10 reasons to make sure your sofa choices are upholstered with safely processed fabrics.

28 10 2013

If a fabric is identified as 100%  “cotton” – or even 100% “organic cotton”  —  it’s important to remember that processing the fiber, and then weaving it into fabric, is very chemically intense.  One-quarter of the total weight of the finished fabric is made up of synthetic chemicals, so it’s important to know that the chemicals used in your fabrics are safe! [1]

There have not been a lot of studies which show the effects that chemicals contained in a fabric have on humans as a result of using that fabric, perhaps because there are no interested parties other than universities and government entities.   But there are numerous studies which document the effects which the individual chemicals have on humans – perhaps because the textile industry is so fragmented that the few really large corporations with the resources to do this kind of research tend to finance research which supports  new products (such as DuPont’s PLA fibers or Teijin’s recycling efforts).  But there have been some, and we found the following:

  1. Formaldehyde is used often in finishing textiles to give the fabrics easy care properties (like wrinkle resistance, anti cling, stain resistance, etc.).  Formaldehyde resins are used on almost all cotton/poly sheet sets in the USA.
    1. 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.13 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. [3]
      1. 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.
      2. 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.
      3. Contact dermatitis is a well-known condition, and there are many websites which feature ways to get help.
      4. A study by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found a link in textile workers between length of exposure to formaldehyde and leukemia deaths.[2]
    2. Dioxins:  Main uses of dioxin in relation to textiles is as a preservative for cotton and other fibers during sea transit,  and in cotton bleaching. It is also found in some dyestuffs.  Dioxin is known as one of the strongest poisons which man is able to produce. It causes cancer of the liver and lung, and interferes with the immune system, resulting in a predisposition to infectious diseases and embrional misgrowth.
      1. Studies have found dioxin leached from clothing  onto  the skin of participants:[3]  It was shown that these contaminants are transferred from textiles to human skin during wearing. They were also present in shower water and were washed out of textiles during washing. Extensive evidence was found indicating that contaminated textiles are a major source of chlorinated dioxins and furans in non-industrial sewage sludge, dry cleaning residues and house dust.
    3. Perfluorocarbons (PFC’s)  break down within the body and in the environment to PFOA, PFOS and similar chemicals. (Note: the chemistry here is quite dense; I’ve tried to differentiate between the groups. Please let me know if I’ve made a mistake!) They are the most persistent synthetic chemicals known to man. Once they are in the body, it takes decades to get them out – assuming you are exposed to no more. They are toxic in humans with health effects from increased chloesterol to stroke and cancer. Although little PFOA can be found in the finished product, the breakdown of the fluorotelomers used on paper products and fabric treatments might explain how more than 90% of all Americans have these hyper-persistent, toxic chemicals in their blood. A growing number of researchers believe that fabric-based, stain-resistant coatings, which are ubiquitous, may be the largest environmental source of this  controversial chemical family of PFCs.

PFC’s are used in stain resistant finishes/fabrics such as Scotchgard, GoreTex, Crypton, Crypton Green, GreenShield, Teflon:

  1. PFC’s cause developmental and other adverse effects in animals.[4]
  2. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the more exposure children have to PFC’s (perfluorinated compounds), the less likely they are to have a good immune response to vaccinations (click here to read the study).[5]

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PFC’s:

  • Are very persistent in the environment.
  • Are found at very low levels both in the environment and in the blood of the U.S. population.
  • Remain in people for a very long time.
  • Cause developmental and other adverse effects in laboratory animals.

The levels of PFC’s globally are not going down – and in fact there are places (such as China) where the PFC level is going up. And as there is not a “no peeing” part of the pool, the exposure problem deserves international attention.

