One journey

17 03 2016

We received this story from a reader, Stacey Skold, who is working on her PhD at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  Her area of study is Human Sciences. With the birth of her daughter, she learned about the impact of chemicals on children and our world generally. She subsequently applied environmental education to her studies in the Department of Textiles, Merchandising, and Fashion Design.  She will have an exhibition, “Canary Concepts and the Hidden Danger of Ubiquitous Things”  from April 11, 2016 through April 22 at the Hillestad Textiles Gallery at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.   This is in partial fulfillment of her dissertation research, “Ecological Art as a Transformative Tool in Cultilvating Environmental Knowledge, Environmental Sensitivity, and Environmentally-Responsible Behaviors.”  But let her speak for herself:

The After:

…Like the albatross, we first-world humans find ourselves lacking the ability to discern anymore what is nourishing from what is toxic to our lives and our spirits. Choked to death on our waste, the mythical albatross calls upon us to recognize that our greatest challenge lies not out there, but in here.  Chris Jordan. February, 2011

There are events in life that are transformative…

They are a select few. They separate what was before from “the after”.  They change our lives so deeply that the world after is new…

You might be wondering what this has to do with textiles… It so happens that thinking critically about fabric, the textile industry, and the world in general has become a big part of “my after”…  For many, such events might be birth, death, or marriage… Or it might be something unexpected… My After event involves my oldest daughter.

She was an early bird. That is a light-hearted way of saying she was a preemie. At thirty-four weeks, her lungs needed more time. Having a baby in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) was an intense experience; her first days of life were close to death. It changed us as did the complexity of the neonatal experience overall.

Close to her due date, we brought her home—home with a heart monitor, oxygen tank, and a lot of love—love tempered with a certain amount of anxiety about caring for our baby girl whose needs were met exclusively by equipment and a team of NICU nurses her first month of life. We never learned exactly why she was early, and over time, she still had trouble breathing. Other things were challenging such as hearing, eating, talking, digesting, growing, and even recovering from a cold… We acquired multiple doctors and diagnoses. I grew not to care about the labels as long as they got us some kind of help. But nothing really seemed to help.

Her birth was certainly a transformative life experience. But for us, it was a blood test that turned our world upside down—it began “our after”…She had a lot of them. I didn’t keep track, and she didn’t even cry anymore… As always, I squeezed her free hand, smiled, and said “you are a tough cookie”. I was proud—very proud—very very proud of her. But truth-be-told, I was equally sad. I was the one who was going to cry. And many times I did when she was sleeping. Should one so young need to be so tough?

But this blood draw was different. These tests were different…

We hit that point.

Our before was filled with questions without answers even with a multitude of doctors. The antibiotics, steroids, and bronchodilators seemed to catalyze more of the same. It is a point when people begin to consider the other biomedical doctors. Their tests were new to me. They involved my daughter’s liver enzymes, her vitamin and minerals, her methylation pathway as well as heavy metals. We soon learned that her vitamin and mineral levels were down and other levels were up… others including antimony.

I wasn’t entirely sure what it was… or why she would have it in her body. I also wondered why it was up and why her minerals would be down. She was drinking prescribed pediatric drinks packed full of vitamins and minerals, and I certainly would not feed her anything that would hurt her or allow anything dangerous in our home… or so I thought. These were questions with answers. When it came to the antimony, I remember the doctor nonchalantly saying “…oh yeah, that’s the flame retardants….”

That was IT. That was our event—and so began “our after”…. 

His words inspired a new set of questions… What possibly could be wrong with something made to protect my daughter and the rest of my family from fire? I came to learn that flame retardants (FRs) are a class of chemicals added to or bonded to materials or their surfaces to meet flammability standards and to delay the spread of fire. I also came to learn their efficacy is in question and that some are quite toxic.

