Why buy safe fabrics for your children – isn’t organic food enough?

28 11 2012

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”[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 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.  It may be that future parents may be just as shocked by the kinds of exposures we’re living with as we are by these Marlboro cigarette ads from the 1950’s:

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 which 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.

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.  Have you seen the slogan that states babies are born pre-polluted?   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.

What does the industry say in their defense?  The chief argument they use is that the amounts used in products are so low that they don’t cause harm.  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 tiny quantities of chemicals – in the parts-per-trillion range – can have significant impacts on our health.  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 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 yet another consideration:  The health effects from chemical pollution may appear immediately following exposure – or not for 30 years.   So one could unwittingly be setting the stage for a devastating disease down the road.

And this is where it gets really interesting (or scary):

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 which 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 grand-daughters had higher risk of early puberty and malfunctioning ovaries — even though those subsequent generations had not been exposed to the chemical.[9]  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.[10]  For those of you who are interested, the book by Richard Francis makes a fascinating read.

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


GreenGuard certification

10 08 2011

GreenGuard was launched in 2000 by Atlanta-based for-profit Air Quality Sciences (AQS), which is now a separate not-for-profit organization. Although GreenGuard was not designed specifically for fabrics, it is often advertised that a fabric is GreenGuard certified, because GreenGuard certified products can automatically meet the requirements of LEED 2009 CI Credit 4.5 and BIFMA X7.1.

GreenGuard has developed proprietary indoor air-quality pollutant guidelines based on standards developed by the government and by industrial bodies.  Maximum allowable emission levels in air concentrations, according to their website,  are based on those required by the state of Washington‘s indoor air quality program for new construction, the U. S. EPA’s procurements specifications, the recommendations from the World Health Organization, Germany’s Blue Angel Program,  LEED for New Construction (LEED-NC) and LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI).

GreenGuard  has introduced a special certification, called GreenGuard Children and Schools,  which is intended to be applied to products which are used in schools, daycares, healthcare facilities, and places where sensitive adults may reside or work.  This certification is necessary because, as they say on their website, “children are more sensitive to environmental exposures than adults. Their bodies are still developing including their brains. They breathe faster than adults and in return receive a higher dose of indoor pollution per body weight. To account for inhalation exposure to young children, a body burden correction factor has been applied to the current GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certified® allowable levels.”

Those products that pay the testing fee and pass muster earn the right to call themselves GreenGuard certified.  The GreenGuard Product Guide has become a purchasing tool for thousands of specifiers as they depend on it to preselect environmentally preferable products.

In order to become certified, all products are tested in dynamic environmental chambers following test methods as posted on the GreenGuard Environmental Institute (GEI)  web site.   The tests are designed to measure emitting chemicals coming from a product; that means it tests only for evaporating chemicals –  chemicals which are a gas at room temperature.  Specifically, for the GreenGuard certification, emission criteria are established for total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOC), formaldehyde, total aldehydes, all individual chemicals with currently published Threshold Limit Values (TLVs), respirable particles and certain odorants and irritants.  The requirements for Children and Schools is more stringent and includes limits on emissions for total phthalates,  consisting of dibutyl (DBP), diethylhexyl (DEHP), diethyl (DEP), dimethyl (DMP), butylbenzyl (BBP) and dioctyl (DOP) phthalates, because, again according to the GreenGuard website, “Results from recent research indicate that inhalation is an important route of exposure to phthalates and that these chemicals have been associated with endocrine disorders, reproductive and developmental disorders, asthma and allergies.”

GreenGuard, by measuring only emitting chemicals, is significant for what it does not measure:

  • It does not measure any of the heavy metals (lead, mercury, copper, etc.), such as those used in fabric dyestuffs, because they are not emitted at standard indoor air conditions;
  • It does not measure PVC,  which is a polymer and therefore not volatile (however, some PVC based product types have a special formulation which enables them to meet GreenGuard standards);
  • It does not measure phthalates  except in the Children and Schools certification; phthalates are semi volatile, and don’t begin to evaporate until approximately 7 days after exposure to the air.
  • It does not evaluate the manufacture of a product, nor any byproducts created during production or disposal
  • It does not evaluate any social justice issues
  • It does not evaluate carbon footprint issues

Nobody can debate that we need to rid the indoor environment from irritating contaminants that can have serious effects on people’s health, productivity and quality of life.  Since

Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors, and indoor air can be as much as 100 times more polluted than outdoor air, this issue must be taken seriously by designers.  It is incumbent on them to specify products (including fabrics) that are low-emitters of formaldehyde and all the other volatile organic compounds that contribute to poor indoor air.  But it is also true that air quality is not the only contributor to poor health, productivity and quality of life of the occupants of indoor spaces – after all, our skin is the largest organ in our bodies, and it’s quite permeable.  So designers should not take this certification as assurance that a product is the best environmental choice – not only does it bypass those chemicals that do not evaporate, it does not look at the production of the fabric, any social justice issues, nor does it look at carbon footprint.  Indeed, a product containing PVC, one of the most toxic substances known – highly toxic in all its phases: manufacture, use, and disposal – can be  GreenGuard certified.

According to GreenGuard itself, as is published on their web site:  GreenGuard is a product emissions performance-based standard, and as such, the complete toxicity effects of the chemical emissions from the products tested are beyond its scope.

So what are the take aways?  Remember that GreenGuard tests for emitting chemicals only, and they do that very well.   But it should not be used as a tool to evaluate a product’s environmental impact and safety.

Copper and fabric

15 12 2010

Copper is an essential  trace element that is vital to life. The human body normally contains copper at a level of about 1.4 to 2.1 mg for each kg of body weight; and since the body can’t synthesize copper, the human diet must supply regular amounts for absorption.   The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that 10-12 mg/day may be the upper safe limit consumption.

The  fact that copper is essential to life  is well known, but it’s also a toxic metal, and that toxicity, except for the genetic overload diseases, Wilson’s disease and hemochromatosis, is not so well known.    Humans can become copper-toxic or copper-deficient, often because of “copper imbalance” (which can include arthritis, fatigue,  insomnia, migraine headaches, depression, panic attacks, and attention deficit disorder) .

Copper has been used for centuries for disinfection, and has been important around the world in technology, medicine and culture.

Is copper in the environment a health risk?

The answer to this question is complex. Copper is a necessary nutrient and is naturally occurring in the environment in rocks, soil, air, and water. We come into contact with copper from these sources every day but the quantity is usually tiny. Some of that copper, particularly in water, may be absorbed and used by the body. But much of the copper we come into contact with is tightly bound to other compounds rendering it neither useful nor toxic. It is important to remember that the toxicity of a substance is based on how much an organism is exposed to and the duration and route of exposure. Copper is bioaccumulative – there are many studies of copper biosorption by soils, plants and animals.  But copper in the environment, (such as that in agricultural runoff, in air and soil near copper processing facilities such as smelters and at hazardous waste sites) binds easily to compounds in soil and water, reducing its bioavailability to humans.  On the other hand,  many children are born with excessive tissue copper (reason unknown), and one of the ways we are told to balance a copper imbalance is to reduce your exposure to sources of copper!  (see  http://www.healingedge.net/store/article_copper_toxicity.html)

There are no studies on what this increased copper is doing to the environment.    Copper is listed as an EPA Priority pollutant, a CA Air Toxic contaminant, and an EPA Hazardous air pollutant (see http://wsppn.org/PBT/nolan.cfm#What%20are%20PBTs?);   it is also a Type II Moderate Hazard by the WHO Acute Hazard Ranking .  There is NO DATA on its carcinogenity,   whether it is a developmental or reproductive toxin or endocrine disruptor or whether it contaminates groundwater.

Today, because of its long use as a disinfectant and because it’s required for good health, many claims are being made about using copper in various products – including fabric.  Copper-impregnated fibers have been introduced, which enables the production of anti-bacterial and self-sterilizing fabrics.  These copper infused fabrics are marketed to be used in hospital settings to reduce infections, as an aid to help those suffering from asthma and allergies provoked by dust mites, and in socks to prevent athlete’s foot.

These copper  impregnated fabrics are said to be safe, pointing to the low sensitivity of human tissue to copper, and because the copper is in a non-soluble form.   Yet, that copper is safe because it is in a non soluble form was disproven by at least one study which tried to determine whether total copper or soluble copper was associated with gastrointestinal symptoms.  It was found that both copper sulfate (a soluable compound) and copper oxide (insoluable) had comparable effects on these symptoms. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1240446/)

And then there’s this:   “…(copper)  toxicity is so general in the population that it is a looming public health problem in diseases of aging and in the aging process itself.  Diseases of aging such as Alzheimer’s disease, other neurodegenerative diseases, arteriosclerosis, diabetes mellitus, and others may all be contributed to by excess copper (and iron). A very disturbing study has found that in the general population those in the highest fifth of copper intake, if they are also eating a relatively high fat diet, lose cognition at over three times the normal rate”.[1]

