Phthalate concerns for pregnant women

29 01 2015

Three pregnant women

As if we needed something else to worry about, a peer-reviewed study from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, published in December 2014, found evidence that chemicals called phthalates can impact the children of pregnant women who were exposed to those chemicals. Children of moms who had the highest levels of phthalates during pregnancy had markedly lower IQs at age 7. [1] Phthalates had previously been linked to effects ranging from behavioral disorders and cancers to deformations of the sex organs.

Why are we talking about this in a blog about fabrics?

Because phthalates are in the fabrics we use.  Generally, phthalates are used to make plastic soft: they are the most commonly used plasticizers in the world and are pretty much ubiquitous. They’re found in perfume, hair spray, deodorant, almost anything fragranced (from shampoo to air fresheners to laundry detergent), nail polish, insect repellent, carpeting, vinyl flooring, the coating on wires and cables, shower curtains, raincoats, plastic toys, and your car’s steering wheel, dashboard, and gearshift. (When you smell “new car,” you’re smelling phthalates.) Medical devices are full of phthalates — they make IV drip bags and tubes soft, but unfortunately, DEHP is being pumped directly into the bloodstream of ailing patients. Most plastic sex toys are softened with phthalates.

Phthalates are found in our food and water, too. They are in dairy products, possibly from the plastic tubing used to milk cows. They are in meats (some phthalates are attracted to fat, so meats and cheeses have high levels, although it’s not entirely clear how they are getting in to begin with). You’ll find phthalates in tap water that’s been tainted by industrial waste, and in the pesticides sprayed on conventional fruits and vegetables.

And fabrics. People just don’t think to even mention fabrics, which we continue to identify as the elephant in the room. Greenpeace did a study of fabrics produced by the Walt Disney Company in 2004 and found phthalates in all samples tested, at up to 20% by weight of the fabric.[2] Phthalates are one of the main components of plastisol screen printing inks used on fabrics. These plasticizers are not chemically bound to the PVC, so they can leach out. They’re also used in the production of synthetic fibers, as a finish for synthetic fibers to prevent static cling and as an intermediary in the production of dyes.

Phthalates are what is termed an “endocrine disruptor” – which means they interfere with the action of hormones. Hormones do a lot more than just make the sexual organs develop. During the development of a fetus, they fire on and off at certain times to affect the brain and other organs.

“The developing brain relies on hormones,” Dr. Factor-Litvak, the lead scientist of the study, said. Thyroid hormones affect the development of neurons, for example. There might be a window of vulnerability during pregnancy when certain key portions of the brain are forming, she said, and kids whose moms take in a lot of the chemicals during those times might be at risk of having the process disrupted somehow.

“These findings further suggest a potential role for phthalates on neurodevelopment,” said Dr. Maida P. Galvez, who did not work on the study but has a specialty in environmental pediatrics. The associate professor is in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “While this requires replication in other study populations for confirmation, it underscores the fact that chemicals used in everyday products need to be rigorously evaluated for their full potential of human health impacts before they are made widely available in the marketplace.”[3]

In the United States, the new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA) banned certain phthalates from use in toys or certain products marketed to children. In order to comply with this law, a product must not contain more than 0.1% of any of six banned phthalates. But just these six – the class of phthalates includes more than 25 different chemicals.

Gwynne Lyons, policy director of the campaign group, CHEM Trust, said: “The number of studies showing that these substances can cause harm is growing, but efforts by Denmark to try and get EU action on some phthalates had run into difficulties, largely because of concerns about the costs to industry.” [4] (our highlight!)

[1] Factor-Litvak, Pam, et al., “Persistent Associations Between Maternal Prenatal Exposure to Phthalates on Child IQ at Age 7 Years”, PLOS One, December 10, 2014; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0114003

[2] Pedersen, H and Hartmann, J; “Toxic Textiles by Disney”, Greenpeace, Brussels, April 2004

[3] Christensen, “Exposure to common household chemicals may cause IQ drop”, CNN, December 11, 2014

[4] Sample, Ian, “Phthalates risk damaging children’s IQs in the womb, US researchers suggest”, The Guardian, December 10, 2014


Exactly what chemicals are used in my new sheet set?