This is where my story becomes a little less like a story and a little more technical for a while. But to understand why a toddler would have antimony in her body, we must consider science (and the lack of it) as well as legislation and money. I do understand if you want to skip a few paragraphs—10 to be exact. I hope I don’t lose you completely…

Back to Antimony…

So, why did she have antimony among other undesirable things in her little body… Antimony trioxide is a FR synergist with halogenated materials (Grund, 2005). This means that the antimony enhances the effect of the halogenated FRs commonly found in electronics, polyurethane foam, building insulation, wire, and cable. This also means that the antimony is the tip of the toxic iceberg…

There are multiple different FR compounds. Two major types are Organohalogenated FRs (compounds in which carbon is bonded to bromine, chlorine, or fluorine) and organophosphorous FRs (compounds in which carbon is bonded to phosphorous). These FRs are especially dangerous, as they are not chemically bonded and easily fall off the objects in the form of dust, which is easily ingested or inhaled. According to the Green Science Policy Institute, these chemicals are often toxic, persistent, and bioaccumulative in our bodies and the environment. All 21 chemicals globally banned as Persistent Organic Pollutants under the Stockholm Convention are organohalogens. The health risks related to these FRs include cancer as well as impaired reproduction, fetal and child development, and neurologic and immune system function (Green Science Policy Institute, Flame Retardants, 2014). In addition, the brominated-flame retardants (BFRs) are considered endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). The endocrine system is responsible for our hormones, which are vital to all functions of life. EDCs impact our naturally-occurring hormones including estrogen, testosterone, growth hormones, insulin, and thyroid hormones in a variety of ways. This can affect our immune system, development, bonding behaviors and a wide range of other bodily functions (Landrigan & Etzel, 2014). Billions of pounds of EDCs are manufactured per year and include bisphenal A (BPA), certain pesticides, as well as the BFRs (Endocrinedxisruption.org).

These chemicals are ubiquitous, as FRs are found in a vast range of everyday objects ranging from mattresses and furniture to TVs and toys. While FRs were developed to improve safety, much scrutiny exists regarding their efficacy and health impact (Green Science Policy Institute, Flame Retardants, 2014).

We are Pre-polluted

As a result, humans are being born “pre-polluted”… Babies are not born with a clean slate… Even before birth, they are facing the challenges of modern life. In addition, to being exposed to toxins while in the womb, humans are also exposed immediately after birth in the form of breastmilk, as outlined in the Environmental Defense Study “PRE-POLLUTED: A report on the toxic substances in the umbilical cord blood of Canadian newborns” (2013). In a 1999 groundbreaking study, Swedish scientists found that women’s breast milk contained poly brominated diphenyl ether (PBDE). What is even more troubling is that while this EDC FR had been phased out, it has been doubling every five years since 1972. Even when it is no longer produced, a FR such as the PBDE, can be tenacious and impact humans, animals, and the environment decades after exposure (Meironyte, et al.,1999).

So, why is this stuff in our stuff?

FRs are not new. They have been used throughout history. The Chinese utilized vinegar and alum on wood and the Egyptians soaked grass and reeds in salt water to attempt to control fire-related disasters (Horocks, 2001). But it was the US petro-chemical revolution with the development of synthetic fibers that prompted FR legislation and their use on a wide scale. Synthetic fabrics are derived from petrochemicals, and petroleum is a fire accelerant. This change in conjunction with the increase in cigarette smoking laid the groundwork for numerous regulations and legislation mandating FRs in our products. Rather than utilizing natural fabrics, many of which are naturally flame resistant such as wool, the approach to minimizing fire-related injuries was to mandate FRs. They were required in furniture, electronics, clothing, and cars. Ironically, FRs do not necessarily slow down or prevent fires and when FR products burn the gas and smoke they produce is more toxic—especially to firefighters. This is why standards are changing and certain FRs are banned. But even when FRs are not required, they can be found in products, as the manufacturers still include them.

If FRs are so dangerous, how can they be allowed in all of our stuff?

In my before, I felt that the system and our government protected us. I thought that anything mandated on such a scale had to be safe. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The Toxic Substances Control Act (ToSCA) is the 1976 United States law that sets standards for the industry and is supposed to regulate chemicals to protect us. Unfortunately, this law is ineffective and outdated. The primary problem with ToSCA is that the government has to provide actual harm in order to control or replace a dangerous chemical. This is in contrast to other countries who must demonstrate that their products are safe before they are available to the public. As a result, chemical companies have been spending an immense amount of money developing FRs that could be made cheaply while increasing their marketing and lobbying efforts related to FRs. Even when one FR such as PBDE is proven to be harmful and removed from the market, it can be replaced with chemicals that may be equally or more toxic (Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, 2014).

