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

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

To polyester or not to polyester

19 04 2016

Give our retail website, Two Sisters Ecotextiles, a look and let us know what you think.

We are pondering about whether to sell polyester fabrics – largely because people are insisting on it. And there is a lot of polyester being produced:

polyester production

But, when (or if) we sell polyester fabric or blends, we have determined that the fabric must be GRS Gold level certified polyester, because:

  1. GRS is to synthetics as GOTS is to natural fibers.  It is our assurance:
    1. that there is water treatment in place,
    2. that no toxic additives are used as process chemicals, and no finishes (such as fire retardants or stain repellants) are added to the fabric,
    3. and that workers have basic rights.
  2. GRS provides verified support for the amount of recycled content in a yarn. It provides a track and trace certification system that ensures that the claim a fabric is made from recycled polyester can be officially backed up. Today, the supply chains for recycled polyester are not transparent, and if we are told that the resin chips we’re using to spin fibers are made from bottles – or from industrial scrap or old fleece jackets  – we have no way to verify that.  Once the polymers are at the melt stage, it’s impossible to tell where they came from.  So the yarn/fabric could be virgin polyester or it could be recycled.   Many so called “recycled” polyester yarns may not really be from recycled sources at all because – you guessed it! – the  process of recycling is much more expensive than using virgin polyester.  Unfortunately not all companies are willing to pay the price to offer a real green product, but they sure do want to take advantage of the perception of green.   So when you see a label that says a fabric is made from 50% polyester and 50% recycled polyester – well, (until now) there was absolutely no way to tell if that was true. In addition,

The Global Recycle Standard (GRS), originated by Control Union and now administered by Textile Exchange (formerly Organic Exchange), is intended to establish independently verified claims as to the amount of recycled content in a yarn, with the important added dimension of prohibiting certain chemicals, requiring water treatment and upholding workers rights, holding the weaver to standards similar to those found in the Global Organic Textile Standard:

  • Companies must keep full records of the use of chemicals, energy, water consumption and waste water treatment including the disposal of sludge;
  • All prohibitied chemicals listed in GOTS are also prohibited in the GRS;
  • All wastewater must be treated for pH, temperature, COD and BOD before disposal (It’s widely thought that water use needed to recycle polyester is low, but who’s looking to see that this is true?  The weaving, however, uses the same amount of water (about 500 gallons to produce 25 yards of upholstery weight fabric) – so the wastewater is probably expelled without treatment, adding to our pollution burden)
  • There is an extensive section related to worker’s rights.

Polyester is much (much, much, much!) cheaper than natural fibers and it wears like iron – so you can keep your sofa looking good for 30 years. The real question is, will you actually keep that sofa for 30 years?

There is still a problem with the production of synthetics. Burgeoning evidence about the disastrous consequences of using plastic in our environment continues to mount. A new compilation of peer reviewed articles, representing over 60 scientists from around the world, aims to assess the impact of plastics on the environment and human health [1] But synthetics do not decompose: in landfills they release heavy metals, including antimony, and other additives into soil and groundwater. If they are burned for energy, the chemicals are released into the air.

Also please keep in mind, that, if you choose a synthetic, then you bypass the benefits you’d get from supporting organic agriculture, which may be one of our most potent weapons in fighting climate change, because:

    1. Organic agriculture acts as a carbon sink: new research has shown that what is IN the soil itself (microbes and other soil organisms in healthy soil) is more important in sequestering carbon that what grows ON the soil. And compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years) demonstrates that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions.
    2. It eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which is an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity
    3. It conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion)
    4. It ensures sustained biodiversity

We’re not great fans of synthetics: Polyester is made from crude oil, and is the terminal product in a chain of very reactive and toxic precursors.   The manufacturing process requires workers and our environment to be exposed to some or all of the chemicals produced during the manufacturing process. There is no doubt that the manufacture of polyester is an environmental and public health burden that we would be better off without.

