Microplastics found in tap water

21 09 2017

The Guardian, in early September 2017, released a report that microplastic contamination has been found in tap water in countries around the world. What this means for the seven billion people on earth, no one yet knows. All the experts can agree on is that, given the warning signs being given by life in the oceans, the need to find out is urgent.

Scores of tap water samples from more than a dozen nations were analysed by scientists for an investigation by Orb Media .[1] Overall, 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibres. Bottled water may not provide a microplastic-free alternative to tapwater, as the as it was also found in a few samples of commercial bottled water tested in the United States for Orb.

The US had the highest contamination rate, at 94%, with plastic fibres found in tap water sampled at sites including Congress buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, and Trump Tower in New York. Lebanon and India had the next highest rates.

Why should you care? Microplastics have been shown to absorb toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other illnesses, and then release them when consumed by fish and mammals. If fibers are in your water, experts say they’re surely in your food as well – baby formula, pasta, soups and sauces whether from the kitchen or the grocery. It gets worse. Plastic is all but indestructible, meaning plastic waste doesn’t biodegrade; rather it only breaks down into smaller pieces of itself, even down to particles in nanometer scale. Studies show that particles of that size can migrate through the intestinal wall and travel to the lymph nodes and other bodily organs.

The new analyses indicate the ubiquitous extent of  microplastic contamination in the global environment. Previous work has been largely focused on plastic pollution in the oceans, which suggests people are eating microplastics via contaminated seafood. But the wholesale pollution of the land was hidden. Tap water is gathered from hills, rivers, lakes and wells, sampling the environment as it goes. It turns out that tiny fibres of plastic are everywhere.

Orb Media

“We have enough data from looking at wildlife, and the impacts that it’s having on wildlife, to be concerned,” said Dr Sherri Mason, a microplastic expert at the State University of New York in Fredonia, who supervised the analyses for Orb. “If it’s impacting [wildlife], then how do we think that it’s not going to somehow impact us?”

Plastics often contain a wide range of chemicals to change their properties or color and many are toxic or are hormone disruptors. Plastics can attract other pollutants too, including dioxins, metals and some pesticides. Microplastics have also been shown to attract microbial pathogens. Research on wild animals shows conditions in animal guts are also known to enhance the release of pollutants from plastics. “Further,” as the review puts is, “there is evidence that particles may even cross the gut wall and be translocated to other body tissues, with unknown consequences”. Prof Richard Thompson, at Plymouth University, UK, told Orb: “It became clear very early on that the plastic would release those chemicals and that actually, the conditions in the gut would facilitate really quite rapid release.” His research has shown microplastics are found in a third of fish caught in the UK.

This planktonic arrow worm, Sagitta setosa, has eaten a blue plastic fibre about 3mm long. Plankton support the entire marine food chain. Photograph: Richard Kirby/Courtesy of Orb Media

Does any of this affect people? The only land animals in which the consumption of microplastic has been closely studied are two species of earthworm and a nematode.[2]

The scale of global microplastic contamination is only starting to become clear, with studies in Germany finding fibers in all of 24 beer brands tested[3] , as well as in honey and sugar .[4] A study revealed a rain of microplastics falling on Paris from the air, dumping between 3 and 10 tons a year on the city.[5] The same team found microplastics in an apartment and hotel room. “We really think that the lakes [and other water bodies] can be contaminated by cumulative atmospheric inputs,” said Johnny Gasperi, at the University Paris-Est Créteil, who did the Paris studies. “What we observed in Paris tends to demonstrate that a huge amount of fibres are present in atmospheric fallout.”

This research led Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at King’s College London, to tell a UK parliamentary inquiry in 2016: “If we breathe them in they could potentially deliver chemicals to the lower parts of our lungs and maybe even across into our circulation.” Having seen the Orb data, Kelly told the Guardian that research is urgently needed to determine whether ingesting plastic particles is a health risk.[6]

Another huge unanswered question is how microplastics get into our water and food. A report from the UK’s Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management[7] says the biggest proportion are fibers shed by synthetic textiles and tire dust from roads, with more from the breakdown of waste plastics. It suggests the plastic being dumped on land in Europe alone each year is between four and 23 times the amount dumped into all the world’s oceans.