4. Tributylphosphate – or TBP – is used in the production of synthetic resins and as a flame-retarding plasticizer. It is also used as a primary plasticizer in the manufacture of plastics and as a pasting agent for pigment pastes used in printing. Because it is a strong wetting agent, it is used often in the textile industry.  In addition to being a known skin irritant (click here to see the MSDS with a warning that it causes eye and skin irritation), TBP also causes bladder cancer in rats. (2)

  1. Alaska Airlines flight attendants were given new uniforms in 2010; shortly thereafter many reported “dermal symptoms” (e.g., hives, rash, blisters, skin irritation), while some also referenced respiratory symptoms and eye irritation; some have more recently been diagnosed with abnormal thyroid function. The symptoms apparently occurred only while wearing the new uniforms. (To read the report filed with the Consumer Product Safety Commission by the Association of Flight Attendants, click here. )

The only fact which can be agreed upon between the union, the CPSC and the manufacturer is that some unknown percent of the fabric used to make the uniforms was “contaminated” with TBP, tributylphosphate, as reported by the manufacturer – but since not all the fabric was tested, it is unknown the final percentage of contaminated fabric.

5.  Acrylic fibers are made from acrolynitrile  (also called vinyl cyanide), which is a carcinogen (brain, lung and bowel cancers) and a mutagen, targeting the central nervous system. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acrylonitrile enters our bodies through skin absorption, as well as inhalation and ingestion.  It is not easily recycled nor is it biodegradeable.

  1. Women who work in factories which produce acrylic fibers have seven times the rate of breast cancer as the normal population [6] – those working with nylon have double the risk.

6.  Chemicals used in textile processing which are associated with the immune system include formaldehyde, benzenes, toluene, phthalates. In 2007, The National Institutes of Health and the University of Washington released the findings of a 14 year study that demonstrates those who work with textiles were significantly more likely to die from an autoimmune disease than people who didn’t [7].

  1. Allergies and asthma are both thought to be associated with impaired immune systems.   Twice as many Americans (not just children) have asthma now as 20 yrs ago[8] and 10% of American children now have asthma.[9]
  2. As well as allergies and asthma, there are numerous other ‘chronic inflammatory diseases’ (CIDs) such as Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis which seem to stem from impaired regulation of our immune systems.[10]

7.  Chemicals commonly used in textiles which contribute to developmental disorders (such as (ADD, ADHA, autism, Dyslexia): Bisphenol A, flame retardants, heavy metals (lead, mercury, cadmium), phthalates, PCB’s:

  1. Currently one of every six American children has a developmental disorder of some kind.[11]
  2. Bisphenol A  – used as a finish in the production of synthetic fibers: It mimics estrogens (is an endocrine disruptor) and can cause infertility and cancer.[12] 

8.  PCB’s :  used in flame retardants on fabrics; they are neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors and carcinogenic

  1. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) commissioned psychologists to study children whose mothers were exposed to PCB’s during pregnancy. The researchers found  that the more PCBs  found in the mother’s cord blood, the worse the child did on tests for things such as short-term memory. By age eleven, the most highly exposed kids had an average IQ deficit of 6.2 [13].

9.  Cancer – chemicals used in textile processing which are linked to cancer include formaldehyde, lead, cadmium, pesticides, benzene, vinyl chloride – as well as pesticides on crops: 

  1. all childhood cancers have grown at about 1% per year for the past two decades[14]
  2.  brain cancer in children increased nearly 40% from 1973 to 1994[15]
  3. the environmental attributable fraction of childhood cancer can be between 5% and 90%, depending on the type of cancer[16]

10.  Lead – used in the textile industry in a variety of ways and as a component in dyestuffs –  is a neurotoxin – it affects the human brain and cognitive development, as well as the reproductive system. Some of the kinds of neurological damage  caused by lead are not reversible.        Specifically, it affects reading and reasoning abilities in  children, and is also linked to hearing loss, speech delay, balance difficulties and violent tendencies.[17]     Children are uniquely susceptible to lead exposure over time,  and  neural damage occurring during the period from 1 to 3 years of age is not likely to be reversible.  It’s also important to be aware  that lead available from tested products would not be the only source of  exposure in a child’s environment.        Lead is used in the textile industry in a variety of ways and under a variety of names:

    1. Lead acetate:                        dyeing of textiles
    2. Lead  chloride                      preparation of lead salts
    3. Lead molybdate                   pigments used in dyestuffs
    4. Lead nitrate                         mordant in dyeing; oxidizer in dyeing(4)

Studies have shown that if children are exposed to lead, either in the womb or in early childhood, their brains are likely to be smaller.[18]

Lead is a uniquely cumulative poison: the daily intake of lead is not as important a determinant of ultimate harm as is the duration of exposure and the total lead ingested over time.

