Why do we offer safe fabrics?

3 10 2016

Why do we say we want to change the textile industry?  Why do we say we want to produce fabrics in ways that are non-toxic, ethical and sustainable?  What could be so bad about the fabrics we live with?

The textile industry is enormous, and because of its size its impacts are profound.  It uses a lot of three ingredients:

  • Water
  • Chemicals
  • Energy

Water was not included in the 1947 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights because at the time it wasn’t perceived as having a human rights dimension. Yet today, corporate interests are controlling water, and what is known as the global water justice movement is working hard to ensure the right to water as a basic human right.(1) Our global supply of fresh water is diminishing – 2/3 of the world’s population is projected to face water scarcity by 2025, according to the UN. Our global water consumption rose six fold between 1900 and 1995 – more than double the rate of population growth – and it’s still growing as farming, industry and domestic demand all increase.

The textile industry uses vast amounts of water throughout all processing operations.  Almost all dyes, specialty chemicals and finishing chemicals are applied to textiles in water baths.  Most fabric preparation steps, including desizing, scouring, and bleaching use water.  And each one of these steps must be followed by a thorough washing of the fabric to remove all chemicals used before moving on to the next step.  The water is usually returned to our ecosystem without treatment – meaning that the wastewater, which is returned to our streams, contains all of the process chemicals used during milling.  This pollutes the groundwater.  As the pollution increases, the first thing that happens is that the amount of useable water declines.  But the health of people depending on that water is also at risk, as is the health of the entire ecosystem.

With no controls in place to speak of to date, there are now 405 dead zones in our oceans.  Drinking water even in industrialized countries, with treatment in place, nevertheless yields a list of toxins when tested – many of them with no toxicological roadmap.  The textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of fresh water on the planet – the 9 trillion liters of water used annually in textile processing is usually expelled into our rivers without treatment and is a major source of groundwater pollution.  Now that virtual or “embedded” water tracking is becoming necessary in evaluating products, people are beginning to understand when we say it takes 500 gallons of water to make the fabric to cover one sofa.  We want people to become aware that when they buy anything, and fabric especially, they reinforce the manufacturing processes used to produce it.  Just Google “Greenpeace and the textile industry” to find out what Greenpeace is doing to make people aware of this issue.

Over 8,000 chemicals are used in textile processing, some so hazardous that OSHA requires textile scraps be handled as hazardous waste.   The final product is, by weight, about 23% synthetic chemicals – often the same chemicals that are outlawed in other products.  The following is by no means an all-inclusive list of these chemicals:

  • Alkylphenolethoxylates (APEOs), which are endocrine disruptors;
    • o Endocrine disruptors are a wide range of chemicals which interfere with the body’s endocrine system to produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune effects in both humans and wildlife; exposure us suspected to be associated with altered reproductive function in both males and females, increased incidence of breast cancer, abnormal growth patterns and neurodevelopmental delays in children.(2)
  • Pentachlorophenols (PCP)
    • o Long-term exposure to low levels can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, blood, and nervous system. Studies in animals also suggest that the endocrine system and immune system can also be damaged following long-term exposure to low levels of pentachlorophenol. All of these effects get worse as the level of exposure increases.(3)
  • Toluene and other aromatic amines
    • carcinogens (4)
  • Dichloromethane (DCM)
    • Exposure leads to decreased motor activity, impaired memory and other neurobehavioral deficits; brain and liver cancer.(5)
  • Formaldehyde
    • The National Toxicology Program named formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen in its 12th Report on Carcinogens.(6)
  • Phthalates –
    • Associated with a range of effects from liver and kidney diseases to developmental and reproductive effects, reduced fetal weight.(7)
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s)
    • A growing body of research in laboratory animals has linked PBDE exposure to an array of adverse health effects including thyroid hormone disruption, permanent learning and memory impairment, behavioral changes, hearing deficits, delayed puberty onset, decreased sperm count, fetal malformations and, possibly, cancer.(8)
  • Perfluorooctane sulfonates (PFOS)
    • To date, associations have been found between PFOS or PFOA levels in the general population and reduced female fertility and sperm quality, reduced birth weight, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), increased total and non-HDL (bad) cholesterol levels, and changes in thyroid hormone levels.(9)
  • Heavy metals – cadmium, lead, antimony, mercury among others
    • Lead is a neurotoxin (affects the brain and cognitive development) and affects the reproductive system; mercury is a neurotoxin and possibly carcinogenic; cadmium damages the kidneys, bones and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified it as a human carcinogen; exposure to antimony can cause reproductive disorders and chromosome damage.