A lot of the microplastic debris is washed into wastewater treatment plants, where the filtering process does capture many of the plastic fragments. But about half the resulting sludge is ploughed back on to farmland across Europe and the US, according to recent research published in the Journal Environmental Science & Technology[8]. That study estimates that up to 430,000 tons of microplastics could be being added to European fields each year, and 300,000 tons in North America. “It is striking that transfers of microplastics – and the hazardous substances bound to them – from urban wastewater to farmland has not previously been considered by scientists and regulators,” the scientists concluded. “This calls for urgent investigation if we are to safeguard food production,” they say in a related publication.

Plastic fibres may also be flushed into water systems, with a recent study finding that each cycle of a washing machine could release 700,000 fibers into the environment. Tumble dryers are another potential source, with almost 80% of US households having dryers that usually vent to the open air. Rains could also sweep up microplastic pollution, which could explain why the household wells used in Indonesia were found to be contaminated.

A magnified image of clothing microfibres from washing machine effluent. One study found that a fleece jacket can shed as many as 250,000 fibres per wash. Photograph: Courtesy of Rozalia Project

In Beirut, Lebanon, the water supply comes from natural springs but 94% of the samples were contaminated. “This research only scratches the surface, but it seems to be a very itchy one,” said Hussam Hawwa, at the environmental consultancy Difaf,  which collected samples for Orb.

Like so many environmental problems – climate change, pesticides, air pollution – the impacts only become clear years after damage has been done. If we are lucky, the plastic planet we have created will not turn out to be too toxic to life. If not, cleaning it up will be a mighty task. Dealing properly with all waste plastic will be tricky: stopping the unintentional loss of microplastics from clothes and roads even more so.

But above all we need to know if we are all drinking, eating and breathing microplastic every day and what that is doing to us, and we need to know urgently.

[1] https://orbmedia.org/stories/Invisibles_plastics

[2] Carrington, Damian, “We are living on a plastic planet. What does it mean for our health?”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/06/we-are-living-on-a-plastic-planet-what-does-it-mean-for-our-health

[3] Liebezeit, Gerd; “Synthetic particles as contaminants in German beers”, Journal of Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, Vol 31, 2014, Issue 9

[4] Liebezeit, Gerd; “Non-pollen particulates in honey and sugar”, Journal of Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, Vol. 30, 2013, Issue 12

[5] Dris, Rachid, et al., “Microplastic contamination in an urban area: case of greater Paris”, Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 2015, https://hal-enpc.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01150549v1

[6] Carrington, Damian, “People may be breathing in microplastics, health expert warns”, The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/09/people-may-be-breathing-in-microplastics-health-expert-warns

[7] http://www.ciwem.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Addicted-to-plastic-microplastic-pollution-and-prevention.pdf

[8] Nizzetto, Luca; Futter, Martyn and Langaas, Sindre; “Are agricultural soils dumps for microplastics of urban origin?”; Journal of Envornmental Science & Technology, Sept. 29, 2016, 50 (20), pp 10777-10779

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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

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





Greenwashing

16 11 2015

Please take a look at our new retail website, Two Sisters Ecotextiles (www.twosistersecotextiles.com).  We launched a few weeks ago and we’d love to know what you think!

As one pundit said, “our product is green” is joining “the check’s in the mail” as one of the most frequent fibs in our modern times.   And as David Gelles noted in the New York Times on October 18, 2015, Volkswagen’s campaign to promote diesel fuel as a low-emissions alternative to gasoline has become one of the most egregious examples of greenwashing to date – now that we’ve found out that they rigged their diesel cars with software that tricked emissions tests to get better results.

Greenwashing (when a company tries to portray itself as more environmentally minded than it actually is) has become the order of the day because consumers have (finally) warmed to sustainable and organic products and services.  This year, Cone Inc.’s Trend Tracker found that nearly three-quarters of consumers (71%) will stop buying a product if they feel misled by environmental claims – and more than a third will go so far as to boycott a company’s products.