 


[1] Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals, Springer, New York, 2004,  page 609; on behalf of the German Environmental Protection Agency.

[2] 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.

[3] 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

[4] Philippe Grandjean, et al, “Serum Vaccine Antibody Concentrations in Children Exposed to Perfluorinated Compounds”, Journal of the American Medical Association,  january 25, 2012

[6] Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi: 10.1136/oem.2009.049817 (abstract: http://oem.bmj.com/content/67/4/263.abstract)
SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp
AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321

[7] Nakazawa, Donna Jackson, “Diseases Like Mine Are a Growing Hazard”, Washington
Post
, March 16, 2008.

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

[12] Grant, Christine; Hauser, Peter; Oxenham, William, “Improving the Thermal Stability of Textile Processing Aids”, www.ntcresearch.org/pdf-rpts/AnRp04/C01-NS08-A4.pdf

[13] Shulevitz, Judith, “The Toxicity Panic”, The New Republic, April 7, 2011.

[15] New York Times, “New Toxins Suspected as Cancer Rate Rises in children”, September 29, 1997

[16] Gouveia-Vigeant, Tami and Tickner, Joel, “Toxic Chemicals and Childhood Cancer: a review of the evidence”, U of Massachusetts, May 2003

[17] ‘Safe’ levels of lead still harm IQ”, Associated Press, 2001

[18] Dietrich, KN et al, “Decreased Brain Volume in Adults with Childhood Lead
Exposure”, PLoS Med 2008 5(5): e112.





What about chrome-free, or “eco” leather?

29 05 2012

With the increased interest in avoidance of certain chemicals and industrial products that are particularly harmful to our environment, it’s not surprising that manufacturers are becoming ingenious in pointing out attributes that play to this script.  So we now see claims for “chrome free” leather, or for “eco friendly” leather.

In last week’s post, I pointed out two kinds of leather tanning – chromium and vegetable. Although most leather is tanned using chromium (from 80 – 95% of all leather produced[1]) there is a third type of leather tanning, called aldehyde tanning, which like vegetable tanning does not use chromium.  Let’s revisit leather tanning for a minute:

  1. Sometimes leather manufacturers will tell you that they don’t use the toxic form of chromium in tanning – the toxic form is called chromium IV or hexavalent chromium.  And that is correct:  chromium tanned leathers use chromium III salts (also called trivalent chromium) in the form of chromium sulfate.  This form of chromium is found naturally in the environment and is a necessary nutrient for the human body.   However, the leather manufacturers fail to explain that  chromium III oxidizes into chromium IV in the presence of oxygen combined with other factors, such as extremes in pH.  This happens during the tanning process.  Chromium-tanned leather can contain between 4 and 5% of chromium [2] – often hexavalent chromium, which produces allergic reactions and easily moves across membranes such as skin.  End of life issues, recovery and reuse are a great concern – chromium (whether III or IV) is persistent (it cannot be destroyed) and will always be in the environment.   Incineration, composting and gasification will not eliminate chromium.
  2. Vegetable tanning is simply the replacement of the chromium for bark or plant tannins – all other steps remain the same.  And since there are about 250 chemicals used in tanning, the replacement of chromium for plant tannins, without addressing the other chemicals used, is a drop in the bucket.   Last week I mentioned some of the other 249 chemicals routinely used in tanning:  alcohol, coal tar , sodium sulfate, sulfuric acid, chlorinated phenols (e.g. 3,5-dichlorophenol), azo dyes, cadmium, cobalt, copper, antimony, cyanide, barium, lead, selenium, mercury, zinc, polychlorinated biphenyels (PCBs), nickel, formaldehyde and pesticide residues.[3]   Here are the steps to creating leather :
  3. Aldehyde tanning is the main type of leather referred to as “chrome-free”, and is often used in automobiles and baby’s shoes.  Aldehyde tanning is often referred to as “wet white” due to the pale cream color it imparts to the skins.  But aldehydes are a group of chemicals that contain one chemical which many people are familiar with: formaldehyde.  And we all know about formaldehyde: it is highly toxic to all animals; ingestion of as little as little as 30 mL (1 oz.) of a solution containing 37% formaldehyde has been reported to cause death in an adult human[4]  and the Department of Health and Human Services has said it may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen.  Aldehyde tanning essentially uses formaldehyde, which reacts with proteins in the leather to prevent putrefication.  BLC Leather Technology Centre,  a leading independent leather testing center, states that leathers should contain no more than 200ppm of formaldehyde for articles in general use. If the item is in direct skin contact this should be 75ppm, and 20ppm for items used by babies (<36 months). Typically, with modern tanning techniques, leathers contain 400ppm or less.[5]   Yet that far exceeds levels set elsewhere – in New Zealand, for example, acceptable levels of formaldehyde in products is set at 100 ppm[6]  – the European Union Ecolabel restricts formaldehyde to 20 ppm for infant articles, 30 ppm for children and adults, while GOTS prohibits any detectable level.

