What’s wrong with Red Lists?

19 02 2016

Google should be applauded for requiring that all products used in their workplaces be compliant with the Living Building Challenge Red List. Because textiles are, by weight, approximately 27% synthetic chemicals, and because they surround you from the time you wake in the morning and throughout the night, they are a major contributor to our chemical body burden (changing us in unknown and unforeseen ways).   Make no mistake, we think it’s critical that we begin to develop these lists, because we all need a baseline. As long as we need to eat and breathe, toxins should be an important consideration.

But using a Red List only to evaluate a fabric overlooks what we consider to be the biggest problem.

First, lists for the most part are developed on the basis of science that usually occurred five or 10 years ago, so they tend to be lagging indicators of safety to humans and the environment. (That’s a minor point, admittedly, but can be important.)

When using lists, it’s important to remember the concept of reactive chemistry: many of the chemicals, though possibly deemed to be benign themselves, will react with other chemicals to create a third substance which  is toxic. This reaction can occur during the production of inputs, during the manufacture of the final product, or at the end of life (burning at the landfill, decomposing or biodegrading). So isn’t it important to know the manufacturing supply chain and the composition of all the products – even those which do not contain any chemicals of concern on the list you’re using – to make sure there are no, let’s say, … dioxins created during the burning of the product at the landfill, for example?

It’s also important to remember that chemicals are synergistic – toxins can make each other more toxic. A small dose of mercury that kills 1 in 100 rats and a dose of aluminum that will kill 1 in 100 rats, when combined, have a striking effect: all the rats die. So if the product you’re evaluating is to be used in a way that introduces a chemical which might react with those in your product, shouldn’t that be taken into consideration?

The Red List (like other lists trying to do the same thing), by attempting to address all product types, does not mention many of the toxic chemicals which ARE used in textile processing. Chemicals which are commonly used in textile processing, and which are NOT included on the Red List but have been found to be harmful, include:

Chlorine (sodium hypochlorite NaOCL); registered in the Toxic Substances Control Act as hypochlorous acid ; sodium chlorite
Sodium cyanide; potassium cyanide
sodium sulfate (Na2SO4)
Sodium sulfide
APEOs ( Alkylphenolethoxylates)
Chromium VI (hexavalent chromium)
pentachlorophenol (PCP)
Dichloromethane (DCM, methylene chloride)
Tetrachloroethylene (also known as perchloroethylene, perc and PCE)
Methyl ethyl ketone
Toluene: toluene diisocyanate and other aromatic amines
Methanol (wood alcohol)
Chloroform; methyl chloroform
Phosphates (concentrated phosphoric acid)
Dioxin – by-product of chlorine bleaching; also formed during synthesis of certain textile chemicals
Benzenes and benzidines; nitrobenzene; C3 alkyl benzenes; C4 alkyl benzenes
Sulfuric Acid
Optical brighteners: includes several hundred substances, including triazinyl flavonates; distyrylbiphenyl sulfonate
ethylenediaminetetra acetic acid [EDTA]
diethylenetriaminepenta     acetic acid [DTPA]
Perfluorooctane sulfonates (PFOS)

In the case of arsenic (used in textile printing and in pesticides) and pentachlorophenol (used as a biocide in textile processing) – the Red List expressly forbids use in wood treatments only – so fabrics, by default, can contain these chemicals.

Perhaps we should manufacture with a “green list” in mind: substituting chemicals and materials that are inherently safer, ideally with a long history of use (so as to not introduce completely new hazards).

But as I said at the outset, using the Red List ignores what we consider to be the most important aspect needing amelioration in textile processing – that of water treatment.

The chemicals used by the textile industry include many that are persistent and/or bioaccumulative which can interfere with hormone systems in people and animals and may be carcinogenic and reprotoxic, and the industry often ignores water treatment even when it is required (chasing the lowest cost).  So the costs of dumping untreated effluent into our water is incalculable.

But indeed, it does not even have to be a “toxic” chemical which wreaks environmental havoc – salt is the most commonly used chemical in textile processing. And nobody will argue that it’s toxic. Yet, the sheer quantity of salt used and expelled in wastewater is enormous – in Europe alone 1 million tons of salt are expelled each year. [1] That much salt is bad in many ways beyond killing aquatic organisms.