But there is a great quantity of existing polyester on this Earth, and there is only so much farmland that is available for cotton and other fiber crops, even though we have enough land to grow all the food and fiber we like, at least in theory.[2]

The biggest drawback to polyester production is that it requires a lot of energy, which means burning fuel for power and contributing to climate change. But to put that in perspective, Linda Greer, director of the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says you actually release more carbon dioxide burning a gallon of gas than producing a polyester shirt.

However factories where polyester is produced which do not have end-of-pipe wastewater treatment systems release antimony along with a host of other potentially dangerous substances like cobalt, manganese salts, sodium bromide, and titanium dioxide into the environment.

In theory, cotton is biodegradable and polyester is not. But the thing is, the way we dispose of clothing makes that irrelevant. For cotton clothes to break down, they have to be composted, which doesn’t happen in a landfill.

The bottom line is that while the rise of polyester is not good news for the planet, a big increase in cotton production wouldn’t be any better, according to many sources: Both fabrics are created in huge factory plants, both go trough multiple chemical processes to make the final product, and both will be shipped around the globe.         (https://www.sewingpartsonline.com/blog/411-cotton-vs-polyester-pros-cons/)

But we keep returning to one point: there are already polyester bottles in existence. World demand for polyester in 2014 was a bit more than 46 million tons.[3] Only a small percentage of that is used for bottles, but that’s still a lot of bottles – in the United States, more than 42 billion bottles of water (only water!) were produced in 2010.[4] Doesn’t it make sense to re-use some of these bottles?

Mulling over the possibilities. Let us know how you feel.

[1] “Plastics, the environment and human health”, Thompson, et al, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, July 27, 2009

[2] Atkisson, Alan, “Food, Fuel and Fiber? The Challenge of Using the Earth to Grow Energy”, December 2008, worldchanging.com

[3] Carmichael, Alasdair “Man made Fibers Continue to Grow”, Textile World, http://www.textileworld.com/Issues/2015/_2014/Fiber_World/Man-Made_Fibers_Continue_To_Grow

[4] http://www.container-recycling.org/images/stories/BUfigures/figure-pngs-new/figure4.png

Musings about autism

20 10 2015

Please take a look at our brand new retail website (www.twosistersecotextiles.com) to see what’s been keeping me from doing these blog posts!

I’ve been thinking our environment lately, and so just couldn’t resist this post. I’m sure there is much I haven’t considered about autism, but the new book by Enriquez and Gullans struck a chord with me (see below).

The Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report (MMWR) (like the Kelley Blue Book), provides, in mind-numbing detail, just how many people got sick or died last week. It’s not exactly beach reading, and it’s usually as exciting as watching paint dry. But within the endless columns and statistics of the MMWR, the patient and persistent can spot long-term trends and occasionally find serious short-term discontinuities. Autism is one of these discontinuities.

Conditions and diseases develop and spread at different rates. A rapid spike in airborne or waterborne infectious diseases like the flu or cholera is tragic but normal. A rapid spike in what was thought to be a genetic condition, like autism, is abnormal; when you see the latter, it is reasonable to think something has really changed, and not for the better.

Usually changes in the incidence of a genetically driven disease take place slowly, across generations. Diseases such as cystic fibrosis result from well-characterized DNA mutations in single genes, and the inheritance pattern is well understood: If parents carry the gene and pass it to a child, the child will be affected. Cystic fibrosis occurs in 1 of 3,700 newborns in the United States each year with no significant change in incidence over many years. You cannot ‘catch’ these kinds of conditions by sharing a room with someone; you inherit them. If your sibling has cystic fibrosis, then you have a 1 in 4 chance of also being sick.