BLC Leather Technology Centre Ltd.  commissioned a study by Ecobilan S.A (Reference BLC Report 002)  to do a life cycle analysis to evaluate the various tanning chemicals, to see if there was an environmentally preferable choice between chrome, vegetable and aldehyde based processes.  The result?  They found no significant differences between the three  – all have environmental impacts, just different ones.  These LCA’s demonstrate that tanning is just one of the impacts – other steps may have equal impacts.   Chrome was sited as having the disadvantage of being environmentally persistent. “Another consideration, in terms of end-of-life leather or management of chrome tanned leather waste, is the possibility of the valency state changing from the benign Cr III to the carcinogenic Cr VI.”[7]

So much for “chrome free” leather.  What about claims for “eco leather”?

In the strict sense of the definition, the term “eco leather” is meaningless. However, retailers want to imply improved environmental performance. So how can you evaluate their claims for “eco leathers”?

There are two main considerations in making leather:

  • How is it manufactured?
  • What inputs are used to produce it?

Research has shown that a significant part of the environmental impact of leather is in the manufacturing process.  In this respect it is the environmental stewardship practice of tanners coupled with chemical selection that should determine how eco friendly a leather is.  The following areas of leather manufacture have the most significant potential impact:

  • Management of restricted substances
  • Energy consumption
  • Air emissions
  • Waste management (hazardous and non hazardous)
  • Environmental management systems
  • Water consumption
  • Control of manufacturing processes
  • Effluent treatment
  • Chrome management
  • Traceability of material

In terms of the selection of inputs, we should consider the use of certain materials that could give an improved eco profile to leather. These include:

  • Biodegradable wetting agents for soaking
  • Reduced sulphide processing
  • Non synthetic or polymeric re-tannage systems
  • optimized dyestuffs
  • Vegetable oil based fatliquors
  • Optimised finishing systems to reduce waste such HVLP or roller coating
  • Biodegradable in 12 months or less

In summary, although there is no current definition, these are the key elements which should determine an “eco leather”:

  1. Control of leather manufacturing processes
  2. Clean technology chemical selection in the process
  3.  Effective management of restricted substances within the leather
  4. A measure of the end of life impact

As I mentioned in last week’s post, the production of leather can be a hellish life for the animal.  I have found only one company, Organic Leather, which looks beyond the production of the leather itself to the important questions of animal husbandry and land management practices which provide the skins, and incorporate these into a tanning process which “prevents further toxicity entering our environment and our bodies.”

The Leather Working Group (LWG)   is a multi-stakeholder group[8], whose purpose is  “to develop and maintain a protocol that assesses the compliance and environmental performance of tanners and promotes sustainable and appropriate environmental business practices within the footwear leather industry.”   The LWG, in conjunction with BLC Leather Technology Center Ltd., operates an eco rating system for leather. (This sort of mark is known as a first or second party certification, and lacks – I believe – the credibility of a true third party certification.)   Retailers, brands or tanners who are able to meet the requirements of this standard are eligible to use the EcoSure mark. To be eligible to use this mark tanneries must have achieved at least a Bronze award in the LWG Tannery Environment Auditing Protocol,  and the finished leather on which the mark is to be used must meet the requirements of the audit and testing regime. (to see the audit form, click here  ).

