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

What’s new in stain repellents?

10 01 2017

We haven’t talked about stain repellents for a few years (we last published a blog on the subject 4 years ago) and think it’s time to revisit the topic because of all the claims that companies are making about “safe” stain repellents.

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

Every American who has been tested for these chemicals 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.  So now you will find companies advertising that they can provide stain repellents that “are free of harmful levels of” PFOS (perfluorooctane sulphonate) or PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid).  What does that mean?

The PFC family is a group of man-made chemicals created using perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAA), all of which have a carbon backbone, with atoms of fluorine attached to them.  The PFAA’s are known as C4 – C14:   the numbers denote how many carbon atoms are present.  Those with 8 or more carbon atoms are known as the “long-chain” PFC’s;  PFOS and PFOA are two of the most common C8s.  Those with fewer than 8 carbon atoms are called “short-chain” PFCs.  The carbon-fluorine bonds in these chemicals are very, very strong and are resistant to high temperatures, acidic and alkaline solutions, and other environmental factors. In general, the longer the carbon chain, the more potent and persistent the chemical. The same chemistry that makes these chemicals so potent and useful also means they stick around for a long time in the environment and have the potential for wide-ranging and long-term health and environmental effects.

In January 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approached the eight largest fluorocarbon producers and requested their participation in the 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program.  They wanted these manufacturers to commit to reduce PFOA and related chemicals globally in both facility emissions and product content by 95% by 2010, and 100% by 2015. Although the amount  of PFOA in finishing formulations has been greatly diminished and continues to go down, even parts per trillion are detectable.

So finishing formulators continue to evaluate new materials which can eliminate PFOA while maintaining performance – but a solution is still over the horizon.  One critical piece in this puzzle is that PFOA is also produced indirectly through the gradual breakdown of fluorotelomers – so a stain resistant finish may be formulated with no detectable amounts of PFOA yet STILL produce PFOA when the chemicals begin to decompose.

Since the EPA mandated that textile treatments can no longer contain these specific compounds, the industry is now using “short-chain” PFCs  – C6 and C4 chemistries.  These chemicals are considered safer because they are not as persistent or bioaccumulative as C8 – but there is little human data to support these contentions.  Because these chemicals haven’t received as much scrutiny as their cousins, environmentally aware designers may wonder if we are substituting the devil we don’t know for the devil we know.

3M, which produces Scotchgard, was the first company to switch to the new C4 chemistry by using perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS).  According to 3M, the results show that under federal EPA guidelines, PFBS isn’t toxic and doesn’t accumulate the way the old chemical did. It does persist in the environment, but 3M concluded that isn’t a problem if it isn’t accumulating or toxic. PFBS can enter the bloodstream of people and animals but “it’s eliminated very quickly” and does no harm at typical very low levels, said Michael Santoro, 3M’s director of Environmental Health, Safety & Regulatory Affairs.

But it’s also less effective, so more of the chemical has to be used to achieve the same result.  The smaller the fluorocarbon, the more rapidly it breaks down in the environment.  Unfortunatley, the desired textile performance goes down as the size of the perfluorocarbon goes down.  Now most textiles are finished with C6 chemistry, which produces a by-product called PFHA (perfluorohexanoic acid), which  is supposed to be 40 times less bioaccumulative than PFOA.  “C6 is closest chemically to C8, and it contains no PFOA. It breaks down in the environment – a positive trait – but it doesn’t stick as well to outerwear and it doesn’t repel water and oil as well as C8, which means it falls short of meeting a vague industry standard, as well as individual company standards for durability and repellency.”

PFCs are available as branded products, such as Crypton Green, or generic, unbranded treatments sold through fabric finishers.   Nanotechnology is one way to increase the performance of a fabric; Nano-Tex, Nano-Sphere and GreenShield all use C6 chemistry that is engineered using nanotechnology.

An aside about Crypton Green:  Crypton Green uses an immersion bath of C6 PFCs and what they call “silver ion technology”.  After heat curing, the fabrics are then coated twice with an acrylic-based backing that contains stain blockers and biocides.  This is bad for human health in so many ways:

  • The key ingredient of acrylic fiber is acrylonitrile, (also called vinyl cyanide). It is a carcinogen (brain, lung, bowel and breast 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.  
    • o Acrylic manufacturing involves highly toxic substances which require careful storage, handling, and disposal. The polymerization process can result in an explosion if not monitored properly. It also produces toxic fumes. Recent legislation requires that the polymerization process be carried out in a closed environment and that the fumes be cleaned, captured, or otherwise neutralized before discharge to the atmosphere.
    • o Acrylic is not easily recycled nor is it readily biodegradable. Some acrylic plastics are highly flammable and must be protected from sources of combustion.
    • The CDC has concluded that there is little evidence that biocides and antimicrobials (including silver ion technology) are effective in controlling disease and infection.   All manufacturers claim that their antimicrobials are safe for humans – but healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente no longer specifies carpet or textiles with  antimicrobials.

Back to our subject:  The companies that make these new C6 treatments tout the safety of the new short-chain PFC, yet the Cradle to Cradle program no longer certifies any products which contain PFCs – of any number.  By contrast, Chrstopher Lau, Ph.D., a leading biologist at the EPA, says ”what we’ve found is that short chains don’t have the PBT problems the longer chains have—they might be ‘P’ (persistent) but they are not ‘B’ (bioaccumulative) and definitely not ‘T’ (toxic)”.  It may be too soon to write off bioaccumulation and toxicity altogether, though, according to Lau. He agrees that short-chain PFCs are not as bioaccumulative as C8s, but he cautions that there is little human data to draw other conclusions.