Autism is diagnosed in 1 percent of individuals in Asia, Europe, and North America, and 2.6 percent of South Koreans. We know there is a strong genetic component to autism — so much so that until recently autism was thought to be a primarily genetic disease. There is clearly an underlying genetic component to many cases of autism. If one identical twin has autism, the probability that the other is also affected is around 70 percent. Until recently, the sibling of an autistic child, even though sharing many of the same parental genes and overall home environment, had only a 1 in 20 probability of being afflicted. Meanwhile, the neighbor’s child, genetically unrelated, has only a 0.6 percent probability. But even though millions of dollars have been spent trying to identify ‘the genes’ for autism, so far the picture is still murky. The hundreds of gene mutations identified in the past decade do not explain the majority of today’s cases. And while we searched for genes, a big epidemic was brewing:

Surveillance year Birth Year Prevalence per 1000 children This is about 1 in X children:
2000 1992 6.7 1 in 150
2002 1994 6.6 1 in 150
2004 1996 8.0 1 in 125
2006 1998 9.0 1 in 110
2008 2000 11.3 1 in 88
2010 2002 14.7 1 in 68

In 2008, when the MMWR reported a 78 percent increase in autism — a noncontagious condition — occurring in fewer than eight years, alarm bells began to go off in the medical community. By 2010 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was reporting a further 30 percent rise in autism in just two years. This is not the way traditional genetic diseases are supposed to act. This rate of change in autism was so shocking and unexpected that the first reaction of many MDs was that it wasn’t really that serious. Many argued, and some continue to argue, that we simply got better at diagnosing (and overdiagnosing) what was already there. But as case after case accumulates and overwhelms parents, school districts, and health-care systems, there is a growing sense that something is going horribly wrong, and no one really knows why.

What we do know, because of a May 2014 study that looked at more than 2 million children[1], is that environmental factors are driving more and more autism cases. These environmental factors can range from parental age at conception, maternal nutrition and infection during pregnancy – to exposure to certain chemicals such as pesticides and phthalates. Whereas autism used to be 80 to 90% explained or predicted by genetics, now genetics is only 50 percent predictive. Autism Speaks continues to fund research on a wide range of environmental risk factors that help us advance our understanding of these environmental risk factors.

It should be remembered that genetic risk factors coupled with environmental risk factors work hand in hand. It’s not an either/or scenario, but rather a complicated interaction of genetics and environmental factors, working together.

But the fact remains, we have taken a disease we mostly inherited and rapidly turned it into a disease we can trigger. Now the chances of a brother or sister of an autistic child developing autism is 1 in 8 instead of 1 in 20.

And yet. Human clinical trials for chemicals which might lead to autism would be unethical, and the variety and interactions of various chemicals is so extensive, it’s very hard to trace exactly which chemicals, in what combinations, alter the brain.

Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans have published a new book, “Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth”. (Who are they? Juan Enriquez was the founding director of the Life Sciences Project at the Harvard Business School and is a fellow at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs; Dr. Gullans was on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital for nearly 20 years. Both of them have a curriculum vitae as long as your arm if you care to look them up.) The premise of the book is that we humans hold, in our not always careful hands, the future of life on Earth: they argue that we have discarded random mutation and natural selection for their opposites: i.e., nonrandom mutation and unnatural (i.e., human) selection. (If you want to read more it’s easy to google the title and buy on Amazon – which is what I did.)

Reading the book, I was struck by a chapter that discussed autism. Andrey Rzhetsky, director of the Conte Center for Computational Neuropsychiatric Genomics at the University of Chicago, believes there is enough data to define the causes of autism – so he queried 100 million medical records trying to figure out the best correlations between environmental changes and autism. Bit of backstory: boys are acting like the proverbial canary in a coal mine. They are especially vulnerable to environmental insults from the chemicals that surround us.   “Autism appears to be strongly correlated with rate of congenital malformations of the genitals in males across the country. This gives an indicator of environmental load and the effect is surprisingly strong.”[2] Every 1% increase in malformations corresponded to a 283% increase in autism in the same county.[3] In fact, the book says that Mr. Rzhetsky sees autism as a sort of chemical poisoning.

Naturally, not everyone agrees with Rzhetsky. And we don’t dare point fingers to any particular chemical – but shouldn’t we at least ask our government to restrict the use of some of the chemicals which are known to adversely impact human health?   Ask your congressman to support the Safe Chemicals Act of 2013.