These hazardous and multigenerational, toxic chemicals are ubiquitous. Humans are ingesting and breathing FRs in their homes, workplaces, and cars. Even before my daughter was born, it seems they surrounded us in our newly-built home in the insulation, new couch and bed, electronics, and our dust. After she was born, there were even more. They were in her pajamas, her mattress, floor mats, and car seat. The dust from these objects lands on the floor where she crawled and on the toys she played with and mouthed. These chemicals are especially pervasive in infant and children’s products. If that weren’t enough, infants and children have a lower threshold for toxic chemicals. Fetuses, infants, and children are more susceptible to such exposures than adults.

Children are not little adults…. 

This concept is more widely acknowledged thanks to groundbreaking books such as Textbook of Children’s Environmental Health (2014). Doctor-epidemiologist authors Philip Landrigan and Ruth Etzel devote an entire chapter to children’s “exquisite vulnerability to environmental exposures”. They explain how fetuses, infants, and children have proportionately greater exposures than adults to toxic chemicals on a body-weight basis. This is for various reasons. For one, their metabolism is immature so their ability to metabolize and excrete toxic chemicals is different. In addition, infants and children spend time in different locations and are exposed to more dust and vapors near the floor. They also put their hands and other objects in their mouths more and wash their hands less (Landrigan & Etzel, 2014).

Our skin is a primary means of toxin absorption….

While most are aware of toxic exposures via digestion and the lungs, the high permeability of our skin is an under-appreciated source. Unlike toxins that enter the body via the mouth and end up in the intestines where they are transported by the blood into the liver—the body’s detoxifier, toxins absorbed via the skin bypass the liver. According to toxicology specialist, Dr. Samuel Epstein, who is cited in Killer Clothes (2011), our skin is a primary means of toxin absorption. It is more permeable than the intestines, and a child’s skin is even thinner and more permeable than an adult’s. This makes synthetic and flame retardant-fabric especially problematic for them (Clement, 2011).

Varying thresholds for toxins…

Other individual differences account for varying thresholds for toxin exposure. In addition to liver function, genetics and variations in the Methylation Cycle mean differences in susceptibility. The Methylation Cycle is a biochemical pathway that manages or contributes to a wide range of crucial bodily functions, including: immune function, maintaining DNA, energy production, mood balancing, controlling inflammation, as well as detoxification. While knowing one’s genomic profile can be empowering, realizing that FRs were just the beginning was was disheartening. We are surrounded by a multitude of harmful chemicals found in everyday things… I learned that after pumping for fourteen months, her baby bottles contained BPA (another EDC). In addition, many of the toys she played with and mouthed had BPA as well as FRs. The tubing and bags among other equipment in the NICU contained phthalates, and the recommended sanitizer contained triclosan. Unfortunately, the list goes on. These and other chemicals such as my terbutaline shots to attempt to stop early labor, my daughter’s fluoride drops, and synergistic lasix and gentamicin meds for her lungs and potential infection were all given with good intentions, but more than likely also caused harm. We truly live in a world where it has become hard to distinguish what is healthful from what is harmful. What we think is helping could be hurting… or both.

Thus began the work of the new after… 

The more I learned, the angrier I became and the more overwhelmed I felt. The FRs were everywhere, but I was not about to let these invaders continue to take over my child, my family, my home, or my life. Never underestimate the power of an angry mother—especially one with unlimited access to caffeine and the internet.

We became very conscientiousness consumers.  I learned about avoiding and removing FRs as well as other chemicals. The amount of time I spent researching and assessing objects and consequently trying to remove or mitigate what others were putting in or on products in our house was disheartening to say the least… Ultimately, many of the things we bought for our daughter ranging from pajamas to floor mats—items purchased with the intent to comfort and protect her—had great potential to contribute to her poor health and challenges. I had researched and ultimately removed most of her pajamas from our home as well as her boppy and blankets. Many such items were heartfelt-gifts from family and friends.