Given the fact that, despite industry assurances that the C6 chemistry is not toxic or bioaccumulative, it is nevertheless persistent in the environment.  And given the number of times the EPA has failed to protect consumers  – most recently regarding Monsanto’s Roundup (which the World Health Organization has deemed a “probable carcinogen”) – I think I’d rather err on the side of not putting a substance (such as C6, which according to the experts, needs more study to determine toxicity) on my sofa.

That one stain repellant which is NOT based on fluorotelomer chemistry? It’s an Oeko-Tex certified stain repellent which is based on silicon dioxide (SiO2). Silicon dioxide is recognized by the FDA as a safe food additive. The second component of this stain repellent is the use of nanotechnology. Since we’re in the dawn of the nano world, we don’t know yet what nanoscience will grow up to be. If you can accept the nano portion of the stain repellent, the product is called Nano4Life (http://www.nano4life.co).


3 11 2016

We now know that firefighters and other first responders are at risk because of exposure to chemicals in the smoke that they are exposed to.  In fact, marine toxicologist Susan Shaw, PhD, found that firefighters had alarmingly high levels of PBDE flame retardants (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) in their blood immediately after fighting fires—three times higher than that of average Americans, who already have the highest PBDE levels in the world. Although the most toxic forms of these chemicals were phased out of production in 2004, they—along with newer, chemically similar flame retardants—remain in household items and dust. They are also persistent, bioaccumulative toxic substances that can actually become more harmful the longer they persist.  PBDEs are endocrine disruptors and neurological toxicants that may have links to thyroid cancer. Shaw said the firefighters also had elevated levels of dioxin and furans—both potent carcinogens that occur when PVC and other common plastics burn. Although firefighters are known to have higher cancer risk than the general population—including double the risk of testicular cancer, no studies have linked their increased risk to specific chemicals.  A massive, multi-year epidemiological study launched in 2010 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health may eventually help answer lingering questions.

A petition by Greg Heath of Westfield, Massachusetts is on Change.org, and we think he should be heard:

A fire can cause millions of toxic chemical combinations. We have become aware of the massive risks these toxins pose for first responders, who breathe them in, ingest them, and absorb them through the skin while putting their lives on the line. Most states have adopted “cancer presumptive laws,” meaning that if a firefighter gets cancer on the job, they are automatically awarded accidental disability to see them through their illness. But the increased rate of Parkinson’s Disease (PD), a degenerative brain disorder, in firefighters has mostly been ignored.

I am a firefighter who was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I am not alone — while the rate of PD in the general population is 3 out of 1000, it is ten times as much in firefighters:   30 out of 1000. I am young to be experiencing this disease, but that’s often how it works for emergency responders, and there is mounting evidence that our exposure to burning chemicals is the culprit.

I have 12 years left until I reach retirement, and, unfortunately, I am not sure I’ll be able to keep working that long.

My state of Massachusetts has great presumptive laws for firefighters, not only for cancer, but for heart and lung disease as well. It is now time for our legislators to include Parkinson’s Disease among these illnesses. We cannot ignore the connection between toxic chemical exposure and PD anymore.

While PD usually develops slowly among the general population, symptoms often hit firefighters fast, seemingly out of nowhere. Research now suggests that toxin-induced PD has a more rapid onset than genetic PD, another indicator that we are, indeed, contracting this illness on the job. For those of us struggling with Parkinson’s, walking, talking, grasping and even blinking become increasingly difficult tasks to accomplish. Needless to say, continuing to work as firefighters while battling this disease is most often not possible.

Indiana recently became the first state to include Parkinson’s in its presumptive law. This has provided unimaginable relief to many firefighters, who were running out of sick time, and facing unemployment and massive medical bills due to their debilitating disease. We now must band together and demand that more states recognize the link between firefighting and PD, and include PD among the illnesses covered by their presumptive laws.

Please sign this petition to include Parkinson’s in Massachusetts’ presumptive law, which would allow firefighters with Parkinson’s to retire on full accidental disability.

You can sign Greg’s petition by clicking here.       

Why do we offer safe fabrics?

3 10 2016

Why do we say we want to change the textile industry?  Why do we say we want to produce fabrics in ways that are non-toxic, ethical and sustainable?  What could be so bad about the fabrics we live with?

The textile industry is enormous, and because of its size its impacts are profound.  It uses a lot of three ingredients:

  • Water
  • Chemicals
  • Energy

Water was not included in the 1947 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights because at the time it wasn’t perceived as having a human rights dimension. Yet today, corporate interests are controlling water, and what is known as the global water justice movement is working hard to ensure the right to water as a basic human right.(1) Our global supply of fresh water is diminishing – 2/3 of the world’s population is projected to face water scarcity by 2025, according to the UN. Our global water consumption rose six fold between 1900 and 1995 – more than double the rate of population growth – and it’s still growing as farming, industry and domestic demand all increase.

The textile industry uses vast amounts of water throughout all processing operations.  Almost all dyes, specialty chemicals and finishing chemicals are applied to textiles in water baths.  Most fabric preparation steps, including desizing, scouring, and bleaching use water.  And each one of these steps must be followed by a thorough washing of the fabric to remove all chemicals used before moving on to the next step.  The water is usually returned to our ecosystem without treatment – meaning that the wastewater, which is returned to our streams, contains all of the process chemicals used during milling.  This pollutes the groundwater.  As the pollution increases, the first thing that happens is that the amount of useable water declines.  But the health of people depending on that water is also at risk, as is the health of the entire ecosystem.

With no controls in place to speak of to date, there are now 405 dead zones in our oceans.  Drinking water even in industrialized countries, with treatment in place, nevertheless yields a list of toxins when tested – many of them with no toxicological roadmap.  The textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of fresh water on the planet – the 9 trillion liters of water used annually in textile processing is usually expelled into our rivers without treatment and is a major source of groundwater pollution.  Now that virtual or “embedded” water tracking is becoming necessary in evaluating products, people are beginning to understand when we say it takes 500 gallons of water to make the fabric to cover one sofa.  We want people to become aware that when they buy anything, and fabric especially, they reinforce the manufacturing processes used to produce it.  Just Google “Greenpeace and the textile industry” to find out what Greenpeace is doing to make people aware of this issue.