One corporation after another has jumped on the “green-your-corporation-for-a-better-public-image” bandwagon.     This is so ubiquitous that Steven Colbert, for one, couldn’t resist:  he said that they now have a “Green Colbert Report”  –  they’re reducing their emissions by jumping on the bandwagon.  In this rush to be seen as green, companies often exaggerate claims, or simply make them up.   Magali Delmas, a professor of management at the University of California, Los Angeles, has said that “more and more firms have been combining poor environmental performance with positive communication about environmental performance.”

So why is this necessarily a bad thing?  Doesn’t really hurt anybody does it?

Actually, it does hurt us all.  As advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather puts it in a new report, greenwash is actually “an extremely serious matter…it is insidious, eroding consumer trust, contaminating the credibility of all sustainability-related marketing and hence inhibiting progress toward a sustainable economy.” In other words, it’s very hard for customers to know what choices make a difference when some marketers are muddying the waters for all. When buyers throw up their hands in confusion, we all lose.  And it results in consumer and regulator complacency – if one corporation in a particular industry gets away with greenwashing, then other corporations will follow suit, leading to an industry-wide illusion of sustainability, rather than sustainability itself.

With textiles specifically, we see environmental claims that are just as outrageous as the new “Natural Energy Snack on the Go” from Del Monte – individually wrapped bananas.

Packaged bananas from Del Monte.

Packaged bananas from Del Monte.

The problem is that the issues involved in evaluating a claim are often complex, and they vary greatly by product.   In addition, there is a raging debate about what constitutes green practices – for example, recycled polyester is considered a “green” choice in textiles, yet what yardstick is being used to make that claim?  We have done numerous blog posts on why any kind of synthetic has a much greater environmental impact  than any naturally raised fiber.  If we compare synthetics to organically raised fibers, do we also include the benefits of supporting organic agriculture, or is that a benefit that gets lost in the equation?

Even though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has established guidelines for environmental claims (called the Green Guides), these guidelines are not law, and are only enforceable if a complaint is lodged to the FTC and there is enough evidence to get a court order forcing the company to remove the claim.  But what if people simply don’t have enough knowledge to lodge a complaint?

I’ve spent years reading about the issues involved in textile production (one of the most complex supply systems in all manufacturing) but don’t feel capable of evaluating other products.   That’s where transparency on the part of manufacturers comes in:  Consumers have to understand that there are no green products – every product uses resources and creates waste.  And there are tradeoffs.  But beyond that understanding, third party certifications give us all certain measurable standards by which we can compare products, and are a useful tool.

But even certifications need some kind of knowledge base on the part of the consumer in order to be valuable.  (What’s being measured?  Who’s doing the measuring? Which environmental claims are relevant, and what are subterfuge?)

Certifications  (not to be confused with labels and standards) fall into three categories:  first, second and third party certifications:

  • In first party certifications, a person or an organization says it meets certain claims; there is not usually an independent test to verify those claims.  These are usually a fairly simple claim, such as that the product will last for at least a year.  An example of this type of certification is that of  Kravet’s “Kravet Green” collection,  because Kravet itself is telling us that their fabrics are green.   There is no mention of any other certification bodies corroborating their statements.
  • In second party certification, an association or group provides the assurance that a product meets certain criteria.  This type of certification offers little assurance against conflicts of interest.   Under new FTC guidelines, companies that are members of the trade organization or group that certifies their product must disclose that relationship to the consumer.  An example of second party certification can be considered that of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute’s Encouraging Environmental Excellence (E3) program, which has developed a set of standards and which awards use of their logo if companies comply with these standards.
  • Third party certifications are issued by independent testing companies based on impartial evaluation of a claim by expert unbiased sources with reference to a publicly available set of standards.  Third party certification is considered the highest level of assurance you can achieve.  A third party certification is represented by the Global Organic Textile Standard, which has a public set of standards and which is administered by independent testing labs around the world.  In other words, you can’t pay these labs to misrepresent their findings, since their business is testing and certification only.

Like green claims, there is also an abundance of seals and labels that assure environmental worthiness, experts say.

“About once a week, I have a client that will bring up a new certification I’ve never even heard of –  and I’m in this industry,” said Kevin Wilhelm, chief executive officer of Sustainable Business Consulting, a Washington-based company that helps businesses plan green marketing strategies. “It’s kind of a Wild West, anybody can claim themselves to be green.”