[1] Sandin, Sven, Lichtenstein, Paul, et al., “The Familial Risk of Autism”, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 2014; 311(17):1770-1777

[2] Sifferlin, Alexandra, “Growing Evidence that Autism is Linked to Pollution”, Time, March 14, 2014

[3] op cit.

Remember the children

28 09 2015

We’ve been really busy – one of the things that has delayed our blog post is our new website:  Two Sisters Ecotextiles (twosistersecotextiles.com).  It is a retail website, because we feel everybody should have access to safe fabrics.  If you go to our new site, you’ll notice that it features lots of pictures of kids, because kids are more at risk than adults from the chemicals in our environment.  We did a blog post about this a few years ago, and it’s reproduced here.

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.  The 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 leukemia and brain cancer has increased sharply, while type 2 diabetes, previously unknown among children, is on the increase[5].  And the cost 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.[6]

How can this be?

Today’s children face hazards that were neither known nor imagined a few decades ago. Children are at risk of exposure to thousands of new synthetic chemicals – chemicals which are used in an astonishing variety of products, from gasoline, medicines, glues, plastics and pesticides to cosmetics, cleaning products, electronics, fabrics, and food. Since World War II, more than 80,000 new chemicals have been invented.  Scientific evidence is strong, and continuing to build, that exposures to synthetic chemicals in the modern environment are important causes of these diseases[7].  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[8], disorders that affect approximately 17% of U.S. children under the age of 18. The urban built environment and the modern food environment are important causes of obesity and diabetes. Toxic chemicals in the environment – lead, pesticides, toxic air pollutants, phthalates, and bisphenol A – are important causes of disease in children, and they are found in our homes, at our schools, in the air we breathe, and in the products we use every day – including textiles.

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) is simply wrong.  Studies are finding that even infinitesimally low levels of exposure – or any level of exposure at all – may cause endocrine or reproductive abnormalities, particularly if exposure occurs during a critical developmental window.[9] 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.[10] 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.
  • 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.[11] 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.[12]
  • 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.[13] 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.

What makes these chemicals such a threat to children’s health?

  • Easy absorption. Synthetic chemicals can enter our children’s bodies by ingestion, inhalation, or through the skin. Infants are at risk of exposure in the womb or through breast milk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 200 high-volume synthetic chemicals can be found in the bodies of nearly all Americans, including newborn infants.  Of the top 20 chemicals discharged to the environment, nearly 75 percent are known or suspected to be toxic to the developing human brain.
  • Children are not little adults.  Their bodies take in proportionately greater amounts of environmental toxins than adults, and their rapid development makes them more vulnerable to environmental interference. Pound for pound, children breathe more air, consume more food, and drink more water than adults, due to their substantial growth and high metabolism. For example, a resting infant takes in twice as much air per pound of body weight as an adult. Subject to the same airborne toxin, an infant therefore would inhale proportionally twice as much as an adult.
  • Mass production. Nearly 3,000 chemicals are high-production-volume (HPV) chemicals – that means they’re produced in quantities of more than 1 million pounds.  HPV chemicals are used extensively in our homes, schools and communities. They are widely dispersed in air, water, soil and waste sites. Over 4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals are released into the nation’s environment each year, including 72 million pounds of recognized carcinogens.
  • Too little testing. Only a fraction of HPV chemicals have been tested for toxicity. Fewer than 20 percent have been studied for their capacity to interfere with children’s development. This failure to assess chemicals for their possible hazards represents a grave lapse of stewardship by the chemical industry and by the federal government that puts all of our  children at risk.
  • Heavy use of pesticides. More than 1.2 million pounds of pesticides — many of them toxic to the brain and nervous system — are applied in the United States each year. These chemical pesticides are used not just on food crops but also on lawns and gardens, and inside homes, schools, day-care centers and hospitals. The United States has only 1.3% of the world’s population but uses 24% of the world’s total pesticides.
  • Environmental Persistence. Many toxic chemicals have been dispersed widely into the environment. Some will persist in the environment for decades and even centuries.