Over 8,000 chemicals are used in textile processing, some so hazardous that OSHA requires textile scraps be handled as hazardous waste.   The final product is, by weight, about 23% synthetic chemicals – often the same chemicals that are outlawed in other products.  The following is by no means an all-inclusive list of these chemicals:

  • Alkylphenolethoxylates (APEOs), which are endocrine disruptors;
    • o Endocrine disruptors are a wide range of chemicals which interfere with the body’s endocrine system to produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune effects in both humans and wildlife; exposure us suspected to be associated with altered reproductive function in both males and females, increased incidence of breast cancer, abnormal growth patterns and neurodevelopmental delays in children.(2)
  • Pentachlorophenols (PCP)
    • o Long-term exposure to low levels can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, blood, and nervous system. Studies in animals also suggest that the endocrine system and immune system can also be damaged following long-term exposure to low levels of pentachlorophenol. All of these effects get worse as the level of exposure increases.(3)
  • Toluene and other aromatic amines
    • carcinogens (4)
  • Dichloromethane (DCM)
    • Exposure leads to decreased motor activity, impaired memory and other neurobehavioral deficits; brain and liver cancer.(5)
  • Formaldehyde
    • The National Toxicology Program named formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen in its 12th Report on Carcinogens.(6)
  • Phthalates –
    • Associated with a range of effects from liver and kidney diseases to developmental and reproductive effects, reduced fetal weight.(7)
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s)
    • A growing body of research in laboratory animals has linked PBDE exposure to an array of adverse health effects including thyroid hormone disruption, permanent learning and memory impairment, behavioral changes, hearing deficits, delayed puberty onset, decreased sperm count, fetal malformations and, possibly, cancer.(8)
  • Perfluorooctane sulfonates (PFOS)
    • To date, associations have been found between PFOS or PFOA levels in the general population and reduced female fertility and sperm quality, reduced birth weight, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), increased total and non-HDL (bad) cholesterol levels, and changes in thyroid hormone levels.(9)
  • Heavy metals – cadmium, lead, antimony, mercury among others
    • Lead is a neurotoxin (affects the brain and cognitive development) and affects the reproductive system; mercury is a neurotoxin and possibly carcinogenic; cadmium damages the kidneys, bones and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified it as a human carcinogen; exposure to antimony can cause reproductive disorders and chromosome damage.

The textile industry uses 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.  For example, steam used in the textile manufacturing process is often generated in inefficient and polluting coal-fired boilers.  Based on estimated annual global textile production of 60 billion kilograms (KG) of fabric, the estimated energy needed to produce that fabric boggles the mind:  1,074 billion KWh of electricity (or 132 million metric tons of coal).  It takes 3886 MJ of energy to produce 25 yards of nylon fabric (about the amount needed to cover one sofa).  To put that into perspective, 1 gallon of gasoline equals 131 MJ of energy; driving a Lamborghini from New York to Washington D.C. uses approximately 2266 MJ of energy.(10)

Today’s textile industry is also one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses on the planet: in the USA alone, it accounts for 5% of the country’s CO2 production annually; China’s textile sector alone would rank as the 24th– largest country in the world.(11)

We succeeded in producing the world’s first collection of organic fabrics that were gorgeous and green – and safe.    In 2007, those fabrics won “Best Merchandise” at Decorex (www.decorex.com).    In 2008, our collection was named one of the Top Green Products of 2008 by BuiltGreen/Environmental Building News. As BuiltGreen/EBN takes no advertising dollars, their extensive research is prized by the green building industry (www.buildinggreen.com).

We are a tiny company with an oversized mission.  We are challenged to be a triple bottom line company, and we want to make an outsized difference through education for change  – so that a sufficiently large number of consumers will know which questions to ask that will force change in an industry.  We believe that a sufficiently large number of people will respond to our message to force profound positive change: by demanding safe fabric, produced safely, our environment and our health will be improved.

The issues that distinguish us from other fabric distributors, in addition to offering fabrics whose green pedigree is second to none:

    1. We manage each step of the production process from fiber to finished fabric, unlike other companies, which buy mill product and choose only the color palette of the production run.    Those production process steps include fiber preparation, spinning, weaving, dyeing, printing and finishing; with many sub-steps such as sizing and de-sizing, bleaching, slashing, etc.
    2. We educate consumers and designers on the issues that are important to them – and to all of us. Our blog on the topic of sustainability in the textile industry has grown from about 2 hits a day to 2,000, and is our largest source of new customers.
    3. We are completely transparent in all aspects of our production and products.    We want our brand to be known not only as the “the greenest”, but for honesty and authenticity in all claims.  This alignment between our values, our claims and our products fuels our passion for the business.
    4. We are the only collection we know of which sells only “safe” fabrics.

We serve multiple communities, but we see ourselves as being especially important to two communities:  those who work to produce our fabric and those who use it, especially children and their parents.

    • By insisting on the use of safe chemicals exclusively, we improve the working conditions for textile workers.  And by insisting on water treatment, we mitigate the effects of even benign chemicals on the environment – and the workers’ homes and agricultural land.  Even salt, used in copious amounts in textile processing, will ruin farmland and destroy local flora and fauna if not neutralized before being returned to the local waters.
    • For those who use our fabric, chemicals retained in the finished fibers do not add to our “body burden “, which is especially important for children, part of our second special community.  A finished fabric is, by weight, approximately 23% synthetic chemicals. Those chemicals are not benign.  Textile processing routinely uses chemicals with known toxic profiles such as lead, mercury, formaldehyde, arsenic and benzene – and many other chemicals, many of which have never been tested for safety.

