Do we exaggerate the dangers of conventional fabrics?

18 06 2014

We received a comment on one of our blog posts recently in which the reader chastised us for exaggerating issues which they believe are disproportionate to the facts. In their words: For instance formaldehyde… is a volatile chemical…no doubt it is used in the textile industry a great deal…but looking for this chemical in end products is an example chasing a ghost…. It has to be put in perspective. I do not know of any citation that a human developed cancer because they wore durable press finished clothing.

Please follow along as I itemize the reasons that we don’t feel the issues are exaggerated.

Textiles are full of chemicals. The chemicals found in fabrics have been deemed to be, even by conservative organizations such as the Swedish government, simply doing us no good – and even harming us in ways ranging from subtle to profound. But fabrics are just one of the many stressors that people face during the day: these stressors (i.e., chemicals of concern) are in our food, our cosmetics, our electronics, our cleaning products, in dust in our houses and pollution from automobile exhaust in our air.  This is not even close to an exhaustive list of the products containing the kinds of chemical stressors we face each day. And this is a new thing – it wasn’t until around the middle of the last century that these synthetic chemicals became so ubiquitous. Remember “better living through chemistry”? And if you don’t know the history of such events as Minamata, or about places like Dzershinsk, Russia or Hazaribagh, Bangladesh, then do some homework to get up to speed.

Add to that the fact that new research is being done which is profoundly changing our old belief systems. For example, we used to think that a little dose of a poison would do a little bit of harm, and a big dose would do a lot of harm (i.e., “the dose makes the poison”) – because water can kill you just as surely as arsenic, given sufficient quantity.   The new paradigm shows that exposure to even tiny amounts of chemicals (in the parts-per-trillion range) can have significant impacts on our health – in fact some chemcials impact the body profoundly in the parts per trillion range, but do little harm at much greater dosages. The old belief system did not address how chemicals can change the subtle organization of the brain. Now, according to Dr. Laura Vandenberg of the Tufts University Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology [1] “we found chemicals that are working at that really low level, which can take a brain that’s in a girl animal and make it look like a brain from a boy animal, so, really subtle changes that have really important effects.”

In making a risk assessment of any chemical, we now also know that timing and order of exposure is critical – exposures can happen all at once, or one after the other, and that can make a world of difference.   And we also know another thing: mixtures of chemicals can make each other more toxic. 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.

And finally, the new science called “epigenetics” is finding that pollutants and chemicals might be altering the 20,000-25,000 genes we’re born with—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 which can be passed down for generations. So exposure to chemicals can alter 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. [2]  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.[3]

So that’s the thing: we’re exposed to chemicals all day, every day – heavy metals and carcinogenic particles in air pollution; industrial solvents, household detergents, Prozac (and a host of other pharmaceuticals) 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.’ These exposures all add up – and the body can flush out some of these chemicals, while it cannot excrete others.  Chlorinated pesticides, such as DDT, for example, can remain in the body for 50 years.   Scientists call the chemicals in our body our “body burden”.  Everyone alive carries within their body at least 700 contaminants.[4]

This cumulative exposure could mean that at some point your body reaches a tipping point and, like falling dominoes, the stage is set for something disastrous happening to your health.

I am especially concerned because these manufactured chemicals – not just the elements which have been with us forever but those synthetic combinations  – have not been tested, so we don’t really have a clue what they’re doing to us.

But back to our main argument:

The generations born from 1970 on are the first to be raised in a truly toxified world. Probably one in three of the children you know suffers from a chronic illness – based on the finding of many studies on children’s health issues.[5]   It could be cancer, or birth defects – perhaps asthma, or a problem that affects the child’s mind and behavior, such as a learning disorder, ADHD or autism or even a peanut allergy. We do know, for example:

Childhood cancer, once a medical rarity, is the second leading cause of death (following accidents) in children aged 5 to 14 years.[6]

According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, for the period 2008-2010, asthma prevalence was higher among children than adults – and asthma rates for both continue to grow. [7]

Autism rates without a doubt have increased at least 200 percent.

Miscarriages and premature births are also on the rise,

while the ratio of male to female babies dwindles and

teenage girls face endometriosis.