Sometimes safety is cited because of the widespread use by women of copper intrauterine devices (IUDs).  But the copper IUD was developed only in 1970;  that timeline would put those first users only in their 60s today.  How can we know that the copper has not influenced any health problems these 60 somethings may now have?  In addition, about 12% of women have the copper IUD removed because of increased menstrual bleeding or cramping.[2] There are also cases of increased menstrual cramping, acne, depression and other symptoms attributed to the copper IUD.[3] The fact that we keep ignoring is that the body, like our ecosystem, is a highly complex, interconnected system.  It is extremely hard to single out any one element as contributing to a series of cause and effect.

Although copper does have documented antimicrobial properties, it is a broad spectrum antimicrobial – meaning that it kills the good guys as well as the bad.  Many studies show that this is not necessarily the best approach to infection control.   Kaiser Permanente issued a December 2006 memo with this bottom line: “Review of current scientific literature reveals no evidence that environmental surface finishes or fabrics containing antimicrobials assist in preventing infections.”  In fact, their policy now is to prohibit any fabrics with antimicrobial finishes in their hospitals.

Copper impregnated fabrics are legally sold in the USA, because the EPA has not issued any regulations regarding use.  The reality is they don’t have any data on which to base an exclusion of use.  In the US we must prove toxicity before the EPA even begins to regulate chemicals – look at the case of lead.  Other organizations have evaluated copper (including the EPA, see above).

So really the question is: what possible benefit do you hope to achieve by using a product with this antimicrobial finish?   Although copper isn’t one of the most alarming chemicals used in textile processing,  it seems to me the benefits just aren’t that compelling.    I wouldn’t risk altering my DNA or subjecting myself to copper imbalance symptoms just to eliminate stains or odors.

[1] Brewer, George J., “Risks of Copper and Iron Toxicity during Aging in Humans”, Chemical Research in Toxicology, 2010, 23 (2), pp. 319 – 326.

[2] Zieman M, et al. (2007). Managing Contraception for Your Pocket. Tiger, GA: Bridging the Gap Foundation.

Air pollution and your cashmere sweater

4 11 2009

We’ll be at Greenbuild next week, booth 910, with our good friends from LIVE Textiles.  Please stop by to see us if you’re there.

We are introducing a new organic wool upholstery fabric at Greenbuild  (we’re hoping it will be GOTS certified, though it is touch and go as to whether the certificate will be in place by then – there are so many hoops!).    So for the past six months or so we’ve been learning lots about wool – and wool is a complicated subject!  It’s a gorgeous fiber, but it has, as we say, issues.  Not unsolvable, but like everything you have to know your suppliers and what questions are important to ask.  We talked about wool and animal husbandry in two previous posts (“What does organic wool mean?” 8.11.09 and “Why does wool get such high embodied energy ratings?” 8.4.09);  some of the issues surrounding wool are enumerated in those posts.

I’m always a sucker for soft and luxurious, so naturally when talking about wool I began hinting I’d like a cashmere fabric – or wool/cashmere blend.  But we looked into cashmere, and what we found is startling and unexpected: a story of how your cashmere sweater pollutes the air you breathe.    There is an improbable connection, according to Evan Osnos of the Chicago Tribune, “between cheap sweaters, Asia’s prairies and America’s air, (which) captures how the most ordinary shifts in the global economy are triggering extraordinary change.”  Please read Mr. Osnos’ article, “China’s Great Grab”, from which most of the information in this blog is taken.   He won the Asia Society’s Osborn Elliott Prize for distinguished journalism for this series.

Cashmere has recently become ubiquitous –  cashmere sweaters, for example, once so very high priced that the very word “cashmere” became synonymous with luxury,  are suddenly “affordable”.  Coincidentally, Saks Fifth Avenue ran a full page ad in Sunday’s  New York Times touting their low priced cashmere goods – and telling you to “Shop Smart”.   We’ll help you to shop smart – please read this post!

What happened to bring down the price of cashmere?  Behind this new affordable price tag is something the consumer rarely sees or thinks about: the cascade of consequences around the world when the might of Chinese production and western consumption converge on a scarce natural resource.