The textile industry uses huge quantities of fossil fuels  –  both to create energy directly needed to power the mills, produce heat and steam, and power air conditioners, as well as indirectly to create the many chemicals used in production.  In addition, the textile industry has one of the lowest efficiencies in energy utilization because it is largely antiquated.  For example, steam used in the textile manufacturing process is often generated in inefficient and polluting coal-fired boilers.  Based on estimated annual global textile production of 60 billion kilograms (KG) of fabric, the estimated energy needed to produce that fabric boggles the mind:  1,074 billion KWh of electricity (or 132 million metric tons of coal).  It takes 3886 MJ of energy to produce 25 yards of nylon fabric (about the amount needed to cover one sofa).  To put that into perspective, 1 gallon of gasoline equals 131 MJ of energy; driving a Lamborghini from New York to Washington D.C. uses approximately 2266 MJ of energy.(10)

Today’s textile industry is also one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses on the planet: in the USA alone, it accounts for 5% of the country’s CO2 production annually; China’s textile sector alone would rank as the 24th– largest country in the world.(11)

We succeeded in producing the world’s first collection of organic fabrics that were gorgeous and green – and safe.    In 2007, those fabrics won “Best Merchandise” at Decorex (www.decorex.com).    In 2008, our collection was named one of the Top Green Products of 2008 by BuiltGreen/Environmental Building News. As BuiltGreen/EBN takes no advertising dollars, their extensive research is prized by the green building industry (www.buildinggreen.com).

We are a tiny company with an oversized mission.  We are challenged to be a triple bottom line company, and we want to make an outsized difference through education for change  – so that a sufficiently large number of consumers will know which questions to ask that will force change in an industry.  We believe that a sufficiently large number of people will respond to our message to force profound positive change: by demanding safe fabric, produced safely, our environment and our health will be improved.

The issues that distinguish us from other fabric distributors, in addition to offering fabrics whose green pedigree is second to none:

    1. We manage each step of the production process from fiber to finished fabric, unlike other companies, which buy mill product and choose only the color palette of the production run.    Those production process steps include fiber preparation, spinning, weaving, dyeing, printing and finishing; with many sub-steps such as sizing and de-sizing, bleaching, slashing, etc.
    2. We educate consumers and designers on the issues that are important to them – and to all of us. Our blog on the topic of sustainability in the textile industry has grown from about 2 hits a day to 2,000, and is our largest source of new customers.
    3. We are completely transparent in all aspects of our production and products.    We want our brand to be known not only as the “the greenest”, but for honesty and authenticity in all claims.  This alignment between our values, our claims and our products fuels our passion for the business.
    4. We are the only collection we know of which sells only “safe” fabrics.

We serve multiple communities, but we see ourselves as being especially important to two communities:  those who work to produce our fabric and those who use it, especially children and their parents.

    • By insisting on the use of safe chemicals exclusively, we improve the working conditions for textile workers.  And by insisting on water treatment, we mitigate the effects of even benign chemicals on the environment – and the workers’ homes and agricultural land.  Even salt, used in copious amounts in textile processing, will ruin farmland and destroy local flora and fauna if not neutralized before being returned to the local waters.
    • For those who use our fabric, chemicals retained in the finished fibers do not add to our “body burden “, which is especially important for children, part of our second special community.  A finished fabric is, by weight, approximately 23% synthetic chemicals. Those chemicals are not benign.  Textile processing routinely uses chemicals with known toxic profiles such as lead, mercury, formaldehyde, arsenic and benzene – and many other chemicals, many of which have never been tested for safety.