Building a bubble…

We changed many of her toys, bottles, clothes, bedding as well as our food, utensils, dishes, pans, soap, sanitizer, clothes, pillows, sheets, and stores. While I couldn’t rid the world of FRs and other toxic chemicals, I thought I could at least rid our house of them and create a safe bubble for my family—or at least I would try…

Shopping became less enjoyable and more stressful. I simply did not buy toys or clothing without some level of research. And rather than looking for infant child pajamas that indicated they were flame retardant, I had to look for infant and pajama labels identifying that they were not flame retardant. How ironic that one should expect neurotoxins in what they buy unless it is states otherwise.

Over time, I concluded that I simply could not keep my family in a bubble and that a bubble was inadequate anyway. I realized this as I was encasing our mattresses in 6 millimeter food-grade polyethylene sheeting (PVC-free of course). Given the high price of organic mattresses, this option is popular for health-minded consumers. Initially one might consider encasing a mattress in plastic to protect the mattress. But I encased the mattress in this non-toxic plastic to protect her from the off-gassing chemicals. Although unsustainable, the polyethylene sheeting doesn’t off-gas, and applied correctly can protect the sleeper from the toxic chemicals in the mattress. The directions even specify where to cut the holes in the bottom side so the gases can exit away from one’s face…  Exhausted, I sat on the floor staring at the mattress… The process of encasing a mattress was not for sissies,… and neither was “the after.” It was War. The idea of one’s home being a protective bubble was no more. I couldn’t keep the invisible enemies out of our house and needed a bubble in my bubble. While I couldn’t keep my family in a bubble, I was going to be happy to keep my mattress in one.

Happy is an overstatement.

Truth be told, I was sad. I had a hard time identifying it with all of the anger, but it was there. Ultimately, I realized I was grieving in the after…

I was grieving the loss of a normal birth experience, and yes a normal baby. She wasn’t what I expected… She was more. It turns out much of  “the after” has been a gift. It has made us stronger and more resilient.

I was grieving the loss of our “normal” life.  The changes one has to make in attempting to minimize exposure to harmful chemicals impacts everything and everybody. The “war on chemicals” impacted our marriage, our jobs, our time, our mental stamina, and our sleep—or lack of it.

I was grieving the loss of my old self. I was a different person in “the after”. The person people liked to talk to at cocktail parties was gone. The person who went to cocktail parties was gone. The person who people liked was gone.

Most of all, I was grieving my loss of trust—trust in products, trust in the system, and trust in the world around us.

Such is life in “the after”…

My before was very safe and filled with trust. “The after” was uncertain and full of new responsibilities. I couldn’t count on our products, our food, our clothing, or our furniture to be safe. I could only count on me, and I wasn’t sure if I was up for the challenge. I’m not sure any person is truly up to such a challenge—the challenge of discerning what is safe from what is harmful in our world with invisible pollution.

The “new normal” 

Slowly we are all healing. Our family has grown in many ways… Navigating our way through the stuff is routine in a world where health problems are the norm and chemical-free products are not. We have not accepted it, but are finding productive ways to deal with it. We celebrate changes….changes such as Technical Bulletin 117-2013 (TB 117-2013), a new standard that allows fire safety without the need for FRs. We celebrate the increase in awareness from a variety of sources including the documentary Toxic Hot Seat as well as Kaiser Permanente’s public announcement that it will stop buying furniture treated with flame retardant chemicals (Green Science Policy Institute, Furniture, 2014). We also celebrate the increase in state legislation related to toxic chemicals. As of March 2016, 24 states are considering 91 policies to protect people from toxic chemicals. 159 state policies have been adopted in 33 states. In regard to FRs, there are 18 current policies in 13 states and 30 adopted policies in 12 states (Safer States, 2016).

With such changes, I have gained more trust trust back in the world and in the integrity of our bubble. I have become increasingly satisfied with minimizing our exposure and with doing my best. This is the gift of “the after”… a renewed confidence and understanding about our world and our selves with a new passion to protect them both.

We also celebrate each success with our daughter. She continues to be a tough cookie during those blood tests in “the after.” The results have enabled us to help her more effectively. With many changes and interventions her vitamins and minerals are up and so is her weight. She is healthier and happier than she has ever been. While we may never know to what degree the antimony and other chemical exposures played a role in her challenges, it has become clear that such chemicals are harmful to humans, wildlife, and our planet.