9 12 2009

Why did the manufacturers of children’s bedding and clothing, who urged the Consumer Product Safety Commission to exempt their products from the new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act,   consider their products safe from lead residues?

In many instances the bedding and clothing designed for children are made from naturally grown fibers, often organically grown fibers.   There is a persistent belief in the market that a fabric made with “organic fibers” is an organic FABRIC.   We have been trying to alert people to the reasons why this is erroneous.

The textile industry uses lots of chemicals to turn coarse fibers  into the soft, lustrous, smooth, colorful fabrics we demand. Think of turning organic  apples into applesauce:  if you added Red Dye #2, preservatives, emulsifiers, stabalizers and other chemicals to the mix, the final product would not be organic applesauce.  The same thing happens in textile manufacturing:  organic fibers are washed, sized, desized,  bleached, dyed, treated with detergents, optical brighteners, biocides, wetting agents, lubricants, sequestering agents,  stabilizers, emulsifiers, complexing agents …and more.

In fact,  a fabric that is advertised as being made from 100%  cotton is actually made of  73% cotton fibers and 27% “other“, for example:

  • 2% polyacryl
  • 8% dyestuff
  • 14% urea formaldehyde
  • 3% softening agents
  • 0.3% optical brighteners (1)

And unless the fabrics used in these products had been certified by GOTS, Oeko Tex or another third party to be free from the chemicals (like lead) which are known to harm humans, there is no guarantee that those organically grown fibers were processed safely, without any of the chemicals known to harm humans.

The reason it’s so hard to find out exactly what is in your fabrics is that the process chemicals used during weaving are not required to be reported anywhere – it’s only if a particular chemical is deemed hazardous by a regulating body that a Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) is required, to theoretically protect the safety of the workers handling these chemicals.  ( Most chemicals have not had toxicological evaluations, so there are no regulating bodies which might deem them hazardous.) Most companies keep these MSDS sheets private and do not give them out,  although they are supposed to be available to anyone.  I have had chemical companies tell me that only their customers can be privy to their MSDS sheets.  Well, if their customers are the mills which buy the chemicals from them, unless the mill releases the MSDS sheet there is no way the ultimate consumer (and user) of the product can see it.

But even if we were to see the MSDS sheets, it’s quite possible that the sheet wouldn’t tell you much unless you were a chemist, because the list of hazardous materials may include just a common name of a chemical, such as “pigment white #6”.  That sounds innocuous, doesn’t it?

I was able to get a copy of a different  MSDS for a water based ink which is used in textile printing.  The list of ingredients include:

ethyl alcohol
isopropyl alcohol
N-propyl alcohol
acrylic acid polymers
pigment white 19
pigment white 6
pigment red 170

In order to find out anything about “pigment white #6”,  for example, it is necessary to know the CAS number for this chemical.  The CAS registry number is a unique numerical identifier for chemical elements, compounds, polymers, and others.  The intention is to make database searches more convenient, because chemicals often have many different names.  As of September 2009, there were more than 50 million organic and inorganic substances and more than 61 million sequences in the CAS registry. (Another roadblock I’ve found is the company not listing the chemical CAS numbers or the chemical formula because they’re “trade secrets” and the formulas are proprietary.  I found this to be the case in the MSDS sheet published by Mimaki for thier water based ink jet printing ink “Reactive Dye 2 Ink Red”, which they do say is considered a hazardous substance according to OSHA 29 CFR 1910.1200.   Read this MSDS sheet here.)