Another thing we’d like you to know about this business is the increasing number of people who contact us who have been harmed by fabric (of all things!) because we represent what they believe is an honest attempt at throwing light on the subject of fabric processing.   Many are individuals who suffer from what is now being called “Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance” or IEI (formerly called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity), who are looking for safe fabrics.  We’ve also been contacted on behalf of groups, for example,   flight attendants, who were given new uniforms in 2011, which caused allergic reactions in a large number of union members.

These incidences of fabric-induced reactions are on the rise.   As we become more aware of the factors that influence our health, such as we’re seeing currently with increased awareness of the effects of interior air quality, designers and others will begin to see their way to specifying “safe” fabrics  just as their code of ethics demands.(12)  We feel certain that the trajectory for such an important consumer product as fabric, which surrounds us most of every hour of the day, will mimic that of organic food.

We say our fabrics are luxurious – because luxury has become more about your state of mind than the size of your wallet. These days, people define luxury by such things as a long lunch with old friends, the good health to run a 5K, or waking up in the morning and doing exactly what you want all day long.  In the past luxury was often about things.  Today, we think it’s not so much about having as it is about being knowledgeable about what you’re buying – knowing that you’re buying the best and that it’s also good for the world.  It’s also about responsibility: it just doesn’t feel OK to buy unnecessary things when people are starving and the world is becoming overheated.  It’s about products being defined by how they make you feel –  “conscious consumption” – and giving you ways to find personal meaning and satisfaction.


(1) Barlow, Maude, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the coming Battle for the Right to Water, October 2007

(2)World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/ceh/risks/cehemerging2/en/

(3)Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry 2001, https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=400&tid=70

(4)Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Publication # 90-101; https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/90-101/

(5)Cooper GS, Scott CS, Bale AS. 2011. Insights from epidemiology into dichloromethane and cancer risk. Int J Environ Res Public Health 8:3380–3398.

(6)National Toxicology Program (June 2011). Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program. Retrieved June 10, 2011, from: http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/go/roc12.

(7)Hauser, R and Calafat, AM, “Phthalates and Human Health”, Occup Environ Med 2005;62:806–818. doi: 10.1136/oem.2004.017590

(8)Environmental Working Group, http://www.ewg.org/research/mothers-milk/health-risks-pbdes

(9)School of Environmental Health, University of British Columbia; http://www.ncceh.ca/sites/default/files/Health_effects_PFCs_Oct_2010.pdf

(10) Annika Carlsson-Kanyama and Mireille Faist, 2001, Stockholm University Dept of Systems Ecology, htp://organic.kysu.edu/EnergySmartFood(2009).pdf

(11)Based on China carbon emissions reporting for 2010 from Energy Information Administration (EIA); see U.S. Department of Energy, Carbon Emissions from Energy Generation by Country, http://www.eia.gov/ cfapps/ipdbproject/IEDIndex3.cfm?tid=90&pid=44&aid=8 (accessed September 28, 2012). Estimate for China textile sector based on industrial emissions at 74% of total emissions, and textile industry
as 4.3% of total industrial emissions; see EIA, International Energy Outlook 2011, U.S. Department of Energy.

(12)Nussbaumer, L.L, “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: The Controversy and Relation to Interior Design”, Abstract, South Dakota State University

Hemp vs. Linen

31 08 2016

We are often asked for 100% hemp fabric in lieu of linen fabrics. We offer hemp and adore it, but it may not be the best eco choice.

Make no mistake – we love hemp, we sell hemp fabrics and we think the re-introduction of hemp as a crop would be a boon for American farmers and consumers.

But hemp that is used to produce hemp fabric via conventional methods – as opposed to GOTS methods – is a far inferior choice to any Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Oeko-Tex certified fabric. So the overriding difference is not between hemp and any other fiber, but between a certified fabric versus one that is not certified, because certification assures us that the fabric is free of any chemicals that can change your DNA, give you cancer or other dred diseases which can affect you in ways ranging from subtle to profound. The choice of GOTS also assures us that the mill which produced the fabric has water treatment in place, so these chemicals don’t pollute our groundwater – and that the mill pays fair wages to their workers who toil in safe conditions!

Now let’s look at some of the differences between hemp and linen:

First, do not be confused by the difference between the fiber and the cloth woven from that fiber – because the spinning of the yarn and the weaving of the cloth introduces many variables that have nothing to do with the fibers. Both hemp and flax (from which linen is derived) are made from fibers found in the stems of plants, and both are very laborious to produce. The strength and quality of both fibers are highly dependent on seed variety, the conditions during growth, time of harvest and manner of retting and other post-harvest handling.

Retting (or, really, rotting) is the microbial decomposition of the pectins which bind the fibers to the woody inner core of the plant stem. The old system of water or snow retting has given way to chemical retting, which in turn often shortens – which means weakens – the fibers. These short fibers are said to have been “cottonized” since cotton fibers are only about 1.5 inches long.

It’s important to note that there is very little to distinguish flax fibers from hemp fibers – they both have similar properties. Hemp’s fibers so closely resemble flax that a high-power microscope is needed to tell the difference. Without microscopic or chemical examination, the fibers can only be distinguished by the direction in which they twist upon wetting: hemp will rotate counterclockwise; flax, clockwise.

In general, hemp fiber bundles are longer than those of flax.   So the first point of differentiation is this: the length of the fibers. Long fibers translate into inherently more resilient and therefore durable yarns. Hemp fibers vary from 4 to about 7 feet in length, while linen is generally 1.5 to 3 feet in length. Other differences:

  • The color of flax fibers is described as yellowish-buff to gray, and hemp as yellowish-gray to dark brown.
  • Hemp is highly resistant to rotting, mildew, mold and salt water. Linen on the other hand is non-allergenic and insect-repellent.
  • Hemp is the most highly resistant natural fiber to ultraviolet light, so it won’t fade or disintegrate in sunlight. Linen too has excellent resistance to UV rays.
  • Hemp’s elastic recovery is very poor and less than linen; it stretches less than any other natural fiber.