One issue which is a hot topic in leather production is that of deforestation and the sourcing of skins from Brazil – cattle ranching in Brazil accounted for 14% of global deforestation and ranches occupy approximately 80% of all deforested land in the Amazon.[9]  Greenpeace and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) aims to stop all deforestation in the Amazon by encouraging the meat processors to insist that their suppliers register their farms and map and log their boundaries as a minimum requirement. They also encourage companies to cancel orders with suppliers that are not prepared to stop deforestation and adhere to these minimum requirements.  Many of the LWG member brands have  made commitments to a moratorium on hides sourced from farms involved in deforestation and LWG itself has a project to identify and engage with the key stakeholders in Brazil, investigate traceability solutions, conduct trials and implement third party auditing solutions.


[1] Richards, Matt, et al, “Leather for Life”, Future Fashion White Papers, Earth Pledge Foundation

[2] Gustavson, K.H. “The Chemistry of Tanning Processes” Academic Press Inc., New York, 1956.

[3] Barton, Cat, “Workers pay high price at Bangladesh tanneries”, AFP, Feb. 2011

[4] Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, “Medical management guidelines for formaldehyde”, http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/mmg/mmg.asp?id=216&tid=39

[5] BLC Leather Technology Center Ltd, “Technology Restricted substances – Formaldehyde”, Leather International,  November 2008,  http://www.leathermag.com/news/fullstory.php/aid/13528/Technology_Restricted_substances-Formaldehyde.html

[6] “Evaluation of alleged unacceptable formaldehyde levels in Clothing”, Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Ministry of Consumer Affairs, October 17, 2007.

[8] Currently the consumer brands involved with the LWG are: Adidas-group, Clarks International, Ikea of Sweden, New Balance Athletic Shoe, Nike Inc, Pentland Group including (Berghaus, Boxfresh, Brasher, Ellesse, Franco Sarto, Gio-Goi, Hunter, KangaROOS, Mitre, Kickers (UK), Lacoste Chaussures, ONETrueSaxon, Radcliffe, Red or Dead, Speedo, Ted Baker Footwear), The North Face, The Timberland Company, Wolverine World Wide Inc including (CAT, Merrel, Hush Puppies, Patagonia, Wolverine, Track n Trail, Sebago, Chaco, Hytest, Bates, Cushe, Soft Style). New brands recently joined are Airwair International Ltd, K-Swiss International, Marks & Spencers and Nine West Group.

[9] “Broken Promises: how the cattle industry in the Amazon is still connected to deforestation…” Greenpeace, October 2011; http://www.leatherworkinggroup.com/images/documents/Broken%20promises%20-%20Oct11FINAL.pdf





Formaldehyde in your fabrics

4 01 2011

In January 2009, new blue uniforms were issued to Transportation Security Administration officers at hundreds of airports nationwide. [1] The new uniforms – besides giving officers a snazzy new look – also 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.  “We’re hearing from hundreds of TSOs that this is an issue,” said Emily Ryan, a spokeswoman for the union.

The American Federation of Government Employees blames formaldehyde. 

In  2008, an Ohio woman filed suit against Victoria’s Secret, alleging she became “utterly sick” after wearing her new bra.  In her lawsuit, the plaintiff said the rash she suffered was “red hot to the touch, burning and itching.”   As more people came forth (600 to be exact)  claiming horrific skin reactions (and permanent scarring to 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.

For years the textile industry has been using finishes on fabric that prevents wrinkling – usually a formaldehyde resin.   Fabrics are treated with urea-formaldehyde resins to give them all sorts of easy care properties such as:

  • Permanent press / durable press
  • Anti-cling, anti-static, anti-wrinkle, and anti-shrink (especially shrink proof wool)
  • Waterproofing and stain resistance (especially for suede and chamois)
  • Perspiration proof
  • Moth proof
  • Mildew resistant
  • Color-fast

That’s why you can find retailers like Nordstrom selling “wrinkle-free finish” dress shirts and L.L. Bean selling chinos that are “great right out of the dryer.”  And we’ve been snapping them up, because who doesn’t want to ditch the ironing?