Let’s take a look at just the group of chemicals which are known as endocrine disruptors:

In 2012, Greenpeace analyzed a total of 141 items of clothing, and found high levels of phthalates in four of the garments and NPE’s in 89 garments – in quantities as high as 1,000 ppm – as well as a variety of other toxic chemicals.[14] Phthalates and NPE’s are among the chemicals known as “endocrine disruptors” (EDCs) – chemicals which are used often – and in vast quantities – in textile processing.

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.

Diabetes, a condition in which the body does not properly process glucose, is an endocrine disease, as is hypoglycemia and thyroid cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 29.1 million people have diabetes.[15] The three types of diabetes are a good illustration of the two main ways that something can “go wrong” with hormonal control in our bodies. In type I diabetes, the pancreas is unable to make insulin. Without insulin, the liver never “gets the message” to take glucose out of the bloodstream, so blood glucose remains too high, while the stores of glucagon in the liver are too low. In type II diabetes, the person’s pancreas is making enough insulin, but the insulin receptor sites on the liver cells are “broken” (possibly due to genetic factors, possibly do to “overuse”) and cannot “get the message.” Because the liver is unable to receive the instructions (despite the presence of lots of insulin), it does not take glucose out of the bloodstream, so blood glucose remains too high, while the stores of glucagon in the liver are too low. In type III diabetes (AKA Alzheimer’s Disease)[16], it is the neurons in the brain, specifically, which “don’t get the message,” (though it sounds like researchers have yet to determine whether that’s due to lack of the brain-produced insulin upon which they depend, or whether that’s due to receptors on the neurons that either are or become “broken”) and thus, cannot take in the sugar that they need, with the result that, without an alternative fuel source such as medium-chain triglycerides, the neurons will starve.

Over the past 60 years, a growing number of EDC 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. We have learned over time that many chemical substances can cause a range of adverse health problems, including death, cancer, birth defects, and delays in development of cognitive functions. For instance, it is well established that asbestos can cause a fatal form of lung cancer, thalidomide can cause limb deformities, and breathing high concentrations of some industrial solvents can cause irreversible brain damage and death. 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.

Recent research is giving us a new understanding of EDCs since Dr. Theo Coburn wrote Our Stolen Future.  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.”

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.



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

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

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

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

[9] 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

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

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

[12] 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.pdf ALSO SEE: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/32637/title/Lamarck-and-the-Missing-Lnc/

[13] 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

[14] http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/publications/toxics/Water%202012/TechnicalReport-06-2012.pdf     SEE ALSO: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/publications/toxics/2014/A-Fashionable-Lie.pdf

[15] http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pubs/statsreport14/national-diabetes-report-web.pdf

[16] De la Monte, Suzanne, and Wands, Jack R., “Alzheimer’s Disease is Type 3 Diabetes – Evidence Reviewed”, J. Diabetes Sci Technol 2008 Nov; 2(6): 1101-1113


Are biosolids safe?

25 08 2015

In a recent email from the Green Science Policy Institute, Arlene Blum mentioned that she was just back from Fluoros 2015, which aims to examine the “state of the science” on fluorinated organic compounds in the environment. Her take away was that many of these fluorinated compounds (like those found in fire retardants)  are found in vegetables such as lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries. The assumption is that these man-made chemicals are found in our vegetables because biosolids were used as fertilizer and reclaimed water was used for irrigation.

How does this happen?

First we have to know what a biosolid is: Bascially, biosolids are made from treated sewage sludge, under another (less prejudicial) name. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, biosolids are “nutrient-rich organic materials”, which contain useful amounts of plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and micronutrients. Because it is made from treated sewage, it’s considered safe for use as fertilizer or land reclamation, and about 50% of all biosolids produced in the U.S. are being used as fertilizer, though only about 1% of cropland has biosolids applied.  But the use is growing because the cost to farmers is far less than for chemical fertilizers – by a factor of 4![1]   They can also be composted and sold for use on lawns and home gardens.

