more-fertile soil.
  • Uses less fertilizer and much less herbicide.
  • Uses less energy.
  • Locks away more carbon in the soil.
  • Are more profitable for farmers.

In addition, organic farms preserve natural resources and biodiversity

The conventional systems:

  • Have higher yields.
  • Are best at reducing erosion (when a no-till system is used).

What about the promise of reduced chemical dependence on pesticides and herbicides?

It was always thought that pests would eventually evolve and develop a resistance to Bt. It wasn’t a question of whether resistance would happen, but how quickly it would evolve.  The Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) in India published the (then currently held) opinion that, “with the current rate of increase in the area under Bt cotton, it is likely to take about 11 – 12 years for the pest to develop resistance to Bt cotton.  However, with implementation of proper strageties as suggested by CICR, it is possible to delay resistance by at least 30 – 40 years if not more.”  Worse case scenario was thought to be three years.

Yet in 2008 the University of Arizona published some of the first documented cases of bollworm resistance to Bt. Professor Bruce Tabashnik, a renowed insect researcher and the primary researcher of this study, said “our results contradict the worse-case scenarios of some experts under which resistance to Bt plants was expected in three years.  It is no surprise that, after a while, pests can develop biological strategies against insecticidal agents and become thereby insensitive:  as a rule, even advantages that have been established in a plant by conventional breeding methods only have a limited time span of effectiveness.”

According to a 2008 study by Friends of the Earth, independent studies have demonstrated not only that pesticide reduction claims are unfounded, but that GM crops have substantially increased pesticide use, particularly since 1999.  Dr. Charles Benbrook, a leading U.S. agricultural scientist, conducted an “exhaustive analysis of USDA data on pesticide use in agriculture from 1996 to 2004.  His conclusion is that over this 9 year period, adoption of GM soy, corn and cotton crops has led to use of 122 million more pounds of pesticides than would have been used had GM crops not been introduced.”[5]

With regard to herbicides, GM cotton crops were engineered to have a resistance to glyphosate – the primary component in Monsanto’s patented week killer called Roundup.  Roundup is Montsanto’s biggest product, accounting for about 40% of their estimated 2002 revenue of $4.6 billion.  Monsanto sold its GMO seeds under the brand name, “Roundup Ready” because farmers could spray the herbicide directly onto their fields and not have to worry about killing their crop.  The popularity of Roundup Ready crops skyrocketed, and the use of Roundup also skyrocketed.  In the U.S. alone, glyphosate use jumped by a factor of 15 between 1994 and 2005, according to the Center for Food Safety.  That led to a host of  “superweeds” developing a resistance to Roundup.   Farmers were told that in order to combat glyphosate-resistant weeds they’d have to apply other chemicals, often in combination with higher rates of glyphosate.   In 2005, Monsanto recommended farmers use several additional herbicides with Roundup, including Prowl (pendimethalin), metolachlor, diuron and others.    In fact, recent data shows resistance to herbicides in general, and herbicides used in GMO crops in particular, has escalated at exponential rates, according to the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds.

According to the Friends of the Earth study, cited above: ” When forced to admit that herbicide-tolerant crops increase overall pesticide use, biotech industry apologists quickly fall back on a second claim: the increasing use of glyphosate has reduced use of more toxic herbicides, and so is a benefit to the environment. While this was true in the first few years of Roundup Ready crops, a look at recent trends in herbicide use undermines this claim.”  For instance, 2,4-D is the second most heavily used herbicide on soybeans; it is a herbicide that formed part of the defoliant Agent Orange, and has been associated with health risks such as increased risk of both cancer and birth defects – and use of 2,4-D more than doubled from 2002 to 2006.  Likewise, use of atrazine (which is linked to endocrine disruption, neuropathy, breast and prostate cancer and low sperm counts) rose by nearly 7 million lbs (a 12% increase).

And according to the Friends of the Earth study,  “It is important to understand two key facts about weed resistance. First, resistance is defined as a weed’s ability to survive more than the normal dose of a given herbicide rather than absolute immunity. Higher doses of the herbicide will often still kill the resistant weed, at least in the short term. The second fact follows from the first. Weed resistance is not only the result of using an herbicide excessively, it often leads to still
greater use of that herbicide.”

And the promised yield increases?  Often, the answer depends on weather and growing conditions rather than types of seed planted.  Average cotton yields in the United States were stagnant from 1996 (when GM cotton was introduced) to 2002 (when it made up 76% of cotton acreage); there was a record yield in 2004 and 2005 but these increases were chiefly attributable to excellent weather conditions.[6] (5)  In fact the question is really whether the yield for U.S. cotton is lower than it would have been had it not been Roundup Ready seed! (6) Other parts of the world had similar or worse results.

Another facet of this discussion should include the fact that GMO seeds are expensive:  in India, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready cotton seed was selling for twice the price of non-GMO seeds.    GMO seeds cannot be saved and used for next season’s crop.   The high price for the seed led to farmers in India often having to take out loans from moneylenders who charged exorbitant interest rates.  In a poignant article in the New York Times, Somini Sengupta published a discussion about the rash of suicides by Indian farmers – 17,107 farmers committed suicide in 2003 – and lays the blame on a combination of rural despair and American multinational companies peddling costly, genetically modified seeds.

According to the Friends of the Earth, GM crops do not fulfill their promise.

  1. GM crops do not tackle hunger or poverty.
  2. GM crops increase pesticide use and foster the spread of resistant “superweeds”.
  3. GM crops do not yield more and often yield less than other crops.[7]
  4. GM crops benefit the biotech industry and some large growers, but not small farmers.

But why is the Organic Trade Association and GOTS so adamantly opposed to GMO crops?  Why are European countries like Germany banning the sale and planting of GMO crop?  And why did the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) release a position paper calling for a moratorium on genetically modified foods?  Food for thought.

The quality of organically grown cotton is equal to or better than conventionally grown cotton. Because it is less processed and not treated with harsh chemicals (like chlorine bleach and formaldehyde) that can wear down fibers, organic cotton is often more durable than conventional cotton.