Dr. Warren Porter delivered a talk at the 25th National Pesticide Forum in 2007, in which he explained that a lawn chemical used across the country, 2,4-D, mecoprop and dicambra was tested to see if it would change or alter the capacity of mice to keep fetuses in utero. The test found that the lowest dosage of this chemical had the greatest effect – a common endocrine response.[8]

Illness does not necessarily show up in childhood. Environmental exposures, from conception to early life, can set a person’s  cellular code for life and can cause disease at any time, through old age. And the new science of epigenetics is showing us that these exposures can impact not only us, but our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Let’s look at the formaldehyde which our reader mentioned. Formaldehyde is one of many chemical stressors – and it is used in fabrics as finishes to prevent stains and wrinkles (for example, most cotton/poly sheet sets found in the US have a formaldehyde finish), but it’s also used as a binding agent in printing inks, for the hardening of casein fibers, as a wool protection , and for its anti-mold properties.

Formaldehyde is a listed human carcinogen.  Besides being associated with watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, difficulty in breathing, coughing, some pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), asthma attacks, chest tightness, headaches, and general fatigue, as well as well documented skin rashes, formaldehyde is associated with more severe health issues:  For example, it could cause nervous system damage by its known ability to react with and form cross-linking with proteins, DNA and unsaturated fatty acids. 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.[9]

Formaldehyde in clothing is not regulated in the United States, but 13 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.  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. Then 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 – because of the formaldehyde in the uniforms.[10]

Studies have been done which link formaldehyde in indoor air as a risk factor for childhood asthma[11]. Rates of formaldehyde in indoor air have grown from 0.014 ppm in 1980 to 0.2 ppm in 2010 – and these rates are increasing.

Studies have also been found which link formaldehyde to a variety of ailments in textile workers, specifically: Besides being a well known irritant of the eyes, nose and upper and lower airways, as well as being a cause of occupational asthma[12], a number of studies have linked formaldehyde exposure with the development of lung and nasopharyngeal cancers[13] and with myeloid leukemia. [14]   A cohort 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.[15] By the way, OSHA has established a Federal standard what 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 as 1,100 ppm – what do you think the formaldehyde is doing to your baby?

So our argument is not that any one piece of clothing can necessarily do irreparable harm to somebody – but if that piece of clothing contains a chemical (pick any one of a number of chemicals) that is part of what scientists call our “body burden”, then it just might be the thing that pushes you over the edge. And if you can find products that do not contain the chemicals of concern, why would you not use them, given the risk of not doing so?


[1] Living on Earth, March 16, 2012,

[2] Sorensen, Eric, “Toxicants cause ovarian disease across generations”, Washington State University,



[5] Theofanidis, D, MSc., “Chronic Illness in Childhood: Psychosocial and Nursing Support for the Family”, Health Science Journal,

[6] Ward, Elizabeth, et al; Childhood and adolescent cancer statistics, 2014, CA: Cancer Journal for Clinicians, Vol 64, issue 2, pp. 83-103, March/April 2014


[8] Porter, Warren, PhD; “Facing Scientific Realities: Debunking the “Dose Makes the Poison” Myth”, National Pesticide Forum, Chicago, 2007;

[9] 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


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

[12] Thrasher JD etal., “Immune activation and autoantibodies in humans with long-term inhalation exposure to formaldehyde,” Archive Env. Health, 45: 217-223, 1990.

[13] Hauptmann M, Lubin JH, Stewart PA, Hayes RB, Blair A. Mortality from solid cancers among workers in formaldehyde industries. American Journal of Epidemiology 2004; 159(12):1117–1130


[14] National Cancer Institute, “Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk”,

[15] 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.






13 responses

18 06 2014

Love the post. Can you give us some advice on where to buy non-chemicalized jeans? I used to get lovely clothes at Hess Natur from germany but they stopped shipping here. Any resource on finding more US sources? I know gaiam has some purportedly healthier clothing…..not much besides that like jeans? Thanks so much!

19 06 2014
O Ecotextiles

Unfortunately I don’t keep up with jeans manufacturers – but third party certified fabric is always a good choice. So if you can find some jeans made with GOTS or Oeko Tex certified denim fabric,, then you’d be good to go. Years ago I bought jeans for my kids from Loomstate, but they were just organic cotton, though I don’t believe they still make jeans. Let us know if you find a supplier!

18 06 2014
Chris Putnam

To embrace the totality of your blog posts is to face disarming truths that might elicit retreat and denial in some, as evidenced by your detractor. To hold what you say as part of an enormous puzzle of industrial missteps takes a kind of courage. It is not surprising that much of the design community cannot imagine embracing conventional textiles as dangerous, like sand underfoot when the tide pulls–very unnerving. Again I thank you for your work.

18 06 2014
Mary Bennett

Brava for a very compelling counterargument.