The biggest difference between hemp and linen might be in the agricultural arena.

Hemp grows well without the use of chemicals because it has few serious pest problems, although the degree of immunity to attacking organisms has been greatly exaggerated.  Several insects and fungi specialize exclusively in hemp!  But despite this, the use of pesticides and fungicides are usually unnecessary to get a good yield. Hemp has a fiber yield that averages between 485 – 809 lbs., compared to flax, which averages just 323 – 465 lbs. on the same amount of land.   This yield translates into a high biomass, which can be converted into fuel in the form of clean-burning alcohol.

Farmers claim that hemp is a great rotation crop – it was sometimes grown the year prior to a flax crop because it left the land free of weeds and in good condition.   Hemp, it was said, is good for the soil, aerating and building topsoil. Hemp’s long taproot descends for three feet or more, and these roots anchor and protect the soil from runoff. Moreover, hemp does not exhaust the soil. Additionally, hemp can be grown for many seasons successively without impacting the soil negatively. In fact, this is done sometimes to improve soil tilth and clean the land of weeds.

The price of hemp in the market is far higher than for linen, despite hemp’s yields.   We have no idea why this is so. And finding organic hemp is becoming almost impossible, because hemp is usually grown by subsistence farmers who are loath to pay certification fees.

Yarns, made from the fibers, are graded from ‘A’, the best quality, to below ‘D’.   The number of twists per unit length is often (but not always) an indication of a stronger yarn.   In addition, the yarns can be single or plied – a plied yarn is combined with more than one strand of yarn. Next, the cloth can be woven from grade ‘A’ yarns with a double twist per unit length and double ply into a fabric where the yarns are tightly woven together into cloth. Or not.

But in general, there are many similarities between cloth made from hemp and cloth made from linen:

  • Both linen and hemp become soft and supple through handling, gaining elegance and creating a fluid drape.
  • Both hemp and linen are strong fibers – though most sources say hemp is stronger (by up to 8 times stronger) than linen (even though the real winner is spider silk!), but this point becomes moot due to the variables involved in spinning the fiber into yarn and then weaving into fabric.   The lifespan of hemp is the longest of all the natural fibers.
  • Both hemp and linen wrinkle easily.
  • Both hemp and linen absorb moisture. Hemp’s moisture retention is a bit more (12%) than linen’s (10 – 12%)
  • Both hemp and linen breathe – they release moisture back into the atmosphere and do not retain water.
  • Both hemp and linen are natural insulators: both have hollow fibers which means they’re cool in summer and warm in winter.
  • Both hemp and linen have anti-bacterial properties.
  • Both hemp and linen benefit from washing, becoming softer and more lustrous with each wash.
  • Both hemp and linen are resistant to moths and other insects.
  • Both hemp and linen absorb dyestuffs readily.
  • Both hemp and linen biodegrade.

The overriding difference is not between hemp and linen, but between a hemp OR linen fabric that has GOTS or Oeko-Tex certification and one that does not. That means that a conventional hemp fabric, which enjoys all the benefits of hemp’s attributes, also introduces unwanted chemicals into your life: such as formaldehyde, phthalates, heavy metals, endocrine disruptors and perhaps soil or fire retardants. The certified fabric is the better choice. If the choice is between a conventional hemp fabric and a certified linen fabric, we wouldn’t hesitate a second to choose the linen over the hemp, especially because hemp and linen are such close cousins.








New legislation that makes us safer – maybe.

21 07 2016

Please take a look at our new retail website, www.twosistersecotextiles.com!

While asbestos is illegal in more than 50 countries, the United States is not among them. The EPA tried to make asbestos containing products illegal in 1989, and succeeded temporarily. But the ruling was overturned in 1991 after the court found the EPA hadn’t considered the cost to industry of an asbestos ban, and therefore the agency hadn’t met its obligations user TSCA, even though the chemical is a known carcinogen[1].

The Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) gave the EPA, only six years old itself at the time, the authority to regulate the safety of industrial chemicals in order to protect the environment and human health. However, because of a combination of limitations in the statute and a series of events over the past 40 years (reductions in the EPA’s budget, limited oversight by Congress, and successful challenges by the chemical industry to limit the EPA’s authority), the TSCA is widely recognized as ineffective and out of date. It had no teeth:

We assumed the TSCA was testing and regulating chemicals used in the industry[2]. It was not:

  • Of the more than 60,000 chemicals  in use prior to 1976, most were “grandfathered in”; only 263 were tested for safety and only 5 were restricted.  Today over 80,000 chemicals are routinely used in industry, and the number which have been tested for safety has not materially changed since 1976.  So we cannot know the risks of exposing ourselves to certain chemicals.  The default position is that no information about a chemical = no action.
  • The chemical spill which occurred in West Virginia in 2014 was of “crude MCHM”, or 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, one of the chemicals that was grandfathered into the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.   That means that nobody knows for sure what that chemical can do to us.
    • Carcinogenic effects? No information available.
    • Mutagenic effects? No information available.
    • Developmental toxicity? No information available.

Lack of information is the reason the local and federal authorities were so unsure of how to advise the local population about their drinking  water supplies.  (And by the way, in January 2014, a federal lawsuit was filed in Charleston, WV, which claims that the manufacturer of MCHM hid “highly toxic and carcinogenic properties” of components of MCHM, hexane and methanol, both of which have been tested and found to cause diseases such as cancer).