“Pigment white #6” has a CAS number of 13463-67-7.  In order to find out what the toxicological profile of 13463-67-7 is, one can google the CAS number.  It turns out that Pigment White #6 is Titanium dioxide  – which is shown to cause mild skin irritations in humans, and cancerous tumors of the lungs and thorax in rats; also lymphomas including Hodgkins disease.  Classified as Group 2B (possibly carcinogenic to humans) by International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).  The  MSDS sheet also says:

  • May be harmful if inhaled; may cause respiratory tract irritation
  • May be harmful if absorbed through skin; may cause skin irritation
  • May cause eye irritation
  • May be harmful if swallowed

That is the profile of just ONE of the ingredients in this water based ink.  Let’s look at another: benzisothiazol, CAS 2634-33-5.  The MSDS sheet I found on this chemical lists it as having the same harmful effects as Pigment White #6, above:

  • May be harmful if inhaled; may cause respiratory tract irritation
  • May be harmful if absorbed through skin; may cause skin irritation
  • May cause eye irritation
  • May be harmful if swallowed

It is also noted on the MSDS sheet that it’s very toxic to aquatic organisms.  There is also the alarming  caveat: “To the best of our knowledge, the chemical, physical and toxicological properties have not been thoroughly investigated.”  As we have pointed out in the past, that’s true for MOST of the chemicals used in industry today.

So that leaves just 6 other chemicals to investigate to get a complete picture of the water based ink that may have been used in printing your cute sheet set.  And next you can investigate the types of dyestuffs used to dye the fabric, the bleaches uses (chlorine based?), what kinds of optical brighteners were used in processing.   And are those sheets wrinkle resistant?  Most functional finishes have formaldehyde.

If lead is not a problem in textiles, as children’s clothing manufacturers claim, how do you explain the very high concentration of lead in the sludge produced by  textile mills in Rancaekek, West Java?  A study done there found that the textile sludge was disposed of directly into three rivers, all of which are used to irrigate rice paddies.  A greenhouse study using the polluted soil from this area found high concentrations of lead in the rice. [2] That’s one way lead is being introduced directly into our food chain.

A piece of legislation like the CPSIA is one step in the right direction – but to have textile products exempted because they are “inherently safe” completely dismisses the processing of the fabric.  If consumers were buying the fiber only then I would agree that “organic cotton” is inherently safe.  But industrial mills today use many chemicals, many of which are known to harm us and our environment, which renders that organic fiber a decidedly non-organic fabric.

(1) Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts, Springer, New York,  2004, page 609.

[2] “Pollution of Soil by Agricultural and Industrial Waste”, Centre for Soil and Agroclimate Research and Development, Bogor, Indonesia, 2002.

CPSIA, lead and textiles in your life

1 12 2009

What does it take to change human behavior?

We have known that lead is poisonous ever since the Romans began sprinkling it on their food as a sweetener.   Lead was used so extensively in Rome (for metal pots, wine urns, water pipes and plates)  that some Romans began to suspect a connection between the metal and the general befuddlement that was cropping up among the aristocracy – the very people who could afford these urns and plates.  But the culture’s habits never changed, and some historians believe that many among the Roman aristocracy suffered from lead poisoning. Julius Caesar, for example, managed to father only one child, even though he enjoyed women a much as he enjoyed wine.  His successor, Caesar Augustus, was reported to be completely sterile.  Some scholars go so far as to say that lead poisoning was a contributing factor to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Lead is a neurotoxin – it affects the human brain and cognitive development, as well as the reproductive system. Some of the kinds of neurological damage caused by lead are not reversible.

Specifically, it affects reading and reasoning abilities in children, and is also linked to hearing loss, speech delay, balance difficulties and violent tendencies. (1)   According to Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, “There are kids who are disruptive, then there are ‘lead’ kids – very disruptive, very low levels of concentration.”  Children with a lead concentration of less than 10 micrograms ( µ) per deciliter (dl = one tenth of a liter) of blood scored an average of 11.1 points lower than the mean on the Stanford-Binet IQ test. (2)   Consistent and reproducible behavioral effects have been seen with blood levels as low as 7 µ/dl (micrograms of lead per tenth liter of blood), which is below the Federal standard of 10 µ/dl.   Scientists are generally in agreement that there is no “safe” level of blood lead.  Lead is a uniquely cumulative poison:  the daily intake of lead is not as important a determinant of ultimate harm as is the duration of exposure and the total lead ingested over time.