Another thing we’d like you to know about this business is the increasing number of people who contact us who have been harmed by fabric (of all things!) because we represent what they believe is an honest attempt at throwing light on the subject of fabric processing.   Many are individuals who suffer from what is now being called “Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance” or IEI (formerly called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity), who are looking for safe fabrics.  We’ve also been contacted on behalf of groups, for example,   flight attendants, who were given new uniforms in 2011, which caused allergic reactions in a large number of union members.

These incidences of fabric-induced reactions are on the rise.   As we become more aware of the factors that influence our health, such as we’re seeing currently with increased awareness of the effects of interior air quality, designers and others will begin to see their way to specifying “safe” fabrics  just as their code of ethics demands.(12)  We feel certain that the trajectory for such an important consumer product as fabric, which surrounds us most of every hour of the day, will mimic that of organic food.

We say our fabrics are luxurious – because luxury has become more about your state of mind than the size of your wallet. These days, people define luxury by such things as a long lunch with old friends, the good health to run a 5K, or waking up in the morning and doing exactly what you want all day long.  In the past luxury was often about things.  Today, we think it’s not so much about having as it is about being knowledgeable about what you’re buying – knowing that you’re buying the best and that it’s also good for the world.  It’s also about responsibility: it just doesn’t feel OK to buy unnecessary things when people are starving and the world is becoming overheated.  It’s about products being defined by how they make you feel –  “conscious consumption” – and giving you ways to find personal meaning and satisfaction.


(1) Barlow, Maude, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the coming Battle for the Right to Water, October 2007

(2)World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/ceh/risks/cehemerging2/en/

(3)Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry 2001, https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=400&tid=70

(4)Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Publication # 90-101; https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/90-101/

(5)Cooper GS, Scott CS, Bale AS. 2011. Insights from epidemiology into dichloromethane and cancer risk. Int J Environ Res Public Health 8:3380–3398.

(6)National Toxicology Program (June 2011). Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program. Retrieved June 10, 2011, from: http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/go/roc12.

(7)Hauser, R and Calafat, AM, “Phthalates and Human Health”, Occup Environ Med 2005;62:806–818. doi: 10.1136/oem.2004.017590

(8)Environmental Working Group, http://www.ewg.org/research/mothers-milk/health-risks-pbdes

(9)School of Environmental Health, University of British Columbia; http://www.ncceh.ca/sites/default/files/Health_effects_PFCs_Oct_2010.pdf

(10) Annika Carlsson-Kanyama and Mireille Faist, 2001, Stockholm University Dept of Systems Ecology, htp://organic.kysu.edu/EnergySmartFood(2009).pdf

(11)Based on China carbon emissions reporting for 2010 from Energy Information Administration (EIA); see U.S. Department of Energy, Carbon Emissions from Energy Generation by Country, http://www.eia.gov/ cfapps/ipdbproject/IEDIndex3.cfm?tid=90&pid=44&aid=8 (accessed September 28, 2012). Estimate for China textile sector based on industrial emissions at 74% of total emissions, and textile industry
as 4.3% of total industrial emissions; see EIA, International Energy Outlook 2011, U.S. Department of Energy.

(12)Nussbaumer, L.L, “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: The Controversy and Relation to Interior Design”, Abstract, South Dakota State University

Another concern for vigilant parents

19 11 2014

We live in an environment that is full of chemicals – some which are bad for us and yet are completely natural.   We don’t subscribe to the notion that man-made is absolutely bad and natural is absolutely good – botulism is completely natural and can kill you just as dead. But sometimes we adopt products for our use in ways that can hurt us, because we don’t pay attention to the chemicals that are contained in that product nor of how we use the product. Recently, the crushed up tires that are appearing in playgrounds and as the playfield surface of schools around the country have become an object of concern, so let’s take a look at those.