We assumed that the TSCA required manufacturers to demonstrate that their chemicals are safe before they go into use. It did not:

  • The TSCA says the government has to prove actual harm caused by the chemical in question before any controls can be put in place.  The catch-22 is that chemical companies don’t have to develop toxicity data or submit it to the EPA for an existing product unless the agency finds out that it will pose a risk to humans or the environment – which is difficult to do if there is no data in the first place.  Lack of evidence of harm is taken as evidence of no harm.
    • The EPA required a “Premanufacture Notification” of a new chemical, and no data of any kind was required [3].   The EPA receives between 40-50 each week and 8 out of 10 are approved, with or without test data, with no restrictions on their proposed use. As 3M puts it on their PMN forms posted on EPA’s web site, “You are not required to submit the listed test data if you do not have it.”
  • We assumed that manufacturers must list all ingredients in a product, so if we have
  • an allergy or reaction to certain chemicals we can check to see if the product is free of
  • those chemicals. They do not:
    • The TSCA allows chemical manufacturers to keep ingredients in some products secret.   Nearly 20%, or 16,000 of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use today are considered “trade secrets”.  This makes it impossible for consumers to find out what’s actually in a product.  And there is no time limit on the period in which a chemical can be considered a trade secret.

The new “Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act” (H.R. 2576 – which I’ll call the LCSA because it’s such a mouthful!) was passed by the Senate on June 7, 2016 and sent to the White House for President Obama’s signature. This is a slight improvement over the old TSCA, but not everybody is happy with the reform.  Consumers interested in making safer choices will still need to rely on third party assessments as the bill still does little to protect consumers. The bill was passed without the support of most environmental and public health groups, many of which released a letter opposing the proposal.

The bill “continues to have serious flaws that undermine protection of public health,” said the letter, “and we continue to be ready to work with senators to get those changes.” The letter was signed by representatives of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families; the Natural Resources Defense Council; the United Steelworkers and the League of Conservation Voters. The Breast Cancer Fund, Center for Environmental Health and the Environmental Working Group all said the bill falls far short of what’s needed to protect the public from hazardous chemicals. Here’s what the Environmental Working Group’s President Ken Cook said:

Passage of the first legislation to regulate toxic industrial chemicals in 40 years ought to be cause for celebration, and it is—for the companies that make those toxic chemicals. As for the rest of us, we should be mad as hell.

 Despite the best efforts of many lawmakers to redeem legislation that originated in the c-suites of the chemical industry, on balance the law Congress will send to the president’s desk continues to place chemical company interests above the public interest.

 The public deserves a law strong enough to curb the abuses of an industry that clearly cannot be trusted. The toxic products of America’s chemical companies show up by the hundreds in the bodies of the American people, including babies still in the womb. Thousands of cities, school systems and water utilities nationwide are forced to clean up, or live with, water, air and toxic buildings rendered unsafe by the chemical industry’s hazardous products.

This is an industry that routinely poisons its own workers and the very communities in which it operates, and just as routinely lies about it.

 EWG fears this law will do too little to protect us from chemicals that cause cancer and nervous system disorders, impaired fertility, immune system dysfunction and a host of other problems.

Chemical companies have long ago lost the confidence of the American people, and this law will only fuel that mistrust. Because this law will not strongly and urgently address the problem of toxic chemical exposure, increasingly consumers will act to protect themselves. They will continue to reject products that contain unsafe chemicals; and manufacturers and retailers that listen to consumers will reformulate or reject those products.

 Indeed, more unsafe chemicals may be “regulated by retail” in the years ahead, and regulated faster and more stringently, than will be regulated by this legislation. Instead of raising confidence about the safety of chemicals and the products that contain them, this law will raise doubts—an outcome no one should be celebrating.

 “It’s a very ambitious undertaking — it’s going to be hard,” said James Aidala, the former head of EPA’s chemical safety office and a consultant at Bergeson & Campbell. “It is going to take a long time, even if the administration gives the program a slug of money on day one.”[4]

The new act contains many loopholes, the most controversial of which prevents individual states from creating restrictions on a chemical if the EPA has decided to conduct a risk evaluation of that chemical.  This is called “preemption” – and once the EPA makes a final ruling on a chemical, the preemption becomes permanent.  So if the EPA decides to limit a chemical, a state will no longer be able to raise the bar with an outright ban or any other more stringent restriction.

This is a big deal. Due to political gridlock in Washington and the achingly slow pace of EPA reviews, many states have already taken the lead in protecting their communities from toxic chemicals. And by and large, they’ve done a pretty good job. For example, Maine successfully implemented strict safety standards on PBDEs, flame retardants which are linked to developmental issues in children, and on BPA, a potential carcinogen. These state-level reforms prompted national changes, leading major toymaker Hasbro to voluntarily remove BPA from all of its products.  Any state with a prohibition or restriction of a chemical enacted before April 22, 2016 will not be preempted – so California’s Proposition 65 and Massachusetts’ Toxics Use Reduction Act will be preserved.

Advocates of the act argue that states aren’t permanently banned from acting on these chemicals, but merely prevented from taking action while the EPA conducts its reviews. However, these reviews can take an enormous amount of time — we’re talking decades. As The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner has pointed out, “The EPA has been investigating the safety of some of the flame retardants that would be banned by the Washington state bill for more than 25 years. And the agency has spent at least 30 years looking at the safety of methylene chloride, which is still widely available in hardware stores though its fumes have been killing people since at least the 1940s.”

Another loophole would make it much harder for the EPA to prevent foreign products containing dangerous chemicals from being imported into the United States, making it even easier for toxic toys, furniture, and other consumer products to show up in American stores and homes.

Yet another loophole would push the EPA to designate many chemicals as “low priority,” without a full evaluation.