Mr. Wilhelm said the plethora of labels made it difficult for businesses and consumers to know which labels they should pay attention to. “There’s no way for the average consumer or even for a C.E.O. to know which ones to go for or what they should get,” he said.

Okay, which certifications apply to textiles and what do they tell us?  Tune in next week.





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

 





More about fabric choices for your sofa.

25 06 2015

Our previous blog post we talked about fabric – how to determine the quality of the fabric you’re considering for your new sofa.  But the most important consideration merits a blog all its own, and that is the safety of the fabrics you’ve chosen.  We define “safe” as a fabric that has been processed with none of the many chemicals known to harm human health – and in a perfect world we’d  throw in water treatment and human rights/labor issues too.

It’s a great idea to start with organic fibers, if you can.  By substituting organic natural fibers for conventionally grown fibers you are supporting organic agriculture, which has myriad environmental, social and health benefits. Not only does organic farming take far less energy than conventional farming (largely because it does not use oil based fertilizers)[1], which helps to mitigate climate change, but it also:

  • Eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which is an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity;
  • Conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion);
  • Ensures sustained biodiversity;
  • And compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire.

Organic production has a strong social element and includes many Fair Trade and ethical production principles. As such it can be seen as more than a set of agricultural practices, but also as a tool for social change [2]. For example, one of the original goals of the organic movement was to create specialty products for small farmers who could receive a premium for their products and thus be able to compete with large commercial farms.

Organic agriculture is an undervalued and underestimated climate change tool that could be one of the most powerful strategies in the fight against global warming, according to Paul Hepperly, Rodale Institute Research Manager. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years) shows conclusively that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions. [3]

But even if you start with organic natural fibers (a great choice!) but process those fibers conventionally, then you end up with a fabric that is far from safe. Think about making applesauce: if you start with organic apples, then add Red Dye #2, preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers and who knows what else – do you end up with organic applesauce? The US Department of Agriculture would not let you sell that mixture as organic applesauce.  There is no similar protection for consumers when buying fabric, even though the same issues apply, because over 2000 chemicals are used routinely in textile processing.[4] Many of the chemicals used in textile processing have unknown toxicity, and many others are known to be harmful to humans (such as formaldehyde, lead, mercury, bisphenol A and other phthalates, benzenes and others). In fact, one yard of fabric made with organic cotton fiber is about 25% by weight synthetic chemicals – many of which are proven toxic to humans [5] and are outlawed in other products.

I know you’re saying that you don’t eat those fabrics, so what’s the danger? Actually, your body is busy ingesting the chemicals, which are evaporating (so we breathe them in), or through skin absorption (after all, the skin is the largest organ of the body). Add to that the fact that each time you brush against the fabric, microscopic pieces of the fabric abrade and fly into the air – so we can breathe them in. Or they fall into the dust in our homes, where pets and crawling babies breathe them in.

Should that be a concern? Well, there is hardly any evidence of the effects of textiles themselves on individuals, but in the US, OSHA does care about workers, so most of the studies have been done on workers in the textile industry:

  • Autoimmune diseases (such as IBD, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, for example, which are linked to many of the chemicals used in textile processing) are reaching epidemic rates, and a 14 year study published by the University of Washington and the National Institutes of Health found that people who work with textiles (among other industries) are more likely to die of an autoimmune disease than people who don’t [6];
  • We know formaldehyde is bad for us, but in fabric? 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. [7] Note: most cotton/poly sheet sets in the U.S. are treated with a formaldehyde resin.
  • Women who work in textile factories which produce acrylic fibers have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than does the normal population.[8]
  • A study in France revealed a correlation between the presence of cancer of the pharynx and occupation in the textile industry.[9]
  • A high degree of colorectal cancer, thyroid cancer, testicular cancer and nasal cancer has been found among textile workers, and a relationship between non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and working in the textile industry was observed.[10]

And consider this:

  • The Mt. Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center published a list of the top 10 chemicals they believe are linked to autism – and of the 10, 6 are used in textile processing and 2 are pesticides used on fiber crops. [11].
  • Phthalates are so toxic that they have been banned in the European Union since 2005. They have recently been banned in the State of California in children’s toys. They are ubiquitous – and are also found in most textile inks.[12] So parents careful not to bring toxic toys into their homes for can be nevertheless unknowingly putting their kids to sleep on cute printed sheets full of phthalates.