Sounds like a dream, right? Using  sewage sludge as fertilizer is a sweet way to get rid of the mountain of sludge produced in the U.S. each year.   Sludge management is an integral part of any municipal waste management system. The most common disposal method is incineration (which has its own problems) and landfills, storage in huge sludge ponds, dried in the sun or dumped in the oceans. But ocean dumping, which created vast dead moon-scapes on the ocean floor, was halted by the Ocean Dumping ban of 1987. Thus the policy of disposing of sludge by spreading it on agricultural land (a policy given the name “land application”) was born.     biosolidsGOC

The problem with biosolids is that most municipal treatment facilities are not able to remove the many chemicals found in sewage. The four main categories of potential pollutants – nutrients, pathogens, toxic organics, and heavy metals – behave differently and cannot all be managed by any single kind of treatment. The goal of “safe management” of such a complex toxic mixture cannot be met at a reasonable cost.

The EPA itself conducted the national Sewage Sludge Survey (NSSS) in 1988 to get information on pollutants found in treated biosolids. They found dozens of hazardous substances, including heavy metals, organics, PBDE’s, pharmaceuticals, steroids and hormones[2] in ALL the sludge samples the EPA took around the USA.

Rolf Halden is a professor at Arizona State University, member of the adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins and an expert on the environmental impacts of industrial chemicals. His lab recently used treated sewage sludge to identify and prioritize persistent bioaccumulative chemicals.[3] The study found that chemicals contributed between 0.04% – 0.15% of the total dry mass of biosolids produced in the USA annually, which is equivalent to 2,866 – 8,708 tons of chemicals. The top individual chemicals found included:

  • Brominated fire retardants
    • DecaBDE
    • pentaBDE
    • 1,2-bis(2,4,6 tribromophenoxy
    • ethane
  • Surfactants
    • Nonylphenol (NP) and their ethoxylates (NPEOs) – both used in textile processing
  • Antimicrobials
    • Triclosan and triclocarban
  • Antibiotics
    • Azithromycin
    • Ciprofloxacin
    • ofloxacin

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did a comprehensive exposure assessment of environmental chemicals found the U. S. population. They found about 139 organic chemicals in human blood, serum, urine and tissue samples. About 70% of the chemicals found in biosolids are also found in humans.

New studies have shown that:

  • Sewage sludge is mutagenic (it causes inheritable genetic changes in organisms), but no one seems sure what this means for human or animal health. Regulations for the use of sewage sludge ignore this information.
  • Two-thirds of sewage sludge contains asbestos. Because sludge is often applied to the land dry, asbestos may be a real health danger to farmers, neighbors and their children. Again, regulations don’t mention asbestos.
  • Governments issue numeric standards for metals. However, the movement of metals from soils into groundwater, surface water, plants and wildlife – and of the hundreds of other toxins in sludge – are poorly understood.
  • Soil acidity seems to be the key factor in promoting or retarding the movement of toxic metals into groundwater, wildlife and crops. The National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences gives sewage sludge treatment of soils a clean bill of health in the short term, “as long as…acidic soils are agronomically managed.” However the NRC acknowledges that toxic heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants can build up in treated soils.
  • There is good reason to believe that livestock grazing on plants treated with sewage sludge will ingest the pollutants – either through the grazed plants, or by eating sewage sludge along with the plants. Sheep eating cabbage grown on sludge developed lesions of the liver and thyroid gland. Pigs grown on corn treated with sludge had elevated levels of cadmium in their tissues. An AP story published in 2008 documented that milk sold throughout the U.S contained high levels of thallium (the primary toxin in rat poison), which had been present in the sewage sludge spread on crops fed to dairy cows.[4]
  • Small mammals have been shown to accumulate heavy metals after sewage sludge was applied to forestlands.
  • Insects in the soil absorb toxins, which then accumulate in birds.
  • It has been shown that sewage sludge applied to soils can increase the dioxin intake of humans eating beef (or cow’s milk) produced from those soils.
  • Traces of prescription drugs and household chemicals were found deep in the soil as a result of a couple of decades of use of biosolids as fertilizer.[5]