Like Chris Jordan’s albatross birds who eat and feed plastic pollution to their young, my daughter was polluted albeit invisible to the naked eye. His tragic birds and my early bird showed me what I knew in my before, but didn’t see until “our after.”

It got personal…

In The Failure of Environmental Education and How We Can Fix It (2011), authors Saylan and Blumstein point out that learning about our environmental problems hasn’t been enough to change our behaviors. People need relevance… the world’s problems need to become personal.

In my before I heard about toxins and knew there were concerns for humans and the environment. But for me, and I suspect others, even after reading it, hearing it, and knowing it, it couldn’t have become real until that transformative event—that blood test. The number on the paper was a physical manifestation of the invisible pollution. It became all too real and impossible to ignore or to think about at a later date. It is very real in “our after.”

The problem got personal for me, for many others before me, and is going to get personal for many others in the future. They too will change. There will be greater environmental sensitivity and more responsible behaviors. But for how many, how much, and how soon? To change our system and revise ToSCA, environmentalism needs to transcend what is considered a political concern to be a human health concern. To more effectively address what many consider “environmental” issues, perhaps we need a more human-centered focus.

We have been talking about saving the planet for a long time. But it may be in our best interest and our planets’ best interest to talk about saving ourselves—not to mention our children. In doing so, more will understand that the problems in our environment are intertwined with human health. When we are getting sick so is our wildlife, and so is our planet and so are our resources… And slowly we will heal—we have to… the human race depends upon it.

We are trying to give our children the tools to live in “the after.” In The Green Boat, Mary Pipher writes  “…If we don’t sail carefully and tend to those on board, we will perish. If we manage to keep our boat afloat, our world can sail on, not as it is today, but in a more joyous, peaceful, and beautiful way….” (2013). It is my hope we are fixing it enough for them—and even more for their children. I long for a world more beautiful than my before and “my after”—a world with fewer and safer chemicals, better legislation, and a whole lot more trust. That is a beautiful world.

After Words

Thank you O Ecotextiles and Two Sisters Ecotextiles for giving me a reason to write my story. But more importantly, thank you for being a part of “our after” providing us with exquisite fabrics we can trust.

References

Clement, Anna Maria & Brian R. (2011). Killer Clothes: How Seemingly Innocent Clothing Choices Endanger Your Health… And How to Protect Yourself! Summertown, TN: Hippocrates Publications.

The Endocrine Disruption Exchange. Prenatal Origins of Endocrine Disruption: Critical Windows of Development. Retrieved from http://endocrinedisruption.org/prenatal-origins-of-endocrine-disruption/critical-windows-of-development/chemicals-in-the-timeline/bisphenol-a

Environmental Defense. (2013, June). Pre-Polluted: A Report on Toxic Substances in the Umbilical Cord of Canadian Newborns. Retrieved from http://environmentaldefence.ca/prepolluted

Green Science Policy Institute. Flame Retardants. Retrieved from http://greensciencepolicy.org/topics/flame-retardants/

Green Science Policy Institute. Furniture. Retrieved from http://greensciencepolicy.org/topics/furniture/

Green Science Policy Institute. San Antonio Statement. Retrieved from http://greensciencepolicy.org/?s=san+antonio

Grund, S. C.; Hanusch, K.; Breunig, H. J. & Wolf, H. U. (2005). Antimony and Antimony Compounds, Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Horocks, A. & Price, D. (Eds.) (2001).Fire Retardant Materials. Boca Raton, FL: Woodhead Publishing Ltd.

Landrigan, P. & Etzel, R. (Eds.) (2014). Textbook of Children’s Environmental Health. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Meironyte, et al., (1999) Analysis of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers in Swedish Human Milk: A Time-Related Trend Study, 1972-1997. Journal of Toxicological Environmental Health, 58, 329-341.