Organic cotton is free of allergens and nasty chemicals contained in chemically grown and processed products. It does not cause any allergy or irritation when it comes into contact with sensitive skin (like baby’s skin).

Conventional and organic cotton fabrics shrink the same amount. No miracles here.

[1]Studies link glyphosate to spontaneous abortions, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. Benachour N and Séralini G-E.. Glyphosate formulations Induce Apoptosis and Necrosis in Human Umbilical, Embryonic, and Placental Cells Chem. Res. Toxicol. , 2009, 22 (1), pp 97–105

[2]GMO Compass; http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/agri_biotechnology/gmo_planting/343.genetically_modified_cotton_global_area_under_cultivation.html

[3] Qaim, Matin and Zilberman, David, “Yield Effects of Genetically Modified Croops in Dveloping Countries”, Science, 2.7.03

[4] “Monsanto’s Bt Cotton Kills the Soil as Well as Farmers”, Science in Society, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/BtCottonKillsSoilandFarmers.php

[5] “Who Benefits From GM Crops?”, Friends of the Earth,  issue 112 Agriculture and Food; January 2008, page 7.

 

[6] Meyer, L., S., MacDonald & L. Foreman, March 2007.  Cotton Backgrounder.  USDA Economic Research Service Outlook Report.

[7] “Corn, Soy Yields Gain Little From Genetic Engineering”, Agence France Presse, April 14, 2009





Not Michael Pollan’s Food Rules

26 07 2017

One of the presenters at the 2011 Living Building Challenge (whose name I’ve been trying to find, but cannot – so apologies to the presenter who remains unnamed), 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:

  • 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: this is not just the fibers used to weave the fabric – did the processing use specific chemicals, like heavy metals in the dyestuff, or are there any finishes on the fabric?)
  • Avoid materials that are pretending to be something they are not (like polyester mimicking linen).
  • Question materials that make health claims.
  • Regard space-age materials with skepticism.

 





What is CertiPUR?

23 05 2017

Why is it necessary to find a good mattress for your baby?  For one thing, babies spend a lot of time sleeping.  And there is evidence that your immune system works hardest at night, so it seems reasonable to make your sleep environment as clean as possible.  A study done in 2014 by the University of Texas at Austin found that infants are exposed to high levels of chemical emissions while they sleep.  I

But mostly it’s because a common household fungus known as scopularioupsis brevicaulis gets established in the mattress from the baby’s sweating, spitting up, urinating, etc.  The fungus feeds on phosphorus (used in the mattress and found in detergents in the baby’s clothing) and arsenic and antimony, both used as preservatives, in polyurethane production and in fire retardants.  The result is a production of three nerve gasses: phosphine, arsine and stibine, all of which can be very deadly, especially to infants. Enter SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). A large study in New Zealand has had a 100% success rate in SIDS prevention for the past 20 years. Parents were strongly advised to wrap their mattresses with a specially formulated polyethylene cover. During this time, there was not a single SIDS death among at least 245,000 babies who have slept on mattresses wrapped in low density, food-grade polyethylene plastic.  BabeSafe mattress covers were used in the New Zealand campaign, and they sell the food-grade, 5 mil polyethylene covers on their website. ( https://store.babymattresscovers.com/BabeSafe-Products-c23061005 )

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 United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has yet to establish exposure limits on carcinogenicity for polyurethane foam. This does not mean 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.

From the Sovn blog:  “the average queen-sized polyurethane foam mattress 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.”

CertiPUR is made from polyurethane foam.  It was conceived by the Polyurethane Foam Association (PFA) whose members are chemical companies and foam fabricators.  Much of the funding for CertiPUR is provided by the same chemical companies who want to convince the public that their chemicals are safe enough to be considered healthy.  CertiPUR is a registered certification mark of the Alliance for Flexible Polyurethane Foam (AFPF) (no website); in a promotional piece put out by the Alliance, it says: “the alliance for Flexible Polyurethane Foam is a joint program of  AFPF and the Polyurethane Foam Association – so this is not an independent third party certification program, but rather the industry is certifying itself.

The CertiPUR criteria are:

  • Made without ozone depleters.  The CertiPUR label prohibits the use of any CFCs or other ozone depleters in the foam manufacturing process.  US manufacturers do not use CFCs or ozone depleters, so this is a red herring.
  • Made without PBDE flame retardants.  This has just recently been increased (as of October 25, 2016) to include other flame retardants such as pentaBDE, octaBDE , decaBDE, TRIS, TDCPP and TEPA.  But because I was told by a fire marshall that polyurethane is basically “solid accelerant” I would think they would have to have a fire retardant of some kind.
  • Made without mercury, lead or other heavy metals.    Heavy metals are not commonly used to make polyurethane foam, so another red herring.
  • Made without formaldehyde.  Like heavy metals, formaldehyde has never been used as a raw material in foam – another red herring.
  • Made without phthalates.  Of 29 possible phthalates, CertiPUR prohibits seven.
  • Low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) emissions for indoor air quality.  In this comparison between CertiPUR and GreenGuard Gold, CertiPUR lags way behind:
Chemical: CertiPUR GreenGuard Gold
Total VOC 500 200
Benzene 500 16
Toluene 500 150

 





For our children

4 05 2017

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

Our children today live in an environment that is fundamentally different from that of 50 years ago. In many ways, their world is better. In many ways, they’re healthier than ever before.  Thanks to safe drinking water, wholesome food, decent housing, vaccines, and antibiotics, our children lead longer, healthier lives than the children of any previous generation.  Traditional infectious diseases have largely been eradicated. Infant mortality is greatly reduced. The expected life span of a baby born in the United States is more than two decades longer than that of an infant born in 1900.