Are these rates of disease and the corresponding rise in the use of industrial chemicals a coincidence? Are our increased rates of disease due to better diagnosis? Some argue that we’re confronting fewer natural pathogens. All plausible.  But it’s also true that we’re encountering an endless barrage of artificial pathogens that are taxing our systems to the maximum. And our children are the pawns in this great experiment. And if you think artificial  pathogens  are  not the main culprits, your opinion is not shared by a goodly number of scientists, who believe that this endless barrage of artificial pathogens that is taxing our systems to the max has replaced bacteria and viruses as the major cause of human illness. We don’t have to debate which source is primary; especially because, with the rise of super bugs, it’s a silly debate. The point remains that industrial pollution is a cause of human illness – and it is a cause we can take concrete actions to stem.

Textiles are the elephant in the room – the industry is global, relatively low tech, and decentralized – certainly not the darling of venture capitalists who look for the next big thing. So not many research dollars are going into new ways of producing fabrics. Most of the time people are looking for the lowest price fabric for their projects or products – so the industry is on a race to cut costs in any way possible: in 2007, the Wall Street Journal’s Jane Spencer detailed the pollution caused by Chinese textile industries who were being pushing by their multinational clients to cut costs, resulting in untreated effluent discharge [13].

You can begin to protect yourself by looking for fabrics that have third party certifications:  either Oeko-Tex or The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which we believe is the gold standard in textiles because though Oeko-Tex assures you of a safe fabric and while GOTS confirms the same assurance, GOTS  also requires water treatment (important because the textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of water on the planet (14) – and in this era of water shortages we have to start paying attention to our water resources) and prohibits child or slave labor (sadly still an issue) and makes sure workers have safe conditions to work in and are paid fair wages.

[1] Aubert, C. et al., (2009) Organic farming and climate change: major conclusions of the Clermont-Ferrand seminar (2008) [Agriculture biologique et changement climatique : principales conclusions du colloque de Clermont-Ferrand (2008)]. Carrefours de l’Innovation Agronomique 4. Online at <http://www.inra.fr/ciag/revue_innovations_agronomiques/volume_4_janvier_2009>

A study done by Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University found that organic farming systems used just 63% of the energy required by conventional farming systems, largely because of the massive amounts of energy requirements needed to synthesize nitrogen fertilizers.

[2] Fletcher, Kate, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, p. 19

[3] http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/Rodale_Research_Paper-07_30_08.pdf Also see: Muller, Adrian, “Benefits of Organic Agriculture as a Climate change Adaptation and Mitigation Strategy for Developing Countries’, Environement for Development, April 2009

[4] See the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists’ (AATCC) Buyers Guide, http://www.aatcc.org/

[5] Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609

[6] Nakazawa, Donna Jackson, “Diseases Like Mine are a Growing Hazard”, Washington Post, March 16, 2008

[7] 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.

[8] Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi:

10.1136/oem.2009.049817 SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321

[9] Haguenour, J.M., “Occupational risk factors for upper respiratory tract and upper digestive tract cancers” , Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Vol 47, issue 6 (Br J Ind Med1990;47:380-383 doi:10.1136/oem.47.6.380).

[10] http://www.fibre2fashion.com/industry-article/3/297/safety-and-health-issues-in-the-textile-industry2.asp

[11]http://www.mountsinai.org/patient-care/service-areas/children/areas-of-care/childrens-environmental-health-center/cehc-in-the-news/news/mount-sinai-childrens-environmental-health-center-publishes-a-list-of-the-top-ten-toxic-chemicals-suspected-to-cause-autism-and-learning-disabilities

[12] “Textile Inkmaker Tackles Phthalates Ban”, Esther D’Amico, Chemical Week, September 22, 2008 SEE ALSO: Toxic Textiles by Disney, http://archive.greenpeace.org/docs/disney.pdf

[13] Spencer, Jane, “China Pays Steep Price as Textile Exports Boom”, Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2007.

(14)  Cooper, Peter, “Clearer Communication”, Ecotextile News, May 2007