Discarded rubber tires are the bane of waste management – according to the EPA, we generate 290 million scrap tires each year.[1] Obviously finding a market for these slow-to-decompose materials is desirable, and many innovative uses have been developed, including using ground up tires on playground and sports field surfaces. According to the Synthetic Turf Council, this “crumb rubber has been installed in approximately 11,000 U.S. fields, tracks and playgrounds in the United States.[2] And the California Office of Environmental Health says that recycled rubber tires have become one of the top choice materials for surfacing children’s playgrounds.[3]

Crumb rubber is a black, pellet-like substance the size of a cracker crumb. Run your hand through the field, and you’ll pick up black dust, similar to the consistency of pencil graphite. It’s easy to spread, and can easily get into your mouth, shoes, clothing and nostrils. Routes of exposure, especially in the case of infants, can include dermal absorption, inhalation, and even ingestion directly from the material.

Here’s a story about crumb rubber from NBC news:

Various studies have identified the chemicals found in tires, which are made of 40-60% rubber polymers, carbon black (20-35%), silicas, process and extender oils (up to 28%), vulcanization chemicals and chemical anti-degradents, and plasticizers and softeners. It is well known that rubber tire debris contains toxic compounds such as highly aromatic oils and other reactive additives.[1]

The EPA has identified a number of compounds which may be found in tires, though they’re quick to point out that not all are contained in every tire:[2]

  • heavy metals ( cadmium, chromium, iron, lead, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, sulfur, and zinc, which can be as much as 2% of tire mass) – most of which have documented health consequences including damage to the central nervous system.
  • Plasticizers (such as phthalates)- phthalates act as estrogens once absorbed by the body. They are considered endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC’s); conditions associated with EDC’s include infertility; breast, prostate and ovarian cancers; asthma; and allergies.[3]
  • Styrene butadiene – associated with risk of leukemia[4]; known to be genotoxic[5]
  • Benzene – known to be a human carcinogen; also impacts the nervous and immune systems[6]
  • Chloroethane, which causes cancer in mice, is also a neurotoxin[7]
  • Halogenated flame retardants – need we reiterate how these impact human health?
  • Methyl ethyl ketone and methyl isobutyl ketone – there is no evidence of carcinogenicy or mutagenicy but studies show impairment of central nervous system; both are on the Hazardous Substances List by OSHA.[8]
  • Naphthalene – a group C carcinogen (possible human carcinogen); also causes neurological damage.[9]

Another concern is the smell that wafts up from the playing field – like old tires – coupled with the fact that the fields often are 10 – 15 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature, and many of the compounds evaporate at temperatures as low as 77 degrees F. Compounds found to be present in the air in a study done by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station include: [10]

  • Benzothiazole: A skin and eye irritation, harmful if swallowed. There is no available data on cancer, mutagenic toxicity, teratogenic toxicity, or developmental toxicity.
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole: A recognized carcinogen, suspected endocrine toxicant, gastrointestinal toxicant, immunotoxicant, neurotoxicant, skin and sense-organ toxicant. There is no available data on cancer, mutagenic toxicity, teratogenic toxicity, or developmental toxicity.
  • n-hexadecane: A severe irritant based on human and animal studies. There is no available data on cancer, mutagenic toxicity, teratogenic toxicity, or developmental toxicity.
  • 4-(t-octyl) phenol: Corrosive and destructive to mucous membranes. There is no available data on cancer, mutagenic toxicity, teratogenic toxicity, or developmental toxicity.
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs): heavy occupational exposure leads to risk of lung, skin or bladder cancers; genotoxic, leading to malignancies and heritable genetic damage in humans. [11] In 2010, the EPA concluded that in the case of PAHs, “breathing PAHs and skin contact seem to be associated with cancer in humans.”[12] The total concentration of PAHs in crumb rubber exceedes the Norwegian Pollution Control Authority’s normative values for most sensitive land use.[13]