Yet, curiously, certain childhood problems are on the increase:

  • asthma is now the leading cause of school absenteeism for children 5 to 17[1];
  • birth defects are the leading cause of death in early infancy[2];
  • developmental disorders (ADD, ADHD, autism, dyslexia and mental retardation) are reaching epidemic proportions – 1 in 88 children is now diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.[3] Currently one of every six American children has a developmental disorder of some kind. [4]
  • Childhood cancers had once been a medical rarity but have grown 67% since 1950.[5] Childhood leukemia and brain cancer has increased sharply, while type 2 diabetes, previously unknown among children, is on the increase.[6]
  • Most likely, one in three of the children you know suffers from a chronic illness – perhaps cancer, birth defects, asthma, learning disorders, ADHD or autism.[7]

And the cost of these illnesses is staggering – a few childhood conditions (lead poisoning, cancer, developmental disabilities –including autism and ADD – and asthma) accounted for 3% of total U.S. health care spending in the U.S.  “The environment has become a major part of childhood disease” trumpeted Time magazine in 2011.[8]

The generation born from 1970 on is the first to be raised in a truly toxified world.

Since World War II, more than 80,000 new chemicals have been invented.  Scientific evidence is strong, and continues to build, that exposures to synthetic chemicals in the modern environment are important causes of these diseases.[9]  Indoor and outdoor air pollution are now established as causes of asthma. Childhood cancer is linked to solvents, pesticides, and radiation. The National Academy of Sciences has determined that environmental factors contribute to 25% of developmental disorders in children[10] –  disorders that affect approximately 17% of U.S. children under the age of 18. Even before conception and on into adulthood, the assault is everywhere: heavy metals and carcinogenic particles in air pollution; industrial solvents, household detergents, prozac and radioactive wastes in drinking water; pesticides in flea collars; artificial growth hormones in beef, arsenic in chicken; synthetic hormones in bottles, teething rings and medical devices; formaldehyde in cribs and nail polish, and even rocket fuel in lettuce. Pacifiers are now manufactured with nanoparticles from silver, to be sold as ‘antibacterial.’

What is different now?

  • The chief argument used by manufacturers to defend their chemical use is that the amounts used in products are so low that they don’t cause harm.  Yet we now know that the old belief that “the dose makes the poison” (i.e., the higher the dose, the greater the effect – because water can kill you just as surely as arsenic given sufficient quantity) is simply wrong.  Studies are finding that even infinitesimally low levels of exposure – indeed any level of exposure at all – may cause endocrine or reproductive abnormalities, particularly if exposure occurs during a critical developmental window.[11]Surprisingly, low doses may even exert more potent effects than higher doses. 
Endocrine disrupting chemicals may affect not only the exposed individual but also their children and subsequent generations.[12] Add to that the fact that what the industry bases its “safe” exposure limits on is calibrated on an adult’s body size, not children’s body sizes.
  • We also now know that time of exposure is critical – because during gestation and through early childhood the body is rapidly growing under a carefully orchestrated process that is dependent on a series of events.  When one of those events is interrupted, the next event is disrupted – and so on – until permanent and irreversible changes result. These results could be very subtle — like an alteration in how the brain develops which subsequently impacts, for example, learning ability.  Or it could result in other impacts like modifying the development of an organ predisposing it to cancer later in life. There is even a new terminology to explain the consequences of exposure to EDCs: “the fetal basis of adult disease”, which means that the maternal and external environment, coupled with an individual’s genes, determine the propensity of that individual to develop disease or dysfunction later in life.  This theory, known as the “developmental origins of health and disease,” or DOHad, has blossomed into an emerging new field. DOHad paints a picture of almost unimaginably impressionable bodies, responsive to biologically active chemicals until the third generation.
  • Order of exposure is important – exposures can happen all at once, or one after the other, and that can make a world of difference.
  • There is yet another consideration:  The health effects from chemical pollution may appear immediately following exposure – or not for 30 years. The developmental basis of adult disease has implicit in its name the concept that there is a lag between the time of exposure and the manifestation of a disorder. Each of us starts life with a particular set of genes, 20,000 to 25,000 of them. Now scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence that pollutants and chemicals might be altering those genes—not by mutating or killing them, but by sending subtle signals that silence them or switch them on at the wrong times.  This can set the stage for diseases that can be passed down for generations.  This study of heritable changes in gene expression – the chemical reactions that switch parts of the genome off and on at strategic times and locations – is called “epigenetics”. Exposure to chemicals is capable of altering genetic expression, not only in your children, but in your children’s children – and their children too.  Researchers at Washington State University found that when pregnant rats were exposed to permethrin, DEET or any of a number of industrial chemicals, the mother rats’ great granddaughters had higher risk of early puberty and malfunctioning ovaries — even though those subsequent generations had not been exposed to the chemical.[13]  Another recent study has shown that men who started smoking before puberty caused their sons to have significantly higher rates of obesity. And obesity is just the tip of the iceberg—many researchers believe that epigenetics holds the key to understanding cancer, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, and diabetes. Other studies are being published which corroborate these findings.[14]
  • Age at time of exposure is critical. Fetuses are most at risk, because their rapidly developing bodies can be altered and reprogrammed before birth.
  • Finally, exposures don’t happen alone – other pollutants are often involved, which may have additive or synergistic effects.[15] Synergy means the interaction of two (or more) things that produce an overall effect that’s greater than – or different from – the sum of the individual effects. In other words, we cannot predict the whole simply by looking at the parts.   Even so, we are challenged to understand and predict the impacts that contaminants have on communities – when understanding the effect of a single contaminant on a single organism is daunting. There are almost unlimited variables that impact any situation. For example: a dose of mercury that would kill 1 out of 100 rats, when combined with a dose of lead that would kill 1 out of 1000 rats – kills every rat exposed.

It is well documented that chemicals can make each other more toxic, and because we can’t know what exposures we’re being subjected to (given the cocktail of smog, auto exhaust, cosmetics, cleaning products and countless other chemicals we’re exposed to every day) coupled with an individuals unique chemistry, we can’t know when exposure to a chemical will trigger a tipping point.

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 throwing out our old notions of toxicology (i.e., “the dose makes the poison”). In a recent talk at the National Academy of Sciences, Linda Birnbaum, the head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program, called toxicogenomics—the study of how genes respond to toxins—the “breakthrough” that pushed the study of poisons beyond the “obvious things” that is, that huge doses led to “death or low birth weight.”