A study done in Sweden found that scientists have found antibiotic resistant “super bugs” in sewage sludge; they’re sounding the alarm about the danger of antibiotic resistant genes passing into the human food chain. Of the samples collected, 79% tested positive for the drug-resistnat vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE)

Astonishingly, in a November, 1990 edition of the United States Federal Register, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had this to say of sewage sludge: “Typically, these constituents may include volatiles, organic solids, nutrients, disease-causing pathogenic organisms (bacteria, viruses, etc.), heavy metals and inorganic ions, and toxic organic chemicals from industrial wastes, household chemicals and pesticides.”

Not all contaminants are created equal:  some chemicals are stored in the human body, and others pass through it.  Some break down in our digestive system, and others don’t.  Each person is different, with a different body size, stage of development and metabolism.   The same chemical may wreak devastating effects if a pregnant woman eats it but may go unnoticed if eaten by a man.  And remember, chemicals are synergistic, and very little is known about interactions between low levels of large numbers of chemicals.  As an example, take the chemical triclosan, one of the antimicrobials that Rolf Halden’s lab found in highest quantities in treated sludge. Triclosan has been used for several decades in antibacterial products like soaps, deodorants and cosmetics.  It is also nearly universally found in sewage sludge.  A recently published study found that soybeans planted in soil containing triclosan took the triclosan up into their beans.

Triclosan is a suspected endocrine disruptor and recent CDC reports show more than a 40 percent increase in triclosan levels in the urine of Americans over a recent two-year period.  The amount in our bodies can’t be blamed entirely on sewage sludge; humans can absorb triclosan through their skin and those who use triclosan-containing toothpastes put the chemical directly into their mouths.   But at what point does exposure to triclosan become more than an individual body can bear?

According to the EPA, about half of all sewage sludge is applied to land, but it is only applied to about one percent of the nation’s farmland.  The likely result is that, if dangers do lurk in the sludge applied to land, we rarely find out about them.

Most people’s chances of eating enough tainted food from farms that apply sewage sludge as fertilizer to cause an acute reaction are pretty slim.  The chance that anyone who got sick would be able to correctly trace his or her illness back to the farm and to sewage sludge is even smaller.  However, a lack of easily traceable acute illnesses does not prove that sewage sludge is safe.  Health harm due to exposure to low levels of toxins over a long period of time is no more acceptable than acute problems, even if they are less obvious.

As a consumer, the only sure way to avoid food grown in sewage sludge is to buy organic food (or grow your own).  If you are a gardener and you wish to avoid sewage sludge fertilizers or composts, avoid any product that says it contains “biosolids.”  Last, if you wish to keep sewage sludge from being spread on farm fields near where you live, you can take action locally to make it illegal in your city or county.

[1] “Davison, Janet, “Earth Day: Is sewage sludge safe for farm fields?”, CBC news Canada, April 22, 2014.

[2] EPA , “Targeted National Sewage Sludge Survey Statistical Analysis Report”, revised April, 2009

[3] Halden, Rolf et al; “Wastewater treatment plants as chemical observatories to forecase ecological and human health risks of manmade chemicals”, Scientific Reports, January 2014

[4] Hellprin, John and Vineys, Kevin: “Sewage-based fertilizer safety doubted”, USA Today; 3.6.2008

[5] Bienkowski, Brian, “Farm sludge contaminates soil with drugs, other chemicals”, Environmental Health News, May 2014. http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/2014/may/biosolids-contaminants


Toxic lies

14 07 2015

Julie Gunlock wrote a blog post entitled “The ‘toxic’ lies behind Jessica Alba’s booming baby business” (to read the post, click  here ) We’re not necessarily fond of Jessica Alba nor her Honest Company, but the statements made by Julie Gunlock need to be addressed. She contends that the Honest Company’s main commodity is fear and the “false promise that their products are safer than others.”

