So from last week’s post, you know that you want a durable, colorfast fabric that will be lovely to look at and wonderful to live with. What’s the best choice? I’m so glad you asked.
You have basically two choices in fibers: natural (cotton, linen, wool, hemp, silk) or synthetic (polyester, acrylic, nylon, etc.). Many fabrics today are made from blends of natural and synthetic fibers – it has been said that most sheet sets sold in the U.S. are cotton/poly blends.
Natural fibres breathe, wicking moisture from the skin, providing even warmth and body temperature; they are renewable, and decay at end of life. On the other hand, synthetics do not breathe, trapping body heat and perspiration; they are based on crude oil, definitely a non-renewable resource and they do not decompose at end of life, but rather remain in our landfills, leaching their toxic monomers into our groundwater. They are, however, cheap and durable.
I like to think that even without the health issues involved I’d choose to live with natural fibers, since they work so well with humans! The fibers themselves present no health issues and they’re comfortable. But they simply don’t last as long as synthetics. But I have begun to see the durability of synthetics as their Dorian Grey aspect, in other words they last so long that they’ve become a huge problem. By not decomposing, they just break into smaller and smaller particles which leach their toxic monomers into our groundwater.
The impact on health (ours the the planet’s) is an issue that’s often overlooked when discussing the merits of natural vs. synthetic. And it’s a complex issue, so this week we’ll explore synthetic fibers, and next week we’ll look at natural fibers.
The most popular synthetic fiber in use today is polyester.
At this point, I think it would be good to have a basic primer on polyester production, and I’ve unabashedly lifted a great discussion from Marc Pehkonen and Lori Taylor, writing in their website diaperpin.com:
Basic polymer chemistry isn’t too complicated, but for most people the manufacture of the plastics that surround us is a mystery, which no doubt suits the chemical producers very well. A working knowledge of the principles involved here will make us more informed users.
Polyester is only one compound in a class of petroleum-derived substances known as polymers. Thus, polyester (in common with most polymers) begins its life in our time as crude oil. Crude oil is a cocktail of components that can be separated by industrial distillation. Gasoline is one of these components, and the precursors of polymers such as polyethylene are also present.
Polymers are made by chemically reacting a lot of little molecules together to make one long molecule, like a string of beads. The little molecules are called monomers and the long molecules are called polymers.
O + O + O + . . . makes OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO
Depending on which polymer is required, different monomers are chosen. Ethylene, the monomer for polyethylene, is obtained directly from the distillation of crude oil; other monomers have to be synthesized from more complex petroleum derivatives, and the path to these monomers can be several steps long. The path for polyester, which is made by reacting ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid, is shown below. Key properties of the intermediate materials are also shown.
The polymers themselves are theoretically quite unreactive and therefore not particularly harmful, but this is most certainly not true of the monomers. Chemical companies usually make a big deal of how stable and unreactive the polymers are, but that’s not what we should be interested in. We need to ask, what about the monomers? How unreactive are they?
We need to ask these questions because a small proportion of the monomer will never be converted into polymer. It just gets trapped in between the polymer chains, like peas in spaghetti. Over time this unreacted monomer can escape, either by off-gassing into the atmosphere if the initial monomers were volatile, or by dissolving into water if the monomers were soluble. Because these monomers are so toxic, it takes very small quantities to be harmful to humans, so it is important to know about the monomers before you put the polymers next to your skin or in your home. Since your skin is usually moist, any water-borne monomers will find an easy route into your body.
Polyester is the terminal product in a chain of very reactive and toxic precursors. Most are carcinogens; all are poisonous. And even if none of these chemicals remain entrapped in the final polyester structure (which they most likely do), the manufacturing process requires workers and our environment to be exposed to some or all of the chemicals shown in the flowchart above. There is no doubt that the manufacture of polyester is an environmental and public health burden that we would be better off without.
What does all of that mean in terms of our health? Just by looking at one type of cancer, we can see how our lives are being changed by plastic use:
- The connection between plastic and breast cancer was first discovered in 1987 at Tufts Medical School in Boston by research scientists Dr. Ana Soto and Dr. Carlos Sonnenschein. In the midst of their experiments on cancer cell growth, endocrine-disrupting chemicals leached from plastic test tubes into the researcher’s laboratory experiment, causing a rampant proliferation of breast cancer cells. Their findings were published in Environmental Health Perspectives (1991).
- Spanish researchers, Fatima and Nicolas Olea, tested metal food cans that were lined with plastic. The cans were also found to be leaching hormone disrupting chemicals in 50% of the cans tested. The levels of contamination were twenty-seven times more than the amount a Stanford team reported was enough to make breast cancer cells proliferate. Reportedly, 85% of the food cans in the United States are lined with plastic. The Oleas reported their findings in Environmental Health Perspectives (1995).
- Commentary published in Environmental Health Perspectives in April 2010 suggested that PET might yield endocrine disruptors under conditions of common use and recommended research on this topic. 
These studies support claims that plastics are simply not good for us – prior to 1940, breast cancer was relatively rare; today it affects 1 in 11 women. We’re not saying that plastics alone are responsible for this increase, but to think that they don’t contribute to it is, we think, willful denial. After all, gravity existed before Newton’s father planted the apple tree and the world was just as round before Columbus was born.
Polyester fabric is soft, smooth, supple – yet still a plastic. It contributes to our body burden in ways that we are just beginning to understand. And because polyester is highly flammable, it is often treated with a flame retardant, increasing the toxic load. So if you think that you’ve lived this long being exposed to these chemicals and haven’t had a problem, remember that the human body can only withstand so much toxic load – and that the endocrine disrupting chemicals which don’t seem to bother you may be affecting generations to come.
And then there is acrylic. The key ingredient of acrylic fiber is acrylonitrile, (also called vinyl cyanide). It is a carcinogen (brain, lung and bowel cancers) and a mutagen, targeting the central nervous system. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acrylonitrile enters our bodies through skin absorption, as well as inhalation and ingestion. So could the acrylic fibers in our acrylic fabrics be a contributing factor to these results?
Acrylic fibers are just not terrific to live with anyway. Acrylic manufacturing involves highly toxic substances which require careful storage, handling, and disposal. The polymerization process can result in an explosion if not monitored properly. It also produces toxic fumes. Recent legislation requires that the polymerization process be carried out in a closed environment and that the fumes be cleaned, captured, or otherwise neutralized before discharge to the atmosphere.(4)
Acrylic is not easily recycled nor is it readily biodegradable. Some acrylic plastics are highly flammable and must be protected from sources of combustion.
Just in case you missed the recent report which was published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine , a Canadian study found that women who work with some common synthetic materials could treble their risk of developing breast cancer after menopause. The data included women working in textile factories which produce acrylic fabrics – those women have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than the normal population, while those working with nylon fibers had double the risk.
What about nylon? Well, in a nutshell, the production of nylon includes the precursors benzene (a known human carcinogen) and hydrogen cyanide gas (extremely poisonous); the manufacturing process releases VOCs, nitrogen oxides and ammonia. And finally there is the addition of those organophosphate flame retardants and dyes.
 Sax, Leonard, “Polyethylene Terephthalate may Yield Endocrine Disruptors”,
Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2010, 118 (4): 445-448
(4) ) http://www.madehow.com/Volume-2/Acrylic-Plastic.html
(5) Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi: 10.1136/oem.2009.049817 (abstract: http://oem.bmj.com/content/67/4/263.abstract) SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321