Are these rates of disease and the corresponding rise in the use of industrial chemicals a coincidence? Are our increased rates of disease due to better diagnosis? Some argue that we’re confronting fewer natural pathogens. All plausible.  But it’s also true that we’re encountering an endless barrage of artificial pathogens that are taxing our systems to the max. And our children are the pawns in this great experiment. And if you think artificial pathogens are not the main culprits, your opinion is not shared by a goodly number of scientists, who believe that this endless barrage of artificial pathogens that is taxing our systems to the max has replaced bacteria and viruses as the major cause of human illness.[16] We don’t have to debate which source is primary, especially because, with the rise of super bugs, it’s a silly debate. The point remains that industrial pollution is a cause of human illness – and it is a cause we can take concrete actions to stem.

Consider this: Children of moms who had the highest levels of phthalates in their blood during pregnancy had children who had markedly lower IQs at age 7.[17] Why talk about this? Because phthalates are in the fabrics we use. Generally, phthalates are used to make plastic soft, but they’re also found in perfume, hair spray, deodorant, nail polish, insect repellent, carpeting, vinyl flooring, shower curtains…..I could go on. They’re in our food and water too. And also in fabrics. People don’t think about the soft fabrics they’re surrounded most of every day as containing chemicals that can harm us – while we continue to identify fabric as the elephant in the room. Greenpeace did a study of fabrics produced by the Walt Disney Company in 2004 and found phthalates in all samples tested, at up to 20% of the weight of the fabric.[18]  Phthalates are one of the main components of plastisol screen printing inks used on fabrics. They’re also used in the production of synthetic fibers, as a finish for synthetic fibers to prevent static cling and as an intermediary in the production of dyes.

Consider this: The Mt. Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center published a list of the top 10 chemicals they believe are linked to autism – and of the 10, 6 are used in textile processing and 2 are pesticides used on fiber crops.[19] What other chemicals are used in textile production, and what do those chemicals do to human health?

  1. Disruptions during development (including autism, which now occurs in 1 of every 68 births in the US[20]); attention deficit disorders (ADD) and hyperactivity (ADHD): Chemicals commonly used in textiles which contribute to these conditions:
  1. Breathing difficulties, including asthma (in children under 5 asthma has increased 160% between 1980-1994[21]) and allergies. Chemicals used in textiles which contribute:
  • Formaldehyde, other aldehydes
  • Benzene, toluene
  1. Damage to the nervous and immune system, reproductive disorders, endometriosis:

Dioxins

Toluene/benzene

  1. Hormone disruptions, infertility and lowered sperm counts:

Chlorine

Sodium cyanide/ sodium sulfate

Alkylphenolethoxylates

Phthalates

  1. Cancer:

Formaldehyde,

Lead,

Cadmium,

Pesticides,

Benzene,

Vinyl chloride

 

Specifically:

  • 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 sold in the USA.
    • 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-links with proteins, DNA and unsaturated fatty acids. 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.[22]
      • 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[23]; in 2012 Alaska Airlines flight attendants reported the same “dermal symptoms” as the TSA officers – and in 2016 American Airlines flight attendants had the same symptoms.[24]
      • 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.
      • 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.[25]

Studies have been done which link formaldehyde in indoor air as a risk factor for childhood asthma.[26] Formaldehyde in clothing is not regulated in the United States, but 13 other countries do have laws that regulate the amount of formaldehyde allowed in clothing.   Greenpeace tested a series of Disney clothing articles and found from 23ppm – 1,100 ppm of formaldehyde in 8 of the 16 products tested.   By the way, OSHA has established a Federal standard that restricts the amount of formaldehyde that a worker can be exposed to over an 8 hour workday – currently that’s 0.75 ppm. That means if you have 0.2 ppm of formaldehyde in your indoor air, and your baby is wearing the Disney “Finding Nemo” t-shirt, which registered at 1,100 ppm formaldehyde – what do you think the formaldehyde is doing to your baby?

  • Perfluorocarbons (PFC’s, which break down in the body to perfluorooctanoic acid – PFOA – and perfluorooctanyl sulfate – PFOS) are used on fabrics as soil and stain repellents.
    • 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 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. Every American who has been tested for these chemicals have these hyper-persistent, toxic chemicals in their blood. The Cradle to Cradle program no longer certifies any products which contain PFCs. A 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals that the more exposure children have to PFCs, the less likely they are to have a good immune response to vaccinations.[27] This is not a frivolous concern because the levels of PFCs globally are not going down, and in some places may be increasing.
  • Benzene, used in the production of nylon and other synthetics, in textile dyestuffs and in the pigment printing process – is highly carcinogenic and linked to leukemia, breast cancer, lymphatic and hematopoietic cancers. It is easily absorbed by the skin.
  • Endocrine disruptors (EDC): Used in detergents, as dye stripping agents, fastness improvers and in finishes (water repellents, flame retardants, anti-fungal and odor-preventive agents).

The endocrine system is the exquisitely balanced system of glands and hormones that regulates such vital functions as body growth (including the development of the brain and nervous system), response to stress, sexual development and behavior, production and utilization of insulin, rate of metabolism, intelligence and behavior, and the ability to reproduce. Hormones are chemicals such as insulin, thyroxin, estrogen, and testosterone that interact with specific target cells.  The endocrine system uses these chemicals to send messages to the cells – similar to the nervous system sending electrical messages to control and coordinate the body. Pregnancy, childhood and adolescence are periods of brain development that are considered critically sensitive to toxic chemicals, with even small exposures at the wrong time altering the brain’s developmental programming signals in an irreversible way.    Impaired brain development may result in a broad range of human health effects:  from altered reproduction, metabolism and stress response, to mental retardation and subtle, subclinical intellectual deficiencies.  In addition, fetal and early childhood life stages are particularly sensitive to heavy metals and EDCs and there are likely to be no safe levels which can be set with sufficient certainty. (To see which chemicals impact the fetus, go to:         http://endocrinedisruption.org/prenatal-origins-of-endocrine-disruption/critical-windows-of-development/timeline-test/

Over the past 60 years, a growing number of endocrine disrupting chemicals have been used in the production of almost everything we purchase. What this constant everyday low-dose exposure means in terms of public health is just beginning to be explored by the academic community. Only relatively recently have we learned that a large number of chemicals can penetrate the womb and alter the construction and programming of a child before it is born. Through trans-generational exposure, endocrine disruptors cause adverse developmental and reproductive disorders at extremely low amounts in the womb, and often within the range of human exposure. In 2007, the global prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was 5.3%.  In the United States, by 2012, the number of children diagnosed with ADHD was 10% of children while 8% of children have a learning disability.