According to the American Contact Dermatitis Society, rayon, blended cotton, corduroy, wrinkle-resistant 100% cotton, and any synthetic blended polymer are likely to have been treated with formaldehyde resins. The types of resins used include urea-formaldehyde, melamine-formaldehyde and phenol-formaldehyde.[2] Manufacturers often “hide” the word “formaldehyde” under daunting chemical names.  These include:

  • Formalin
  • Methanal
  • Methyl aldehyde
  • Methylene oxide
  • Morbicid acid
  • Oxymethylene

Not only is formaldehyde itself used,  but also formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Some of these are known by the following names:

  • Quaternium-15
  • 2-bromo-2nitropropane-1,3-diol
  • imidazolidinyl urea
  • diazolidinyl urea

Formaldehyde is another one of those chemicals that just isn’t good for humans.  Long known as the Embalmer’s Friend for its uses in funeral homes and high school biology labs, formaldehyde effects depend upon the intensity and length of the exposure and the sensitivity of the individual to the chemical. The most common means of exposure is by breathing air containing off-gassed formaldehyde fumes, but it is also easily absorbed through the skin.  Increases in temperature (hot days, ironing coated textiles) and increased humidity both increase the release of formaldehyde from coated textiles.

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 the rashes and other illnesses such as reported by the TSA officers, 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.13 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. [3]

Medical studies have linked formaldehyde exposure with nasal cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen.  Studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have found formaldehyde to be a probable human carcinogen and workers with high or prolonged exposure to formaldehyde to be at an increased risk for leukemia (particularly myeloid leukemia)  and brain cancer. Read the National Cancer Institute’s factsheet here.

Formaldehyde is one of about two dozen chemical toxins commonly found in homes and wardrobes that are believed by doctors to contribute to Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS). Chemical sensitivities are becoming a growing health problem in the U.S. as the persistent exposure to harsh and toxic chemicals grows. One of the signs of increasing chemical sensitivities is the rise of contact dermatitis caused by formaldehyde resins and other chemicals used in textile finishes. Repeated exposure to even low levels of formaldehyde can create a condition called “sensitization” where the individual becomes very sensitive to the effects of formaldehyde and then even low levels of formaldehyde can cause an “allergic” reaction, such as those suffered by the TSA workers.

Countries such as Austria, Finland, Germany, Norway, Netherlands and Japan have national legislation restricting the presence of formaldehyde in textile products.  But in the United States, formaldehyde levels in fabric is not regulated.   Nor does any government agency require manufacturers to disclose the use of the chemical on labels.  Because it’s used on the fabric, it can show up on any product made from fabric, such as clothing.  And it can show up in any room of the house – in the sheets and pillows on the bed.  In drapery hanging in the living room.  The upholstery on the sofa.  Even in the baseball cap hanging by the door.

“From a consumer perspective, you are very much in the dark in terms of what (fabric or) clothing is treated with,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization. “In many ways, you’re in the hands of the industry and those who are manufacturing our fabrics. And we are trusting them to ensure they are using the safest materials and additives.” [4]

“The textile industry for years has been telling dermatologists that they aren’t using the formaldehyde resins anymore, or the ones they use have low levels,” said Dr. Joseph F. Fowler, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Louisville. “Yet despite that, we have been continually seeing patients who are allergic to formaldehyde and have a pattern of dermatitis on their body that tells us this is certainly related to clothing.”

Often it’s suggested that washing the fabric will get rid of the formaldehyde.  But think about it:  why would a manufacturer put in a wrinkle resistant finish that washes out?  If that were the case, your permanent press shirts and sheets would suddenly (after a washing or two) need to be ironed.  Do you find that to be the case?  Manufacturers work long and hard to make sure these finishes do NOT wash out.  At least one study has found that there is  no significant reduction in the amount of formaldehyde after two washings. (5)

So we can add formaldehyde to the list of chemicals which surround us, exposing us at perhaps very low levels for many years.  What this low level exposure is doing to us has yet to be determined.


[1] “New TSA Unifroms Trigger a Rash of Complaints (Formaldehyde)”, The Washington Post, January 5, 2009, Steve Vogel.

[2] Berrens, L. etal., “Free formaldehyde in textiles in relation to formalin contact sensitivity”

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

[4] “When Wrinkle-Free Clothing Also Means Formaldehyde Fumes”, New York Times, Tara Siegel Bernard, December 10, 2010

(5)  Rao S, Shenoy SD, Davis S, Nayak S.,  “Detection of formaldehyde in textiles by chromotropic acid method”. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol 2004;70:342-4.