A hundred years ago we were wearing lead right on our skin. I found this article funny and disturbing at the same time:

“Miss P. Belle Kessinger of Pennsylvania State College pulled a rat out of a warm, leaded-silk sack, noted that it had died of lead poisoning, and proceeded to Manhattan. There last week she told the American Home Economics Association that leaded silk garments seem to her potentially poisonous. Her report alarmed silk manufacturers who during the past decade have sold more than 100,000,000 yards of leaded silk without a single report of anyone’s being poisoned by their goods. Miss Kessinger’s report also embarrassed Professor Lawrence Turner Fairhall, Harvard chemist, who only two years ago said: ‘No absorption of lead occurs even under extreme conditions as a result of wearing this material in direct contact with the skin’. ”

This was published in Time magazine,  in 1934.  (Read the full article here. )

But lead has continued to be used in products, from dyestuffs made with lead (leading to lead poisoning in seamstresses at the turn of the century, who were in the habit of biting off their threads) (3), to lead in gasoline, which is widely credited for reduced IQ scores for all children born in industrialized countries between 1960 and 1980 (when lead in gasoline was banned).  Read more about this here.

Lead is used in the textile industry in a variety of ways and under a variety of names:

  • Lead acetate                 dyeing of textiles
  • Lead chloride               preparation of lead salts
  • Lead molybdate            pigments used in dyestuffs
  • Lead nitrate                  mordant in dyeing; oxidizer in dyeing(4)

Fabrics sold in the United States, which are used to make our clothing, bedding and many other products which come into intimate contact with our bodies, are totally unregulated – except in terms of required labeling of percentage of fiber content and country of manufacture.  There are NO laws which pertain to the chemicals used as dyestuffs, in processing, in printing,  or as finishes applied to textiles, except those that come under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, which is woefully inadequate in terms of addressing the chemicals used by industry.  In fact, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) has announced that the 32 year old TSCA needs a complete overhaul (5), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  was quick to agree! (6).  Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA,  said on September 29, 2009 that the EPA lacks the tools it needs to protect people and the environment from dangerous chemicals.

And  fabrics are treated with a wide range of substances that have been proven not to be good for us.

The United States has new legislation which lowers the amount of lead allowed in children’s products – and only children’s products.   (This ignores the question of  how lead  in products used by pregnant  women may affect their fetus.  Research shows that as the brains of fetuses develop, lead exposure from the mother’s blood can result in significant learning disabilities.)  The new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) limits lead content in children’s products (to be phased in over three years) so that by August 14, 2011, lead content must be 100 ppm (parts per million) or less.  However there was an outcry from manufacturers of children’s bedding and clothing, who argued that the testing for lead in their products did not make sense, because:

  • it placed an unproductive burden on them, and
  • it required their already safe products to undergo costly or unnecessary testing.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission voted to exempt textiles from the lead testing and certification requirements of the CPSIA.

So let me repeat here: the daily intake of lead is not as important a determinant of ultimate harm as is the duration of exposure and the total lead ingested over time. Children are uniquely susceptible to lead exposure over time, and  neural damage occurring during the period from 1 to 3 years of age is not likely to be reversible.  It’s also important to be aware that lead available from tested products would not be the only source of exposure in a child’s environment.  Although substantial and very successful efforts have been made in the past twenty years to reduce environmental lead, children are still exposed to lead in products other than toys or fabrics. Even though it was eliminated from most gasoline in the United States starting in the 1970s, lead continues to be used in aviation and other specialty fuels. And from all those years of leaded gasoline, the stuff that came out of cars as fuel exhaust still pollutes soil along our roadways, becoming readily airborne and easily inhaled.   All lead exposure is cumulative – so it’s important to eliminate any source that’s within our power to do so.

Are the manufacturers of children’s bedding and clothing correct?  Are their products inherently safe?  I thought I’d do some exploration to find out what information I could find out about chemicals used in our fabrics – and I’ll have the results next week.

(1) “ ‘Safe’ levels of lead still harm IQ”, Associated Press, 2001

(2) Ibid.

(3) Thompson, William Gilmsn, The Occupational Diseases, 1914, Cornell University Library, p. 215

[4] “Pollution of Soil by Agricultural and Industrial Waste”, Centre for Soil and Agroclimate Research and Development, Bogor, Indonesia, 2002.