As the TEDX (The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, Inc.) website states:   “The human health consequences of endocrine disruption are dire. Yet, no chemical has been regulated in the U.S. to date because of its endocrine disrupting effects – and no chemical in use has been thoroughly tested for its endocrine disrupting effects. The U.S. government has failed to respond to the evolving science of endocrine disruption. While much remains to be learned in regard to the nature and extent of the impact of endocrine disruptors on human health, enough is known now to assume a precautionary approach should be taken.”

  • Lead: used in textile dyestuffs and as a catalyst in the dye process. Lead has been known to cause intellectual disabilities for many years, with no known safe blood level. 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.[28]
  • Mercury: also used in textile dyestuffs, and as a catalyst in the dyeing process. Exposure to mercury during development prevents neurons from finding their appropriate place in the brain, causing lower language, attention and memory scores, reduced cognitive performance and psychomotor deficiencies in children.
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs):  used in textile dyestuffs. PCBs have been banned from most uses since the 1970s in many countries. Known to interfere with the normal function of the thyroid hormone, and there is growing evidence that PCBs adversely affect neurodevelopment.
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)used in flame retardants in the textile industry

PBDEs are widespread contaminants of the environment and the human body.  PBDEs persist in the environment and some bioaccumuate in human tissues.  A recent Dutch study reported that PBDEs were associated with lower mental and psychomotor development and IQ in pre-school children, and poorer attention for those in school. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that Latino children born in California had levels of PBDE in their blood seven times higher than Latino children who were born in raised in Mexico.[29] In general, people in the United States have higher levels of PBDE than anyone else in the world. A paper published in Environmental Science & Technology[30] also finds high fire retardant levels in pet dogs. Cats, because they lick their fur, have the highest levels of all. See the Chicago Tribune series “Playing with Fire”, in which they concluded fire retardants were a public health debacle. (http://media.apps.chicagotribune.com/flames/index.html )

  • 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.   It is 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 impacts the developing fetus
    • Studies have found dioxin leached from clothing  onto  the skin of participants.[31] 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.

Today there are more than 80,000 synthetic chemicals in use by industry, most of which have never been tested.   These synthetic chemicals, many believe, can be blamed for many of the modern maladies affecting humans. In fact, many scientists are saying that the increasing levels of human disease are caused by the chemical burden imposed on our bodies. Dr. Dick Irwin, a toxicologist at Texas A&M University, says, “Chemicals have replaced bacteria and viruses as the main threat to health. The diseases we are beginning to see in the 21st Century as the major causes of death are diseases of chemical origin.” These chemicals are becoming part of our environment, being taken into our bodies and changing them in unknown and unforeseen ways.

We need to do whatever we can to stem the tide of chemical incursions into our world; we can see the damage being done, from dead zones in the oceans to desertification of entire countries. We all suffer the “common wound”. We know very little about what these exposures are doing to our genetic makeup. We need to act now to protect our kids. We can’t wait for the government to put legislated controls in place – the government historically has not been proactive in this area.

What is an “organic fabric”?   When you see a fabric that says “made with organic cotton” the manufacturer is not telling you anything about how the organic cotton was made into cloth. The fiber, organic cotton, used to make the fabric may have been raised with regard to health and safety of the planet and people; but the production of the fabric made from that cotton may not have been. Think of applesauce: if you start with organic apples, then add Red Dye #2, stabilizers, emulsifiers, and antibacterials to inhibit mold – you don’t end up with organic applesauce. The same analogy can be used for textile production.

An organic fabric is a fabric that is produced using no known or suspected toxic chemicals (toxic to the earth, humans or animals) at any stage of the production process: from fiber to finished fabric. The major textile production steps include spinning; weaving; dyeing; printing; and finishing. Sub steps can include bleaching, brightening, sizing, de-sizing, de-foaming, brightening and countless others. The GOTS, or Global Organic Textile Standard, which forbids the use of many known or suspected toxic substances in each step of the textile production process, also requires water treatment (because even benign chemicals released into the eco-system will degrade the local eco-system and threaten the life of all that depend on it). It also covers fundamental social justice issues (no child labor, no slave labor, certain minimal working conditions); and addresses in a preliminary way carbon footprint concerns.

The trend to eco consciousness in textiles is major progress in reclaiming our stewardship of the earth, and in preventing preventable human misery. The new textile standards are not, by any means, yet environmentally benign. But, if people demand or support the efforts, more progress can be made – and rapidly. Many new techniques are possible, such as using ultrasound for dyeing, thereby eliminating the use of water entirely; and drying fabrics using radio frequencies rather than ovens, saving energy.

You have the power to stem the toxic stream caused by the production of fabric. If you search for and buy an eco textile, you are encouraging a shift to production methods that have the currently achievable minimum detrimental effects for either the planet or for your health. You, as a consumer, are very powerful. You have the power to change harmful production practices. Eco textiles exist and they give you a greener, healthier, fair-trade alternative. What will an eco textile do for you? You and the frogs and the world’s flora and fauna could live longer, and be healthier – and in a more just, sufficiently diversified, more beautiful world.

[1] Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, http://www.aafa.org/display.cfm?id=8&sub=42

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/Features/dsInfantDeaths/

[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/Features/CountingAutism/

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

[5] Shabecoff, Philip and Alice; Poisoned Profits: the Toxic Assault on Our Children, Random House, August 2008.

[6] Grady, Denise, “Obesity-Linked Diabetes in children Resists Treatment”, New York Times, April 29, 2012

[7] Shabecoff, op cit.