A 2012 study analyzing rubber mulch taken from children’s playgrounds in Spain found harmful chemicals present in all, frequently at high levels.[14] Twenty-one samples were collected from 9 playgrounds in urban locations and screened for various pollutants. The results showed that all samples contained at least one hazardous chemical, with most containing multiple PAHs found at high concentrations. The authors concluded that the use of rubber recycled tires on playgrounds “should be restricted or even prohibited in some cases.”[15]

Many, if not most, of the compounds present in tire crumbs and shreds have been incompletely tested for human health effects, so there is no data available to evaluate the chemicals (as evidenced by the four compounds above).

Artificial turf and rubber crumb manufacturers point to the fact that no research has linked cancer to artificial turf – yet most studies add the caveat that more research should be conducted.

According to Dr. Joel Forman, associate professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine at New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, in all these studies, data gaps make it difficult to draw firm conclusions. As he says, “None of [the studies] are long term, they rarely involve very young children and they only look for concentrations of chemicals and compare it to some sort of standard for what’s considered acceptable,” said Dr. Forman. “That doesn’t really take into account subclinical effects, long-term effects, the developing brain and developing kids.” Forman said that it is known that some of the compounds found in tires, “even in chronic lower exposures” can be associated with subtle neurodevelopmental issues in children.

“If you never study anything,” said Dr. Forman, “you can always say, ‘Well there’s no evidence that shows you have a problem,’ but that’s because you haven’t looked. To look is hard.”

Another notable critic of the stuff is Dr. Phillip Landrigan of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, who submitted a letter to the New York City Planning Department last year expressing concerns over the carcinogens in tire crumbs.

He wrote that the principal chemical components of crumb rubber are Styrene and Butadiene — Styrene is neurotoxic, and Butadiene is a proven human carcinogen that has been shown to cause leukemia and lymphoma.

“There is a potential for all of these toxins to be inhaled, absorbed through the skin and even swallowed by children who play on synthetic turf fields,” Dr. Landrigan wrote. “Only a few studies have been done to evaluate this type of exposure risk.”

So if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and looks like a duck…

And as if to add insult to injury, wood chips were found to do a better job of protecting children from head trauma![16]

Remember that children are much more likely to be harmed by exposure to chemicals in their environment than adults because they’re smaller (therefore exposure is greater) and their bodies are still developing. So what’s a concerned parent to do?

  • First – ignore the tire crumb playgrounds and find a good old wood chip or grass site.
  • Teach your children the importance of frequent hand washing as many chemicals enter bodies via the mouth.
  • And persuade local officials to use wood chips rather than recycled rubber.


[1] Llompart, Maria et al, “Hazardous organic chemicals in rubber recycled tire playgrounds and pavers”, Chemosphere, Vol. 90, issue 2, January 2013, pages 423-431

[2] http://www.epa.gov/nerl/features/tire_crumbs.html

[3] http://www.everydayexposures.com/toxins/phthalates

[4] Santos-Burgoa, Carlos; “Lymphohematopoietic Cancer in Styrene-Butadiene Polymerization Workers”, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 136, issue 7, pp. 843-854.

[5] Norppa, H and Sorsa, M; “Genetic toxicity of 1,3-butadiene and styrene”, IARC Scientific Publications, 1993 (127): 185-193.