And the textile industry uses a LOT of water – it’s the #1 industrial polluter of water on the planet.[2] In India alone textile effluent averages around 425,000,000 gallons per day, largely untreated[3].   The chemically infused effluent – saturated with dyes, de-foamers, detergents, bleaches, optical brighteners, equalizers and many other chemicals – is often released into the local river, where it enters the groundwater, drinking water, the habitat of flora and fauna, and our food chain. And we wonder why PBDE’s are found in practically every animal on earth?

Please refer to the  campaign by Greenpeace  on their efforts to clean up textile effluent (called “Dirty Laundry”: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/publications/toxics/Water%202011/dirty-laundry-report.pdf), which points the finger at compliant corporations who support what they call the “broken system”. It asks corporations to become champions for a post toxic world, by putting in place policies to eliminate the use and release of all hazardous chemicals across a textile company’s entire supply chain based on a precautionary approach to chemicals management, to include the whole product lifecycle and releases from all pathways.

To our knowledge there are only three certifications which look at both the chemical toxicity of the inputs and which require water treatment:

  1. GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard)
  2. Oeko Tex 100 Plus
  3. and GRS (Global Recycle Standard)

The Cradle to Cradle certification does not require water treatment at ANY level except Platinum – and even at that level, the requirement is written as follows: “(the company must) implement innovative measures to improve quality of water discharges”.   Not one textile has been awarded the Platinum certification from C2C to date.


[1] Dyeing for a change: Current Conventions and New Futures in the Textile Color Industry (2006, July) http://www.betterthinking.co.uk

[2] Cooper, Peter, “Clearer Communication”, Ecotextile News, May 2007

[3] CSE study on pollution of Bandi river by textile industries in Pali town, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, May 2006 and “Socio-Economic, Environmental and Clean Technology Aspects of Textile Industries in Tiruppur, South India”, Prakash Nelliyat, Madras School of Economics. See also:  Jacks Gunnar et al (1995), “The Environmental Cost of T-Shirts”, Sharing Common Water Resources, First Policy Advisory Committee Meeting, SIDA, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.

Also: CSE: Down to Earth Supplement on Water use in India, “To use or to misuse”; http://www.cseindia.org/dte-supplement/industry20040215/misuse.htm

Something proactive you can do for the environment right now!

28 01 2016

In October, 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) raised the alarm about the terrible plight facing the Earth’s coral reefs. For the third time in history, the world is in the midst of a global coral bleaching event.[1]   Coral bleaching is triggered by stresses on coral reefs. During bleaching, the coral expel the algae that live within them, exposing the coral’s white skeleton. The symbiotic algae not only provide coral with its color, they also provide crucial nutrients. Without them, the coral eventually will starve.

Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea logo

“The coral bleaching and disease, brought on by climate change and coupled with events like the current El Niño, are the largest and most pervasive threats to coral reefs around the world,” said Mark Eakin, NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch coordinator. “As a result, we are losing huge areas of coral across the U.S., as well as internationally. What really has us concerned is this event has been going on for more than a year and our preliminary model projections indicate it’s likely to last well into 2016.”

The difference between the third coral bleaching event and the previous two is that the current study points to pollution as one of the sources that is undermining the health of the coral, making it unable to resist bleaching or recover from the effects.

Why the concern about coral reefs? Aren’t they just pretty playfields?

“Coral reefs are the litmus test of our oceans, a visual representation of the health of our seas,” said CNN anchor and meteorologist Derek Van Dam. “When coral becomes bleached or white in color, this sensitive ecosystem is negatively impacted, which creates a profound ripple effect on the world’s food chain.”[2] Think of coral reefs as being the underwater equivalent of rainforests – they are some of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth. Coral reefs support more species per unit area than any other marine environment, including about 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of hard corals and hundreds of other species. Scientists estimate that there may be another 1 to 8 million undiscovered species of organisms living in and around reefs. This biodiversity is “considered key to finding new medicines for the 21st century,” NOAA said. “Many drugs are now being developed from coral reef animals and plants as possible cures for cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, viruses and other diseases.”

Storehouses of immense biological wealth, reefs also provide economic and environmental services to millions of people. Coral reefs may provide goods and services worth $375 billion each year. This is an amazing figure for an environment that covers less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface

Coral reefs also act as a buffer to adjacent shorelines from wave action and prevent erosion, property damage and loss of life. Reefs also protect the highly productive wetlands along the coast, as well as ports and harbors and the economies they support. Globally, half a billion people are estimated to live within 100 kilometers of a coral reef and benefit from its production and protection.