[8] Walsh, Bryan, “Environmental Toxins Cost Billions in childhood Disease”, Time, May 4, 2011.

[9] Koger, Susan M, et al, “Environmental Toxicants and Developmental Disabilities”,  American Psychologist, April 2005, Vol 60, No. 3, 243-255

[10] Polluting Our Future, September 2000, http://www.aaidd.org/ehi/media/polluting_report.pdf

[11] Sheehan DM, Willingham EJ, Bergeron JM, Osborn CT, Crews D; “No threshold dose for estradiol-induced sex reversal of turtle embryos: how little is too much?” Environ Health Perspect 107:155–159, 1999

[12] Anway MD, Skinner MK “Epigenetic transgenerational actions of endocrine disruptors.” Endocrinology 147: S43–S49, 2006

[13] Sorensen, Eric, “Toxicants cause ovarian disease across generations”, Washington State University, http://news.wsu.edu/pages/publications.asp?Action=Detail&PublicationID=31607

[14] http://www.sciguru.com/newsitem/13025/Epigenetic-changes-are-heritable-although-they-do-not-affect-DNA-structure  ALSO SEE: http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/agrawal/documents/HoleskiJanderAgrawal2012TREE.pdfALSO SEE: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/32637/title/Lamarck-and-the-Missing-Lnc/

[15] Crews D, Putz O, Thomas P, Hayes T, Howdeshell K “Animal models for the study of the effects of mixtures, low doses, and the embryonic environment on the action of endocrine disrupting chemicals”, Pure and Applied Chemistry, SCOPE/IUPAC Project Implications of Endocrine Active Substances for Humans and Wildlife 75:2305–2320, 2003

[16] Irwin, Richard, “Chemicals replace infection as top threat to health”, January 31 2016.

[17] Factor-Litvak, Pam, et al., “Persistent Associations Between Maternal Prenatal Exposure to Phthalates on Child IQ at Age 7 Years”, PLOS One, December 10, 2014; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0114003

[18] Pedersen, H and Hartmann, J; “Toxic Textiles by Disney”, Greenpeace, Brussels, April 2004

[19] http://www.mountsinai.org/patient-care/service-areas/children/areas-of-care/childrens-environmental-health-center/cehc-in-the-news/news/mount-sinai-childrens-environmental-health-center-publishes-a-list-of-the-top-ten-toxic-chemicals-suspected-to-cause-autism-and-learning-disabilities

[20] https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html

[21] http://www.aaaai.org/about-the-aaaai/newsroom/asthma-statistics.aspx

[22] 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

[23] http://www.examiner.com/article/new-tsa-uniforms-making-workers-sick-afge-demands-replacement

[24] Tuten, Craig, “Employee Uniforms a Major Source of Irritation for American Airlines Flight Attendants”, Dec. 4, 2016; http://www.alaskacommons.com

[25] 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.

[26] Rumchev, K.B., et al, “Domestic exposure to formaldehyde significantly increases the risk of asthma in young children”, Microsoft Academic Search 2002

[27] Grandjean, Philippe et al, “Serum Vaccine Antibody Concentrations in Children Exposed to Perfluorinated Compounds”, January 25, 2012; JAMA.2012; 307(4):391-397.doi:10.1001/jama.2011.2034

[28] Dietrich, KN et al, “Decreased Brain Volume in Adults with Childhood Lead

Exposure”, PLoS Med 2008 5(5): e112.

[29] Eskenazi, B., et al., “A Comparison of PBDE Serum Concentrations in Mexican and Mexican-American
Children Living in California”, http://ehp03.nieh.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.100284

[30] 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

[31] 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





Scary new CHEM Trust report

28 03 2017

Imagine my distress when I read the new CHEM Trust report, titled “No Brainer:  The impact of chemicals on children’s brain development: a cause for concern and a need for action” – because many of the chemicals are found in our clothing and furniture.  To see the report, click here.   For those of you who aren’t familiar with CHEM Trust, it is a UK registered charity that works at European, UK and international levels to prevent man-made chemicals from causing long term damage to wildlife or humans by substituting safer alternatives.

In June 2007 CHEM Trust wrote the briefing Chemicals Compromising Our Children, which highlighted growing concerns about the impacts of chemicals on brain development in children. Almost 10 years later, CHEM Trust has revisited the issue with this report, which includes contributions from two of the most eminent scientists in this area, Professor Barbara Demeneix (Laboratory of Evolution of Endocrine Regulations, CNRS, Paris) and Professor Philippe Grandjean (Department of Environmental Medicine, University of Southern Denmark, Denmark & Department of Environmental Health, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, USA), who also peer reviewed the report.

The report points to strong evidence of a significant global increase in certain neurological diseases and disorders among children over the past two decades – causing issues such as ADHD and lower IQ.  “Some chemicals in these groups are being phased out, but similar chemicals remain in everyday use” according to the report.  CHEM Trust’s particular concerns are related to hormone disruptors, the cocktail effect of chemicals and the role of chemical exposures in the early life of wildlife and humans.

The report focuses on chemicals which it claims have developmental neurotoxic (DNT) properties.  It says:  “Science has shown that many thousands of people have been exposed to now mostly banned chemicals such as lead and PCBs at high enough levels to have had their brain development negatively affected. This report finds that there are other chemicals which are still in routine use in our homes where there is evidence of similar developmental neurotoxic (DNT) properties, and also identifies huge gaps in our knowledge of the impacts of other chemicals on brain development. It also points out the unpleasant reality that we are constantly exposed to a cocktail of chemicals, something which is still largely ignored by chemical safety laws…In spite of the lessons of the past, regulators are continuing to only regulate after harm is caused, instead of acting to effectively protect the most precious of things; children’s developing brains.”

Our brains are astoundingly complex, made up of over 85 billion neurons, which have grown, developed and interconnected during our lives. The brain is the organ that takes the longest to develop, with initial stages of cell division, creation of neurons and their migration taking place from the first hours after fertilization and throughout the fetus’ time in the womb. However, brain development does not stop at birth – it’s not until our twenties that neurons are fully developed with their myelin coats.