18 06 2014

Reblogged this on Seriously "Sensitive" to Pollution and commented:
Another excellent post from O ECOTEXTILES

…”The generations born from 1970 on are the first to be raised in a truly toxified world. Probably one in three of the children you know suffers from a chronic illness – based on the finding of many studies on children’s health issues.[5] It could be cancer, or birth defects – perhaps asthma, or a problem that affects the child’s mind and behavior, such as a learning disorder, ADHD or autism or even a peanut allergy. We do know, for example: …”

18 06 2014
Daria Dorosh

Hi O Eco, Thanks for your research. I really appreciate the work you do and look forward to any of your findings. best wishes, Daria

Daria Dorosh

19 06 2014
Nina Grace McCann

Thank you for this blog. I studied textile science in rhe 70’s and I remember it being all about chemistry, finishes, retardents etc. I switched my studies to horticulture…. more chemicals and a few skin rashes. I remember people hamstering DDT when it was finally banned! We’ve had lots of wakeup calls. Apparently we need a few more. I regularly share this blog with my children hoping they will stay awake.

23 06 2014

Dear Patty and Leigh Anne, thank you for your interesting and consistently informative blog – a much needed scientifically based, but lay person accessible, contribution to the organic and natural textile world. Encouraging us to think about the consequences (and full price) of the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, and the shelter over our heads must be a good thing. best of luck and keep going / William

26 06 2014

Reblogged this on Eremophila's Musings and commented:
Dangers are not exaggerated. If anything, humans underestimate the damage being done to themselves and their environment.

22 08 2014

Have just found your excellent blog. I am an independent tailor. Have developed severe allergies. Probably started at least 10 yrs ago and went over the top about 1 yr ago. Patch tests indicated dye, and other chemicals. Formaldehyde, it must be noted, does not always test strongly in initial patch tests or takes more than the alotted time to develop a full reaction to the type in the first, general test.other types should be tested in follow up as shown in this study.
I began making and testing clothes from undyed cotton. Still huge reactions. I know I have multiple sensitivities but it seems clear formaldehyde is a big one. I am like a canary in a coal mine. I (impulsively, with dreading hope) just got some undyed, unbleached hemp from a wholesaler that was not organic and made in China. Washed some in hot, several more rinses, Draped a piece around my neck for a while and also had a piece as a bedcover. (I am currently not using a mattress or blankets, reacted terribly to an undyed all cotton futon I had specially made) Good thing I didn’t take time to make a test garment. Whatever’s on it, it’s really bad. Routine preservatives? Shipping treatments? Who knows. I am now waiting (impatiently!) for some GOTS cotton. Testing that will be the key. Also trying to get further patch testing from my dermatologist. Who, after suggesting my theories behind chronic reactions were unwarranted, said upon delivering test results: “You’re not crazy, there’s plenty of problem here”. Hard not to be insulted. Other allergists as well told me it was “just happening” “no cause” and the best thing a frustrated patient with a chronic problem can hear,,,”somatic”

23 08 2014
O Ecotextiles

Hi Wendy: I’m so sorry to hear of your problems! Unfortunately, this is becoming all too common. But I urge you to keep trying – GOTS and/or Oeko Tex certified fabrics might help, but keep in mind that a dye is a chemical concoction, and each color contains different chemicals. Even a bleached fabric might cause a reaction. But there are different chemicals to bleach and dye, so if one fabric in a particular color causes a reaction, try another fabric or color. And good luck!

10 02 2015

“0.2 ppm of formaldehyde in your indoor air, and your baby is wearing the Disney Finding Nemo t-shirt which registered as 1,100 ppm – what do you think the formaldehyde is doing to your baby?”

I agree with the idea of your blog, but you should be more careful not to undermine your message with specious examples. 1,000 ppm as a fraction of weight of the fabric is not directly comparable to 0.2ppm as a fraction of the volume of the air. It is not clear what the rate of release would be from that clothing and so the question you pose is not as easy to answer as you make it seem – it is exactly the type of question scientists are attempting to answer though in order to determine what safe levels really are. Both sides should be careful not to whitewash issues, which brings us back to the purpose of this post to begin with.

These types of numbers can easily be used to inform and to exaggerate or misrepresent an issue. It is clear that unwanted exposure to harmful substances is a defining issue of the day. This highlights the complications of addressing such issues

10 02 2015
O Ecotextiles

Thanks for this information Tobleron. As we often say, we’re not scientists so we appreciate those who can correct our errors. And we agree that we don’t want to make the issues more complicated than they are by creating problems and/or creating confusion. We’ll try to be more careful.

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