Sometimes I wonder if I’m making too much fuss about organic fabrics. I mean, we live surrounded by textiles, and nobody – well, o.k., most people – don’t have immediate reactions to the fabric. I can use towels and sheets and still wake up in the morning feeling just fine. Organic fabrics don’t look or feel any different from conventional fabrics. Just like organic food, the only difference seems to be in the price tag.
So it’s always with, I don’t know, relief perhaps, when I find support for the fact that textiles are filled with chemical substances that can gravely harm us. I just found a report by the Swedish Chemicals Agency which was asked by the Swedish government to develop proposals and principles for a piece of EU legislation on hazardous chemicals in textiles. (click here to read the entire report.). It was published in April 2013.
The Swedish Chemicals Agency found a non-exhaustive list of around 1900 chemical substances used in textile production – it’s non-exhaustive, because so many chemicals are used which cannot be disclosed because of confidentiality or trade secrets, so total chemicals used are much higher than 1900. Of the 1900 known substances, they found:
- Carcinogenic substances: approximately 59
- Mutagenic substances: approximately 9
- Substances toxic to reproduction: approximately 39
- Allergenic substances:
- approximately 14 substances with respiratory sensitization properties
- approximately 56 substances with skin sensitization properties
- Substances with environmentally hazardous, long-term effects: approximately 57
- Substances without the harmonized classifications but which can be found on the REACH Candidate List: 24
This report supports our contention that the production of textiles uses an extraordinary amount of chemicals and water, as well as other resources. And so I feel a bit better that the Swedish government, that august body, has diverted resources to study the problem which they feel threatens their citizens.
According to the report, the health impacts on workers range from acute poisoning to long term health effects (e.g. cancer). Environment impacts include polluted groundwaters, emissions to surface waters, and toxic sludge. From a consumer perspective the most apparent direct health impact may be allergic reactions caused by skin contact with chemicals in the fabrics – long term consequences are more dire. Consumers are exposed via skin contact or breathing in chemicals which evaporate, through indoor dust (breathing or skin exposure, which includes abraded particles of fibers), indirect oral exposure; children are especially vulnerable because they put things in their mouths. During the consumer phase, hazardous substances are released during washing. At the waste water treatment plants to which households are connected, these chemicals or their break-down products may end up in sludge and/or via effluent water into the water environment.
So this report can be added to the book published by the German Environmental Protection Agency on the chemicals used in textile processing, and the Greenpeace campaigns on the textile industry:
- The Detox Campaign, which was launched to show the links between global clothing brands, their suppliers, and toxic water pollution around the world (click here for more information)
- Toxic Threads: to expose how manufacturers are hiding their toxic trail and including inherently hazardous substances (such as NPEs, phthalates, or azo dyes) in their clothing. Read the report here.
- I particularly like the “Little Monsters” information (click here ) because we should all be aware of the monsters in our fabrics.
The chemicals used in textile products are real, and they’re really changing us, even though we can’t see them. And even though we don’t seem to be reacting to these chemicals. As the Environmental Working Group says, we deserve to know what chemicals we’re eating, drinking and putting on our skins. I think we should add fabrics to that list, since they’re contributing a disproportionate share of hazardous challenges to our bodies given the amount of time we spend surrounded by fabrics.
-  Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609.