Normal brain development is the result of an undisturbed harmonious interaction among cells, and between cells and hormones. Hormones play an important role in
hormones. Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are examples of substances that can alter this delicate balance, and as thyroid hormones play a vital role in brain development, thyroid-disrupting chemicals are of particular concern.   Pregnancy, childhood and adolescence are periods of brain development that are considered critically sensitive to toxic chemicals, with even small exposures at the wrong time altering the brain’s developmental programming signals in an irreversible way.    Impaired brain development may result in a broad range of human health effects:  from altered reproduction, metabolism and stress response, to mental retardation and subtle, subclinical intellectual deficiencies.  In addition, fetal and early childhood life stages are particularly sensitive to heavy metals and EDCs and there are likely to be no safe levels which can be set with sufficient certainty. (To see which chemicals impact the fetus, go to:  http://endocrinedisruption.org/prenatal-origins-of-endocrine-disruption/critical-windows-of-development/timeline-test/

Throughout this complex developmental process a range of signalling chemicals and other processes operate in order to control what happens. The thyroid hormone system is intimately involved in brain development and function, yet it is well established that this system can be disrupted – for example by a lack of iodine (essential to make thyroid hormone) or by certain chemicals. If developmental processes are disrupted, this most often creates permanent problems.

The complexity of brain development and function means that deficits can be very subtle – small reductions in IQ, disabilities that exist with a broad spectrum of seriousness such as autism, or in some cases conditions which do not have fully agreed diagnostic criteria.

In 2007, the global prevalence of just attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was 5.3%.  In the United States, by 2012, the number of children diagnosed with ADHD was 10% of children and 4.9 million, or 8% of children, with a learning disability.  (Note:  while the term ADHD is often used in the United States, the term hyperkinetic disorder (HKD)  is used in the EU and requires that the clinician directly observes the symptoms rather than relying on parent and teacher reports.)

For autism spectrum disorder, the increase in prevalence was equally concerning.  Sweden had the highest increase in cumulative prevalence of 4.5 fold, followed by Denmark with almost 3 fold and Finland with almost double the prevalence in a decade.  While at least some of the increase is thought to be due to increased awareness and increased diagnosis,   there is concern that exposure to certain chemicals could have contributed to some of the incidence.

Exposures to chemicals with DNT properties, which can be found in the environment and the food supply, are preventable causes of impaired brain development. While several of these chemicals have been restricted, exposure can still take place as many of them are persistent (long-living) and some, like PCBs, can bio accumulate, i.e. build up in our bodies over time. Additionally, we are exposed to numerous substances with similar properties which may act in an additive way and yet safety assessment is usually only focused on one substance at a time.

While genetics could explain some of the observed changes, the fast pace at which these trends have occurred are inconsistent with the much slower rate at which genetic changes take place, suggesting that environmental factors, chemical and non-chemical like the ones mentioned above, are probably responsible. It has been concluded that overall, genetic factors seem to account for no more than perhaps 30-40% of all cases of neurodevelopmental disorders, and therefore that non-genetic, environmental exposures, including chemicals, are involved.

Clinical manifestations associated with impaired brain development can be put into two major categories:

  1.  Intellectual:
    1. learning disabilities
    2. impaired memory
    3. verbal comprehension
    4. reasoning and executive skills
  2. Behavioural:
    1. ADHD
    2. aggression
    3. delinquency
    4. anxiety
    5. impaired social interactions in general

But the brain is a collection of interconnected networks, so these categories are closely related.

In the United States, exposures to mercury, lead and organophosphate pesticides have been associated with the loss of around 40 million IQ points in a population of 25 million children up to 5 years of age.  Most if not all chemical exposures can be reduced by putting policy measures into place (such as bans and restrictions).  One such strategy was removing lead from gasoline.  Making that change had a great difference to children born after 2000, who were estimated to have IQ scores 2.2 – 2.7 points higher than children born in the 1970s before lead was removed.

So what chemicals are we talking about?

    • Lead: has been known to cause intellectual disabilities for many years, with no known safe blood level.  (used in textile dyestuffs)
    • Mercury: exposure to mercury  during development prevents neurons from finding their appropriate place in the brain, causing lower language, attention and memory scores, reduced cognitive performance and psychomotor deficiencies in children. (also used in textile dyestuffs, and as a catalyst in the dyeing process)
    • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs):  used in textile dyestuffs; banned from most uses in the 1970s in many countries. Known to interfere with the normal function of the thyroid hormone, and growing evidence indicated PCBs adversely affects neurodevelopment.
    • Bisphenol A (BPA) Bisphenol S (BPS):  used as an intermediary in the production of flame retardants, textile dyes, polymers.  Used in the production of polyester fabrics.  Emerging human data suggests that BPA affects humans just as it does animals (which have been reported for many years):  it has been described that Spanish children with higher concentrations of BPA in urine had worse  behavioural scores and social problems.  In the USA, pre-teen and teenage children with higher BPA in urine had a higher prevalence of ADHD.  Bisphenol S is a substitution that may have similar or worse health effects.
    • Phthalates:  a family of chemicals with multiple uses, widely used in the textile industry.  Three member of this calls, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), benzylbutyl phthalate (BBP) and diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) are known for their anti-androgenic properties and association with altered reproductive organ development in boys.
    • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs):  used in flame retardants; widespread contaminants of the environment and the human body.  Persist in the environment and some bioaccumuate.  A recent Dutch study reported that PBDEs were associated with lower mental and psychomotor development and IQ in pre-school children, and poorer attention for those in school.
    • Organophosphate pesticides:  a recent study concluded that prenatal and to a lesser extent postnatal exposure may contribute to neurodevelopmental and behavioural deficits in preschool and school children.

What to do to reduce your exposure:

    • Eat organic food and avoid pesticides in your own house and garden.
    • Minimize eating tuna and/or swordfish, which contains methylmercury.
    • Avoid microwave popcorn (which contains PFC chemicals).
    • Reduce your use of packaged food.  Store cereals and rice etc. in glass jars.
    • Minimize use of cleaning products or use baking soda + vinegar or other non-toxic cleaning products.
    • Check all shampoos, soaps and cosmetics for listed ingredients which are safe.
    • Because dust has been found to have high levels of problematic chemicals, it’s a good idea to clean your home frequently to reduce the build-up of dust.
    • Minimize your handling of receipts, as they contain BPA.