[6] http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/substances/toxsubstance.asp?toxid=14

[7] US Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Toxicological Profile for Chloroethane”, December 1998 http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp105.pdf

[8] http://nj.gov/health/eoh/rtkweb/documents/fs/1258.pdf; and http://nj.gov/health/eoh/rtkweb/documents/fs/1268.pdf

[9] http://www.epa.gov/ttnatw01/hlthef/naphthal.html

[10]Mattina, MaryJane et al; “Examination of Crumb Rubber Produced From Recycled Tires”, The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, 2007, http://www.ct.gov/caes/lib/caes/documents/publications/fact_sheets/examinationofcrumbrubberac005.pdf

[11] http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=13

[12] US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)-Fact Sheet. January 2008. http://www.epa.gov/osw/hazard/wastemin/minimize/factshts/pahs.pdf

[13] Llompart M, Sanchez-Prado L, Lamas JP, Garcia-Jares C, et al. “Hazardous organic chemicals in rubber recycled tire playgrounds and pavers”. Chemosphere. 2012; Article In Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2012.07.053


[15] Ibid.

[16] State of California-Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), Contractor’s Report to the Board. Evaluation of Health Effects of Recycled Waste Tires in Playground and Track PrRememoducts. January 2007. http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/publications/Documents/Tires%5C62206013.pdf


[1] http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/tires/basic.htm

[2] http://www.nbcnews.com/news/investigations/how-safe-artificial-turf-your-child-plays-n220166

[3] State of California-Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), Contractor’s Report to the Board. Evaluation of Health Effects of Recycled Waste Tires in Playground and Track Products. January 2007. http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/publications/Documents/Tires%5C62206013.pdf



Can your fabric choices make you fat?

31 01 2013

We have all heard the stories of our “growing obesity epidemic” – especially in western nations. It’s an important national problem, and is partly responsible for our soaring health care costs. We often point to obesity as being caused by overeating, fast food, and/or sedentary lifestyles for those having a genetic predisposition to the disease. But the rates of obesity have escalated in such an exponential manner that the commonly held causes of obesity – overeating and inactivity – cannot explain the current obesity epidemic. A growing number of studies have suggested a new culprit: environmental rather than genetic causes.

Our world is different than it was 100 years ago. We have developed many synthetic organic and inorganic chemicals to make our lives easier – and used them in a fabulously wide range of products. In fact, you could say, as some do, that we’re living in a toxic soup of these chemicals. And those chemicals are changing us. Some of the chemicals changing us are called “endocrine disruptors” (which we discussed in last week’s post) since they interfere with the body’s hormone balance, which confuses the body. Initially, they caused concern because of their links to cancers and the malformation of sex organs. Those concerns continue, but the newest area of research is the impact that they have on fat storage.

It has been found that the developing organism (us!) is extremely sensitive to chemicals with estrogenic or endocrine disrupting activity and that exposure to these chemicals during critical stages of development may have permanent long-lasting consequences, some of which may not be expressed or detected until later in life.(1)

But back to obesity, which is what we’re concentrating on this week. (I know it’s difficult to stay on task, because these chemicals are synergistic, have multi-dimensional effects and often degrade into different substances altogether).

Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times last weekend, talked about the results of a study which I found disturbing. Look at these two mice:

The only difference between these mice: The one at the top was exposed at birth to a tiny amount of an endocrine-disrupting chemical.  New York Times

The only difference between these mice: The one at the top was exposed at birth to a tiny amount of an endocrine-disrupting chemical. New York Times

According to Kristof, “they’re genetically the same, raised in the same lab and given the same food and chance to exercise. Yet the bottom one is svelte, while the other looks like, well, an American. The only difference is that the top one was exposed at birth to just one part per billion of an endocrine-disrupting chemical (2) . The brief exposure programmed the mouse to put on fat, and although there were no significant differences in caloric intake or expenditure, it continued to put on flab long after the chemical was gone.”

Bruce Blumberg, a developmental biologist at the University of California, Irvine, coined the term “obesogen” in a 2006 journal article to refer to chemicals that cause animals to store fat. Initially, this concept was highly controversial among obesity experts, but a growing number of peer-reviewed studies have confirmed his finding and identified some 20 substances as obesogens.