I will not comment on her admonitions about how The Honest Company’s products are full of chemicals (as this should be obvious), or that Alba had recognized that “many people  –  particularly women (sic) – have been convinced that common chemicals are a bogeyman that lurks, waiting to harm them” – since everything is made of chemicals, some bad for us, some that are not.  We aren’t part of the “man made is absolutely bad, natural is absolutely good” camp.

What I will address is her claim that chemicals used in products are “there for a reason” and they’re completely safe because “chemicals are regulated under nearly a dozen federal agencies and regulations.”   She states:   “ chemicals in products … are used in trace amounts, often improve the safety of those products and have undergone hundreds of safety tests.”

As she herself says, nothing could be further from the truth.

First, let’s address her contention that “chemicals in products…are used in trace amounts.”

 The idea that chemicals won’t harm us because the amounts used are so tiny is not new; it’s been used by industry for many years. However, 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, as Julie Gunlock herself reminds us, 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 chemicals 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 or off 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.

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.

I think that pretty much demolishes the argument that chemicals in “trace amounts” don’t do us any harm.

Second, what about her contention that “chemicals are regulated under nearly a dozen federal agencies and regulations … which have undergone hundreds of safety tests.”

 The chief legal authority for regulating chemicals in the United States is the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).[9]

It is widely agreed that the TSCA is not doing the job of protecting us, and that the United States is in need of profound change in this area. Currently, legislation entitled the 2013 Chemical Safety Improvement Act, introduced by a bipartisan group of 26 senators, is designed to improve the outdated TSCA but it is still in committee.  The chemicals market values function, price and performance over safety, which poses a barrier to the scientific and commercial success of green chemistry in the United States and could ultimately hinder the U.S. chemical industry’s competitiveness in the global marketplace as green technologies accelerate under the European Union’s requirements.

We assume the TSCA is testing and regulating chemicals used in the industry[10]. It is 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 assume that the TSCA requires manufacturers to demonstrate that their chemicals are safe before they go into use. It does not:

  • The EPA requires a “Premanufacture Notification” of a new chemical, and no data of any kind is required[11].   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.”
  • 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.

We assume 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. It does not:

  • The TSCA allows chemical manufacturers to keep ingredients in some products secret.   Nearly 20% of the 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.

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 is not banned.

Finally, and because I just couldn’t resist: her example of using what she concedes are “toxic fragrances” to cover up that “other toxic stink – the one coming out of your baby” speaks for itself.

In conclusion, I don’t think that we’re being alarmist in trying to find better alternatives for products we use every day.  Nor are the promises of companies like Alba’s false.


[1] Living on Earth, March 16, 2012, http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=12-P13-00011&segmentID=1

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

[3]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.pdf ALSO SEE: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/32637/title/Lamarck-and-the-Missing-Lnc/

[4] http://www.chemicalbodyburden.org/whatisbb.htm

[5] Theofanidis, D, MSc., “Chronic Illness in Childhood: Psychosocial and Nursing Support for the Family”, Health Science Journal, http://www.hsj.gr/volume1/issue2/issue02_rev01.pdf

[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

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

[8] Porter, Warren, PhD; “Facing Scientific Realities: Debunking the “Dose Makes the Poison” Myth”, National Pesticide Forum, Chicago, 2007; http://www.beyondpesticides.org/infoservices/pesticidesandyou/Winter%2007-08/dose-poison-debunk.pdf

[9] The “regulations” mentioned, all of which fall under the TSCA, might include:

  • the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chemical Action Plans for certain chemicals – to date, 10 chemicals have Chemical Action Plans in place. These plans attempt to outline the risks each chemical may present and identify the specific steps the agency is taking to address the concerns.
  • Confidential Business Information (CBI) – designed to protect intellectual property and confidential business information.
  • Chemical Data Reporting (CDR) Rule: use and exposure information to help the EPA screen and prioritize chemicals for additional review.
  • Chemical Prioritization: Which allows the EPA to identify which chemicals in commerce warrant additional review.
  • Risk Assessment: Under TSCA, EPA assesses chemicals using conservative assumptions about the possible hazards a chemical may pose.

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

[11] Ibid.