What’s new in safe flame retardants?

2 03 2017

I get tired of always pointing out the bad chemicals that can do us harm, so I thought it might be fun to try to find if there is new research on flame retardants which may be on the market – and which don’t harm us or our planet!

More than 175 flame retardant compounds are currently on the market, and the industry is worth over $600 million dollars per year in the U.S. and nearly $2 billion worldwide, according to the European Flame Retardants Association.

Flame-retardants are far more common than most of us realize. Many materials contain quite high levels of flame retardants: cellulose insulation is about 20% flame retardant by weight, plastic television and computer cases are often 10–20%, and polyurethane foam cushioning can be up to 30%. Some materials have very low levels of flame-retardants: polystyrene foam insulation is typically 0.5–2.0% HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane) by weight.

Manufacturers of products with less than 1% flame retardant are not required to list it on the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), since it falls below the threshold for required listing. Some products use flame-retardants as secondary components, which can also render an MSDS misleading.

Most of the current concern about flame-retardants focuses on brominated flame- retardants (BFRs). Brominated flame-retardants are widely used for plastics, due to their effectiveness and relatively low cost. More than 75 of these compounds or mixtures are recognized commercially. Some are generic compounds made by a number of manufacturers; others are proprietary formulations that differ slightly from product to product. The best-known BFRs today are PBDEs, HBCD, and TBBPA – none of which anybody wants to live with.

So is there a safe flame retardant available today on the market? Not yet, but there is promising research. Here are three discoveries that may change the FR landscape:

  1. Researchers in Italy have demonstrated that caseins—proteins found in milk that are a by-product of cheese production—may be an alternative to flame-retardants. Some types of flame-retardants, such as organophosphate esters, get their fire-blocking properties from their high phosphorus content. When they burn, a polymer layer of phosphoric acid forms and creates a char that blocks heat transfer to unburned areas of the material, slowing the spread of the fire. Jenny Alongi of the Polytechnic University of Turin and her colleagues decided to investigate a family of proteins called caseins as alternative flame-retardants because they contain a large number of phosphate groups. Caseins are found in the whey which is a by-product of cheese production, so in countries that produce a lot of cheese, such as Italy and France, the proteins are cheap and abundant, Alongi says.

The team coated three materials—cotton, polyester, and a blend of 65% polyester and 35% cotton—with the proteins by soaking the fabrics in distilled water mixed with casein powder. The researchers then submitted the samples to a battery of flammability tests. The results were encouraging: In cotton- and polyester-only fabrics treated with caseins, flames extinguished themselves, leaving 86% of the cotton and 77% of the polyester unburned. The cotton-polyester blend burned completely but took 60% more time to do so than the untreated material. The flame-retardant properties of caseins also compared well to those of ammonium polyphosphate (APP), a flame retardant used for flame proofing polyolefins and polyurethanes. The caseins effectively form a char layer on the fabric samples and don’t produce toxic fumes during combustion.

Before caseins can be used as flame retardants, researchers need to work out many issues, such as preventing the proteins from washing off materials. The team is now testing light-curable resins and molecules such as urea that could bond the casein molecules to the surface of the fabric, Alongi says. Another problem is that materials treated with caseins smell rancid. Alongi and her colleagues are looking for ways to remove the molecules associated with casein that produce the odor.[1]

  1. What sounds like fixings for a wizard’s potion—a dash of clay, a dab of fiber from crab shells, and a dollop of DNA—actually are the ingredients of promising safe fire retardants invented by researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Applied to polyurethane foam, the bio-based coatings greatly reduced the flammability of the common furniture padding after it was exposed to an open flame. Peak and average rates of heat release—two key indicators of the magnitude of a fire hazard—were reduced by 48 percent and 77 percent, respectively, the NIST team reports in the journal Green Materials.

“This is the biggest reduction in flammability that we have achieved to date,” says team leader Rick Davis. The all-natural coatings outperform other promising experimental fire-retardants that the NIST researchers have devised with their layer-by-layer assembly method. But Davis says the bio-based coatings must be applied more generously, in stacks of about 20 layers as compared with six or seven layers.

The new coatings use negatively charged DNA molecules to link two positively charged materials known to enhance fire resistance: montmorillonite, a type of soft clay that forms tiny crystals, and chitosan, a fiber derived from the shells of shrimp, lobsters and other crustaceans. For its part, DNA, which was obtained from herring sperm, may also confer added protection because it bubbles and swells when heated, protecting the material beneath.[2]

  1. In September, 2015, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) published their discovery of a flame-retardant that is nontoxic and won’t accumulate over time in the bodies of people who come in contact with it. It’s made entirely from the chemical dopamine—the neurotransmitter in our brains associated with reward and pleasure. The researchers took their cue from marine mussels, who secrete a mucus-like “glue” made of dopamine that allows the mussels to stick to nearly any surface, including Teflon, widely considered nonadhesive. The mussel’s “glue” has been the focus of several studies, especially for its use as a bio adhesive; it’s nontoxic, making it attractive for uses in the body, like closing incisions without stitches

Christopher Ellison, associate professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering at UT, and his team found that the dopamine-based coating performs wonderfully as a fire retardant. In fact, according to the team’s paper, the dopamine retardant reduces a fire’s intensity 20 percent better than retardants currently on the market. “We beat them all,” Ellison says.[3]

So, there may be safe flame retardants on the horizon – and I can tell you this:  lots of people are looking for them.

 

[1] http://cen.acs.org/articles/92/web/2014/03/Milk-Proteins-Protect-Fabrics-Fire.html

[2] http://www.nist.gov/el/fire_research/fire-060314.cfm

[3] http://www.newsweek.com/2015/10/23/new-nontoxic-flame-retardant-derived-dopamine-381616.html