A new study published October 20, 2015 [3] brought the bad news about pollution and the world’s dying corals. According to researchers the oft-overlooked threat to reefs worldwide is sunscreen – specifically sunscreen which contains oxybenzone.

Scientists who conducted their research in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands found that the chemical oxybenzone — used in more than 3,500 sunscreen products worldwide, including those by popular brands such as Coppertone, L’Oreal Paris, Hawaiian Tropic and Banana Boat — was extremely harmful to fragile coral reefs. There are alternative sunscreens with no oxybenzone provided by the non-profit Enironmental Working Group (click here for the EWG list) http://www.ewg.org/search/site/sunscreen

The researchers said even a tiny amount of oxybenzone-containing sunscreen can damage corals. As The Washington Post noted, “the equivalent of a drop of water in a half-dozen Olympic sized swimming pools[4] was sufficient to cause harm. Measurements of oxybenzone in seawater within coral reefs in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands found concentrations ranging fro 800 parts per trillion up to 1.4 parts per million,” according to the autors of the NOAA study. That’s 12 times the concentrations needed to harm coral. Adverse effects on coral started with concentrations as low as 62 parts per trillion.

John Fauth, an associate professor of biology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, said that “another way (oxybenzone sunscreen) gets into the environment is through wastewater streams. People come inside and step into the shower. People forget it goes somewhere.” Cities such as Ocean City, Maryland and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, have built sewer outfalls that jettison tainted wastewater away from public beaches, sending personal care products with a cocktail of chemicals into the ocean. On top of that, sewer overflows during heavy rains spew millions of tons of waste mixed with stormwater into rivers and streams. Like sunscreen lotions, products like birth-control pills contain chemicals that are endocrine disruptors and alter the way organisims grow. Endocrine disruptors are amont the main suspects in an investigation into why mail fish such as bass are developing female organs.[5]

So I’m quite excited that this blog post has something – something – proactive that you can do, and that is to use “reef-friendly” sunscreen which uses titanium oxide or zinc oxide instead of oxybenzone. Some tourist destinations have even instituted sunscreen rules to protect their reefs. In Akumal, Mexico, for instance, visitors are urged to apply eco-friendly sunscreen.

“We have lost at least 80 percent of the coral reefs in the Caribbean,” Craig Downs, lead author of the study said. “Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers.”

[1] http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2015/100815-noaa-declares-third-ever-global-coral-bleaching-event.html

[2] Dunnakey, Adam, “Coral reefs endangered by bleaching in global event, researchers say”, CNN, October 8, 2015

[3] Downs, Craig, et al; “Toxicopathological effects of the sunscreen UV filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3) on coral planulae and cultured primary cells”, Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 20 October 2015

[4] Fears, Darryl, “How we are all contributing to the destruction of coral reefs: Sunscreen”, The Washington Post, October 20, 2015

[5] Fears, op. cit.


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


Should I choose a hemp or linen fabric?

5 08 2015

We are often asked for 100% hemp fabric in lieu of linen fabrics. We offer hemp and adore it, but it may not be the best eco choice.  Make no mistake – we love hemp, we sell hemp fabrics and we think the re-introduction of hemp as a crop would be a boon for American farmers and consumers.

But hemp that is used to produce hemp fabric via conventional methods – as opposed to GOTS methods – is an inferior choice to any GOTS certified fabric. So the overriding difference is not between hemp and any other fiber, but between a GOTS certified fabric versus one that is not GOTS certified, because GOTS certification assures us that the fabric is free of any chemicals that can change your DNA, give you cancer or another dread disease or affect you in other ways ranging from subtle to profound. It also assures us that the mill which produced the fabric has water treatment in place, so these chemicals don’t pollute our groundwater – and that the mill pays fair wages to their workers who toil in safe conditions!

The GOTS certification requires that the fiber used in the fabric be third party certified organic. Organic linen is more available and less expensive then organic hemp, so we often use linen instead of hemp in our fabrics. Using organic linen instead of organic hemp keeps the price lower for you and you do not give up any performance characteristics at all.   Allow me to say that once more: You do not give up any performance at all.

To begin with, do not be confused by the difference between the fiber and the cloth woven from that fiber – because the spinning of the yarn and the weaving of the cloth introduces many variables that have nothing to do with the fibers. Both hemp and flax (from which linen is derived) are made from fibers found in the stems of plants, and both are very laborious to produce. The strength and quality of both fibers are highly dependent on seed variety, the conditions during growth, time of harvest and manner of retting and other post-harvest handling.