MTHFR.net. Retrieved from http://mthfr.net/mthfr-research/2012/01/27/

Peeples, L. (2014, June 3). Kaiser Permanente Pledges To Stop Buying Flame-Retardant Furniture. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/03/kaiser-permanente-flame-retardant-furniture_n_5441011.html

Pipher, M. (2013). The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. What is TSCA? Retrieved from http://saferchemicals.org/get-the-facts/what-is-tsca/

Safer States. Bill Tracker. Retrieved from http://www.saferstates.org/bill-tracker/

Saylan, C. & Blumstein, D. (2011). The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Stockholm Convention. Retrieved from http://chm.pops.int/Countries/StatusofRatifications/PartiesandSignatories/tabid/252/Default.aspx

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Textile certifications

14 03 2016

Don’t forget to take a look at our new retail website (Two Sisters Ecotextiles) and let us know what you think.  We’re still working out some kinks so your input is really appreciated.

In the textile industry, there are two third party certifications which are transparent and to which we certify our fabrics: the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and Oeko-Tex. Another logo you see on our site is the GreenSpec logo. To be listed by GreenSpec means that the products are best of class as determined by Environmental Building News.

What does it mean for a fabric to be GOTS certified?

 The Global Organic Textile Standard, GOTS, was published in 2006. It was brought about through the combined efforts of organic trade associations of the United States, Great Britain, Japan, and Germany. GOTS aims to define a universal standard for organic fabrics—from harvesting the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing, to labeling—in order to provide credible assurance to consumers. Standards apply to fiber products, yarns, fabrics and clothes and cover the production, processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, exportation, importation and distribution of all natural fiber products.   GOTS provides a continuous quality control and certification system from field to shelf.  A GOTS certified fabric is therefore much more than just a textile which is made from organic fibers.

gots-logo-middle-thumb-495x506    To be GOTS certified:

  • a fabric must be made of from 70% (for label grade “made with organic”)  to 95% (for label grade “organic”) organic fiber – so 5%  or 30% of the fabric can be either:
    • regenerated fibers from certified organic raw materials, sustainable forestry management (FSC / PEFC) or recycled.
    • certified recycled synthetic fibers (recycled polyester, polyamide, polypropylene or polyurethane)
    • Our GOTS fabrics are all 100% organic fiber.
  • As the GOTS website explains, “As it is to date technically nearly impossible to produce any textiles in an industrial way without the use of chemical inputs, the approach is to define criteria for low impact and low residual natural and synthetic chemical inputs.   So in addition to requiring that   all inputs have to meet basic requirements on toxicity and biodegradability. GOTS also  prohibits entire classes of chemicals.  Why is this important?  Because rather than calling out specific prohibited chemicals.  What that means is that instead of prohibiting, for example lead and cadmium (and therefore allowing other heavy metals by default), GOTS prohibits ALL heavy metals.
  • Wastewater treatment must be in place before discharge to surface waters. This pertains to pH and temperature, as well as to biological and chemical residues in the water.
  • Labor practices are interpreted in accordance with the International Labor Organization (ILO – no forced, bonded, or slave labor; workers have the right to join or form trade unions and to bargain collectively; working conditions are safe and hygienic; there must be no new recruitment of child labor (and for those companies where children are found to be working, provisions must be made to enable him to attend and remain in quality education until no longer a child);  wages paid must meet, at a minimum, national legal standards or industry benchmarks, whichever is higher; working hours are not excessive and inhumane treatment is prohibited. These requirements are incredibly important as it is still the 19th century at many fabric spinners, mills and dye houses in the world.
  • Environmentally sound packaging requirements must be in place; PVC in packaging is prohibited; paper must be post-consumer recycled or certified according to FSC or PEFC.
  • GOTS has a dual system of quality assurance consisting of on-side annual inspection (including possible unannounced inspections based on risk assessment of the operations) and residue testing.

Our opinion is  that the GOTS standard is the most comprehensive and rigorous certification regarding textiles. It’s also quite hard to obtain!

GOTS, however, does not directly address the carbon footprint of an organization or its production practices, but we feel a GOTS certified fabric is the best choice in terms of carbon footprint, by far.  (Please note: the choice of a fabric made of organically raised natural fibers has been shown to have a much lower carbon impact than any fabric made of synthetic fibers including the much touted recycled polyester.  We touched on that in our some of our blog posts; click here and here to read them.