Cashmere comes from the downy underhair of special goats, the majority of which live in the coldest regions of China and Mongolia.  In fact, the world’s best and most expensive cashmere comes from the Alashan Plateau, an area in China’s north straddling the Mongolian border,  boiling hot in summer and way below zero in winter.  This area is part of China’s mythic grasslands, where Genghis Khan and his horde rode the limitless horizon.  The fiber itself, known as “diamond fiber” in China,  sells for 6 times the cost of ordinary wool.

This rare and wonderful fiber is remarkably soft, silky and warm.  Side by side under a microscope a single cashmere strand makes a human hair look like a rope.  And it was also synonymous with high price.  European spinning mills have sourced the best cashmere yarns from this region for years.

The combination of demand and high prices led to China’s rapid increase in production to meet that demand,  and  conditions were in place to create an almost perfect storm – with money to be earned from “diamond fiber”, herders rapidly increased their goat populations and caused severe overgrazing.  In  Inner Mongolia, for example, the livestock population increased from 2 million in 1949 to 28.5 million in 2004.(1)

20080318-desertification Julie Chaol

The goats are eating the grasslands bare:  Goats consume over 10% of their body weight daily in roughage, eating not just the grass but also their roots and stripping bark from seedlings, preventing the regrowth of trees.  The land is so barren that herders buy cut grass and corn by the truckload to keep their animals alive.  Overgrazing is so severe that the health of the goats is at risk: their birthrate is sinking and even the cashmere has begun to suffer from these stressed goats, with shorter, coarser, less valuable fiber.

In addition to stripping the land of all vegetation, the feet of these goats have been compared to stiletto heels, vs. the big soft pads of camel’s feet, which have a far lesser impact on the ground.  These “stiletto heel” hooves  pierce the crust formed on the land, and the fine sand beneath it takes flight.  So the animals remove the vegetation, and the winds finish the job by blowing away the top soil, transforming the grasslands into desert.

In this perfect storm, the rapid increase in the number of goats has occurred at the same time the area is undergoing a severe drought due to climate change.  The goats require water, which also leads to overuse of that resource.  So many cashmere plants and other industries have opened in Alashan that authorities must ration water, forcing each factory to close for days at a time. (2)

And without grass and shrubs to hold the dunes in place, the deserts in Alashan are expanding by nearly 400 square miles each year. The World Bank warned of grave consequences for the environment and for farmers.

Already desertification is causing millions of rural Chinese to migrate from their villages –  a migration on the scale of the Dust Bowl in the United States is taking place in China today. A study by the Asian Development Bank found 4,000 villages at risk of being swallowed by drifting sand (3)


But the environmental degredation doesn’t stop in Alashan.  Eroding grasslands means that silt is deposited into the headwaters of rivers that flow all across Asia: to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Southeast Asia.  And the dust storms, which have been a fact of life in this area of the world since before Genghis Kahn, are becoming increasingly common:  in the 1950s, China suffered an average of five dust and sand storms per year; in the 1990s storms struck 23 times each year.  (4)  These storms do a lot of damage:  A storm in 2002 forced 1.8 million South Koreans to seek medical help and cost the country $7.8 billion in damage to industries such as airlines and semiconductors, said the state-run Korea Environment Institute. (5)

And added to the damage the storms cause in China, they also act as a high altitude conveyor belt for pollution.  Think of it like this:  the dust and sand generated in Alashan  is sent east by the winds, where China’s coal powered industry adds pollution.  Together the noxious brew reaches the U.S. within five days, where it can combine with local pollution to exceed the limits of healthy air, according to Rudolf Husar, an atmospheric chemist at Washington University in St. Louis.(6)

According to Eric Osnos’ article, “Of most concern are ultra tiny particles that lodge deep in the lungs, contributing to respiratory damage, heart disease and cancer. One storm that began in China and Mongolia in spring 1998 caused a spike in air pollution that prompted health officials in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia to issue warnings to the public.”

The situation has become so bad that herders are moving off the land to try their hand at trades in the cities, and the government is putting many new programs into place to help stem the damage which has been done (including banning grazing on some lands).  The price of cashmere has begun to climb.  But with ads such as the one from Saks, promoting yet another cheap product, these problems will continue to persist.

(1)  Osnos, Evan;  “China’s Great Grab: Your cheap sweather’s real cost”, The Chicago Tribune, December 16, 2006.

(2) Ibid.

(3) http://factsanddetails.com/china.php?itemid=389&catid=10&subcatid=66#07)

(4) Osnos, op cit.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.