And, perhaps most troublingly, neither the Senate nor House version of the bill requires companies to prove new chemicals are safe before bringing them to market. The wording in the bill reads that a company must prove “no unreasonable risk of harm” which is weaker than the standard set for chemicals in other settings, which is they must prove “reasonable certainty of no harm”

What the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act for the 21st Century will do for the EPA:

  • Allows the EPA to review all chemicals currently used in commerce  and designated low- or high-priority – but at a slow pace: the EPA is only required to have 50 chemicals designated by 2021, so it theoretically could take centuries.
  • It explicitly requires protection of vulnerable populations like children and pregnant women, who are at elevated risk.
  • Allows the EPA to reassess confidential business information claims (CBI), which were widely used to withhold critical information from the EPA under TSCA. Under the LCSA, the EPA can share information with state and local governments, first responders, health providers and researchers as long as confidentiality is maintained. The current bill mandates that CBI claims must be substantiated as to why certain substances are confidential business information and must be renewed every 10 years.
  • Allows the EPA to require additional testing of chemicals by industry without going through the lengthy rule-making process that was required under TSCA.

Remaining issues to be resolved:

  • This regulation still does not give consumers a right to know what is in their products. Product and chemical transparency remain one of the biggest barriers to action and this bill does not make things any better.
  • Chemical review will be extremely slow. EPA will likely only review 10-20 chemicals per year despite the fact that there are tens of thousands of registered chemicals, including at least 1000 which the EPA considers a high priority; 700 new chemicals are introduced every year.

Areas where the effect of the Bill is still unclear:

  • Implementing a health standard rather than a cost-benefit standard for the assessment and regulation of chemicals. It appears that the EPA will only need to demonstrate health risks in order to prioritize chemicals, but that they may still need to pass the cost-benefit test in order to regulate a given chemical. Once a chemical is determined to be unsafe in a specific use or product, the EPA is mandated to eliminate that risk. However, before EPA can issue any rule restricting the uses of a harmful chemical, it must conduct a cost-benefit analysis that goes beyond the traditional type – an analysis that could slow the elimination of toxic chemicals from the market considerably and ultimately place economic concerns above health.
  • It is not clear if the EPA will have the resources needed to meet the mandates of the new bill. Implementation of the proposed law will be a herculean task for an agency with scarce resources, former officials and lawyers say. By the time EPA finishes work on the chemicals it has prioritized, the children of today’s children will have been exposed to them — probably for years.[5]
  • It is not clear how the review process for chemical prioritization works and how much influence companies will be able to exert over it.
  • States’ ability to regulate chemicals of concern will be superseded by the federal regulation on a chemical by chemical basis. With the exception of California’s Proposition 65 and the Massachusetts Toxic Use Reduction Act which will both be unaffected by the new law, the federal ruling on a given chemical will take precedence.
  • These limitations all help to perpetuate the chemical industry’s failure to innovate toward safer chemical and product design.  It’s one of the reasons the USA is one of the few nations in the world in which asbestos has not been banned in many products.

How did all these loopholes make it into the Senate’s final bill? Easy: the chemical industry spent tons of money to influence the legislation. Since 2014, while Congress was hashing out TSCA reform, the top 10 chemical companies and organizations spent more than $125 million on lobbying.[6] No wonder, then, that the pending updates to the TSCA have the blessing of more than 100 interest groups, from the American Chemistry Council and the American Petroleum Institute to the Chamber of Commerce.

All of which helps explain why the chemical industry loves the legislation meant to regulate it. The American Chemistry Council, which supports both the House and Senate bills, represents more than 100 chemical companies, several of which stand to have their products spared from pending regulation, including the Occidental Chemical Corporation, manufacturer of methylene chloride, which California is in the process of restricting: Chemtura, which makes a flame retardant that would be banned by a bill pending in Washington state; and Eastman Chemical Company, which makes the plastics additive DEHP, which is under regulatory scrutiny in Maine.

The chemical industry has a direct financial stake in seeing this bill passed. If the Senate bill becomes law, individual states may be forced to abandon their safety efforts, allowing ACC members to continue producing and selling their chemicals without restraint. Just last year, California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer complained that one draft of the bill had been traced directly to an American Chemistry Council computer.[7]

 “As usual, industries willing to spend big on political contributions and lobbying get to write their own rules, even if it means hamstringing local governments and putting regular people in danger. It’s also a prime example of why anti-corruption reform is bringing together unlikely alliances of conservatives and progressives: when big money merges with big government, nobody wins.”[8]

[1] Hamblin, James, “Toxic Substances will now be somewhat regulated”, The Atlantic, May 26, 2016

[2] http://www.chemicalindustryarchives.org/factfiction/testing.asp

[3] http://www.chemicalindustryarchives.org/factfiction/testing.asp

[4] Traywick, Catherine and Kaskey, Jack; “EPA wins clout to fight toxic chemicals, but it may take a while”, June 8, 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2016-06-08/with-chemical-safety-law-congress-hands-epa-herculean-task

[5] Traywick, Catherine and Kaskey, Jack, op cit.

[6] Lerner, Sharon, “”Toxic “reform” law will gut state rules on dangerous chemicals”, The Intercept, January 11, 2016. https://theintercept.com/2016/01/11/toxic-reform-law-would-gut-state-rules-on-dangerous-chemicals/

[7] Dubose, Lou, “The American Chemistry Council’s Trojan Horse”, The Washington Spectator, June 1, 2015.

[8] Represent.us, “The Chemical Lobby Writes Its Own Law”, https://represent.us/action/chemical-lobby/

Our response to the Flint water crisis

22 06 2016


An editorial by Nicholas Kristof was published in the February 13, 2016, issue of the New York Times entitled: “Are you a Toxic Waste Disposal Site?” We think Mr. Kristof makes some great points, so we’ve published the entire editorial below:

EVEN if you’re not in Flint, Mich., there are toxic chemicals in your home. For that matter, in you.