Yarns, made from the fibers, are graded from ‘A’, the best quality, to below ‘D’ and the number of twists per unit length is often (but not always) an indication of a stronger yarn.   In addition, the yarns can be single or plied – a plied yarn is combined with more than one strand of yarn. Next, the cloth can be woven from grade ‘A’ yarns with double twist per unit length and double ply into a fabric where the yarns are tightly woven together from cloth that is lightweight or heavier, producing a superior fabric.  Or not.

Now let’s look at some of the differences between hemp and linen:

Hemp and linen fibers are basically interchangeable – there is very little to distinguish flax fibers from hemp fibers.  In fact,  hemp’s fibers so closely resemble flax that a high-power microscope is needed to tell the difference. Without microscopic or chemical examination, the fibers can only be distinguished by the direction in which they twist upon wetting: hemp will rotate counterclockwise; flax, clockwise.  And in general, they tend to have the same properties.

In general, there are many similarities between cloth made from hemp and cloth made from linen:

  • Both linen and hemp become soft and supple through handling, gaining elegance and creating a fluid drape.
  • Both hemp and linen are strong fibers – though most sources say hemp is stronger (by up to 8 times) than linen (even though the real winner is spider silk), but this point becomes moot due to the variables involved in spinning the fiber into yarn and then weaving into fabric.   The lifespan of hemp is the longest of all the natural fibers.
  • Both hemp and linen wrinkle easily.
  • Both hemp and linen absorb moisture. Hemp’s moisture retention is a bit more (12%) than linen’s (10 – 12%)
  • Both hemp and linen breathe.
  • Both hemp and linen are natural insulators: both have hollow fibers which means they’re cool in summer and warm in winter.
  • Both hemp and linen have anti-bacterial properties.
  • Both hemp and linen benefit from washing, becoming softer and more lustrous with each wash.
  • Both hemp and linen are resistant to moths and other insects.
  • Both hemp and linen absorb dyestuffs readily.
  • Both hemp and linen biodegrade.

In general, hemp fiber bundles are longer than those of flax.   So the first point of differentiation is this: the length of the fibers. Hemp fibers vary from 4 to about 7 feet in length, while linen is general 1.5 to 3 feet in length. Other differences:

  • The color of flax fibers is described as yellowish-buff to gray, and hemp as yellowish-gray to dark brown.
  • Hemp is highly resistant to rotting, mildew, mold and salt water.
  • Hemp is also highly resistant to ultraviolet light, so it won’t fade or disintegrate in sunlight.
  • Hemp’s elastic recovery is very poor and less than linen; it stretches less than any other natural fiber.

The biggest difference between hemp and linen might be in the agricultural arena: Hemp grows well without the use of chemicals because it has few serious pest problems, although the degree of immunity to attacking organisms has been greatly exaggerated.  Several insects and fungi specialize exclusively in hemp!  But despite this, the use of pesticides and fungicides are usually unnecessary to get a good yield. Hemp has a fiber yield that averages between 485 – 809 lbs., compared to flax, which averages just 323 – 465 lbs. on the same amount of land.  This yield translates into a high biomass, which can be converted into fuel in the form of clean-burning alcohol.

Farmers claim that hemp is a great rotation crop – it was sometimes grown the year prior to a flax crop because it left the land free of weeds and in good condition.   Hemp, it was said, is good for the soil, aerating and building topsoil. Hemp’s long taproot descends for three feet or more, and these roots anchor and protect the soil from runoff. Moreover, hemp does not exhaust the soil. Additionally, hemp can be grown for many seasons successively without impacting the soil negatively. In fact, this is done sometimes to improve soil tilth and clean the land of weeds.

The price of hemp in the market is far higher than for linen, despite hemp’s yields.   We have no idea why this is so.

The overriding difference is not between hemp and linen, but between a hemp OR linen fabric that has a GOTS certification and one that does not. That means that a conventional hemp fabric, which enjoys all the benefits of hemp’s attributes, also introduces unwanted chemicals into your life: such as formaldehyde, phthalates, heavy metals, endocrine disruptors and perhaps soil or fire retardants.   The GOTS certified fabric is the better choice. If the choice is between a conventional hemp fabric and a GOTS certified linen fabric, we wouldn’t hesitate a second to choose the linen over the hemp, especially because hemp and linen are such close cousins.