Fabric made from organic fibers which have been processed conventionally can be – and almost always are – full of residual toxic chemicals – and its production may have released literally tons of chemicals into the environment; its carbon footprint stinks and worker safety is suspect. Think of the organic applesauce analogy we use: if you start with organic apples, then cook them with preservatives, emulsifiers, Red Dye #2, and stabilizers, the final product cannot be called “organic”.   Same is true with fabrics.

Fabric made with “organic fiber” but processed conventionally

GOTS compliant fabric

 

Uses organic fibers only

 

YES

YES

Free of any known chemicals that can harm you or the ecosystem

NO

YES

Water is treated before release

NO

YES

Workers paid fair wages; working conditions hygenic

NO

YES

To read more about GOTS, go to: http://www.global-standard.org

What does it mean for a fabric to be Oeko-Tex certified?       OT3The goal of Oeko-Tex fabric safety standard is to ensure that fabrics pose no risk to human health.

The Oeko-Tex Standard, in use since 1992, prohibits the same long list of chemicals that GOTS prohibits; but Oeko-Tex addresses nothing else about the production steps. For example, wastewater treatment is not required, nor are workers rights addressed.   It is NOT an organic certification and products bearing this mark are not necessarily made from organically grown fibers – or from natural fibers at all. Plastic yarn (polyester, nylon, acrylic) is permitted. Oeko-Tex is only concerned with the safety of the use of the final product.

The Oeko-Tex 100 certification does emphasize thorough testing for a lengthy list of chemicals which are known or suspected to harm health, including lead, antimony, arsenic, phthalates, pesticides, and chlorinated phenols. The official table of limits for tested chemicals may be found on the Oeko-Tex website (click here).  Specifically banned are:

  • Azo dyes
  • All flame retardants
  • Carcinogenic and allergy-inducing dyes
  • Pesticides
  • Chlorinated phenols
  • Chloro-organic benzenes and toluenes
  • Heavy metals
  • Organotin compounds (TBT and DBT)
  • Formaldehyde

Oeko-Tex certified fabrics are required to have a skin friendly pH. If you remember your high school chemistry, pH is the indication of the level of acidity or base (salt). Skin’s natural pH is a tad acidic, and when it’s eroded your defenses are down, leaving you vulnerable to bacteria, moisture loss, and irritation. Oeko-Tex certified fabrics will not create these stresses. And the fabrics will feel lovely against your skin.

Textiles considered for this standard are classified into four categories, and each category has different test values for chemicals allowed in the product:

  • Product Class I: Products for Babies – all textile products and materials used to manufacture such textile products for children up to the age of 36 months (leather clothing is an exception)
  • Product Class II: Products with direct contact to Skin – worn articles of which a large surface touches the skin (i.e. underwear, shirts, pants)
  • Product Class III: Products without Direct Contact to Skin – articles of which only a small part of their surface touches the skin (i.e. linings, stuffings)
  • Product Class IV: Decoration Material – this may also be thought of as housewares, as this category includes table cloths, wall coverings, furnishing fabrics, curtains, upholstery fabrics, floor coverings, and mattresses.

Certification may be given to a finished product (such as a shirt), or to individual components (such as yarn, or fabric).

To read more about Oeko Tex, go to: https://www.oeko-tex.com/en/manufacturers/manufacturers.xhtml

What does it mean for a product to be GreenSpec listed? Green Spec

BuildingGreen.com is the publisher of Environmental Building News (EBN) and the GreenSpec directory. GreenSpec was developed as a way to find products with environmental benefits in mind: GreenSpec listed products are those that are considered the best-of-the-best green building products, according to Environmental Building News.   The products are independently selected by the researchers at BuildingGreen to ensure that the products contain unbiased, quality information. This certification is in a sort of grey area, because the staff of Environmental Building News does not have a stake in any of the companies producing the recommended products, so they do not have a vested interest. They do have an interest in promoting products which they consider to be harmless to people and the environment.

The criteria which the products must meet include:

  • Avoidance of hazardous ingredients
  • Low-emitting
  • Biobased and sustainably sourced
  • Produced by companies which have responsible corporate practices
  • Information transparency

All of the fabrics in the Two Sisters collection are GreenSpec listed.

 

 





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)
Zinc
Copper
pentachlorophenol (PCP)
permethrin
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
Arsenic
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
Acrylonitrile
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.





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