Scientists have identified more than 200 industrial chemicals — from pesticides, flame retardants, jet fuel — as well as neurotoxins like lead in the blood or breast milk – of Americans, indeed, in people all over our planet.

These have been linked to cancer, genital deformities, lower sperm count, obesity and diminished I.Q. Medical organizations from the President’s Cancer Panel to the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics have demanded tougher regulations or warned people to avoid them, and the cancer panel has warned that “to a disturbing extent, babies are born ‘pre-polluted.’”

They have all been drowned out by chemical industry lobbyists.

So we have a remarkable state of affairs:

■ Politicians are (belatedly!) condemning the catastrophe of lead poisoning in Flint. But few acknowledge that lead poisoning in many places in America is even worse than in Flint. Kids are more likely to suffer lead poisoning in Pennsylvania or Illinois or even most of New York State than in Flint. More on that later.

■ Americans are panicking about the mosquito-borne Zika virus and the prospect that widespread infection may reach the United States. That’s a legitimate concern, but public health experts say that toxic substances around us seem to pose an even greater threat.

“I cannot imagine that the Zika virus will damage any more than a small fraction of the total number of children who are damaged by lead in deteriorated, poor housing in the United States,” says Dr. Philip Landrigan, a prominent pediatrician and the dean for global health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Lead, mercury, PCBs, flame retardants and pesticides cause prenatal brain damage to tens of thousands of children in this country every year,” he noted.

Yet one measure of our broken political system is that chemical companies, by spending vast sums on lobbying— $100,000 per member of Congress last year — block serious oversight.[1] Almost none of the chemicals in products we use daily have been tested for safety.

Maybe, just maybe, the crisis in Flint can be used to galvanize a public health revolution.

In 1854, a British doctor named John Snow started such a revolution. Thousands were dying of cholera at the time, but doctors were resigned to the idea that all they could do was treat sick patients. Then Snow figured out that a water pump on Broad Street in London was the source of the cholera[2]. The water company furiously rejected that conclusion, but Snow blocked use of the water pump, and the cholera outbreak pretty much ended. This revelation led to the germ theory of disease and to investments in sanitation and clean water. Millions of lives were saved.

Now we need a similar public health revolution focusing on the early roots of many pathologies.

For example, it’s scandalous that 535,000 American children ages 1 to 5 still suffer lead poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention[3]. The poisoning is mostly a result of chipped lead paint in old houses or of lead-contaminated soil being tracked into homes, although some areas like Flint also have tainted tap water. (Note:  fabrics often contain lead in the dyes used and as a catalyst in the dyeing process.)

lead paint

While the data sets are weak, many parts of America have even higher rates of child lead poisoning than Flint, where 4.9 percent of children tested have had elevated lead levels in their blood. In New York State outside New York City, it’s 6.7 percent. In Pennsylvania, 8.5 percent. In parts of Detroit, it’s 20 percent. The victims are often poor or black.[4]

Infants who absorb lead are more likely to grow up with shrunken brains and diminished I.Q.[5] They are more likely as young adults to engage in risky sexual behavior, to disrupt school and to commit violent crimes. Many researchers believe that the worldwide decline in violent crime beginning in the 1990s is partly a result of lead being taken out of gasoline in the late 1970s. The stakes are enormous, for individual opportunity and for social cohesion.

Fortunately, we have some new Dr. Snows for the 21st century.

A group of scholars, led by David L. Shern of Mental Health America, argues that the world today needs a new public health revolution focused on young children, parallel to the one mounted for sanitation after Snow’s revelations about cholera in 1854. Once again, we have information about how to prevent pathologies, not just treat them — if we will act.

The reason for a new effort is a vast amount of recent research showing that brain development at the beginning of life affects physical and mental health decades later. That means protecting the developing brain from dangerous substances and also from “toxic stress”— often a byproduct of poverty — to prevent high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which impairs brain development.

A starting point of this public health revolution should be to protect infants and fetuses from toxic substances, which means taking on the companies that buy lawmakers to prevent regulation. Just as water companies tried to obstruct the 19th-century efforts, industry has tried to block recent progress.

Back in 1786, Benjamin Franklin commented extensively on the perils of lead poisoning, but industry ignored the dangers and marketed lead aggressively. In the 1920s, an advertisement for the National Lead Company declared, “Lead helps to guard your health,” praising the use of lead pipes for plumbing and lead paint for homes. And what the lead companies did for decades, and the tobacco companies did, too, the chemical companies do today.


Lead poisoning is just “the tip of the iceberg,” says Tracey Woodruff, an environmental health specialist at the University of California at San Francisco. Flame-retardant chemicals have very similar effects, she says, and they’re in the couches we sit on.

The challenge is that the casualties aren’t obvious, as they are with cholera, but stealthy and long term. These are silent epidemics, so they don’t generate as much public alarm as they should.

“Industrial chemicals that injure the developing brain” have been linked to conditions like autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, noted The Lancet Neurology, a peer-reviewed medical journal. Yet we still don’t have a clear enough sense of what is safe, because many industrial chemicals aren’t safety tested before they are put on the market. Meanwhile, Congress has dragged out efforts to strengthen the Toxic Substances Control Act and test more chemicals for safety.

The President’s Cancer Panel recommended that people eat organic if possible, filter water and avoid microwaving food in plastic containers. All good advice, but that’s like telling people to avoid cholera without providing clean water.

And that’s why we need another public health revolution in the 21st century.


[1] http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/indusclient.php?id=N13&year=2015

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/snow_john.shtml

[3] http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6213a3.htm

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/07/opinion/sunday/america-is-flint.html

[5] http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/public-health/lead-poisoning-exposure-health-policy?utm_source=JR-email&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=JR-email&utm_source=Journalist%27s+Resource&utm_campaign=63b82f94eb-2015_Sept_1_A_B_split3_24_2015&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_12d86b1d6a-63b82f94eb-79637481