Manufacturers have already exploited obesogens by using them to fatten livestock, and by formulating pharmaceuticals to induce weight gain in grossly underweight patients. A study by Dr. Baillie-Hamilton presents the hypothesis that the current level of human exposure to these chemicals may have damaged many of the body’s natural weight-control mechanisms and that these effects, together with a wide range of additional, possibly synergistic, factors may play a significant role in the worldwide obesity epidemic.(3) And these changes continue generation after generation. It’s clear that the most important time for exposure is in utero and during childhood.(4)

The magazine Scientific American recently asked whether doctors should do more to warn pregnant women about certain chemicals.(5)  It cited a survey indicating that only 19% of doctors cautioned pregnant women about pesticides, only 8% about BPA (an endocrine disruptor in some plastics and receipts), and only 5% about phthalates (endocrine disruptors found in cosmetics and shampoos). Dr. Blumberg, the pioneer of the field, says he strongly recommends that people — especially children and women who are pregnant or may become pregnant — try to eat organic foods to reduce exposure to endocrine disruptors, and try to avoid using plastics to store food or water. “My daughter uses a stainless steel water bottle, and so do I,” he said.

Endocrine disruptors are found in fabrics – Greenpeace did a study of 141 clothing items purchased in 29 different countries from authorized retailers. Endocrine disruptors were found in 89 of the 141 articles tested. According to the report: “Overall, a variety of hazardous chemicals were detected within the broad range of high street fashion textile products analysed. These covered a diverse range of brands and countries of manufacture. These results indicate the ongoing – and in some cases widespread – use of hazardous chemicals in the manufacture of textile products openly marketed to consumers.”

It’s not clear whether most obesogens will do much to make an ordinary adult, even a pregnant woman, fatter (although one has been shown to do so). But what about our children, and their children? How does fabric processing impact my weight, or my child’s weight? Should I avoid certain processing chemicals in my own home?

The government made a tremendous impact on public health when it outlawed lead in gasoline. Now we need to make those same hard choices about doing without some of the things we’ve learned to like but which we know to be impacting our health. Support the Safe Chemicals Act and spread the word. This is too important to ignore.

[1] Newbold, R. R., Padilla-Banks, E., Snyder, R. J. and Jefferson, W. N. (2005), Developmental exposure to estrogenic compounds and obesity. Birth Defects Research Part A: Clinical and Molecular Teratology, 73: 478–480. doi: 10.1002/bdra.20147

[2] Newbold, R. R., Padilla-Banks, E., Snyder, R. J. and Jefferson, W. N. (2005), Developmental exposure to estrogenic compounds and obesity. Birth Defects Research Part A: Clinical and Molecular Teratology, 73: 478–480. doi: 10.1002/bdra.20147

[3] Baillie-Hamilton, PF, “Chemical toxins: a hypothesis to explain the global obesity epidemic”, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, April 2002,

[4] Blumberg, Bruce et al, “Transgenerational Inheritance of Increased Fat Depot Size, Stem Cell Reprogramming, and Hepatic Steatosis Elicited by Prenatal Obesogen Tributyltin in Mice”, Environmental Health Perspectives, January 15, 2013.

[5] Kay, Jane, “Should Doctors Warn Pregnant Women about Environmental Risks?”, Scientific American, December 10, 2012.

APEOs and NPEOs in textiles

24 01 2013

Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEOs – often called alkyphenols or alkylphenyls) are surfactants which have an emulsifying and dispersing action, so they have good wetting, penetration, emulsification, dispertion, solubilizing and washing characteristics. This makes them suitable for a very large variety of applications: they’ve been used for over 50 years in a wide variety of products. In the textile industry, they are used in detergents and as a scouring, coating or waterproofing agents, in printing pastes and adhesives, and in dyeing. The most important APEO or alkylphenol ethoxylates for the textile industry are NPEO (nonylphenol ethoxylates) and OPEO (octylphenol ethoxylates) due to their detergent properties, but there are a big family. About 90% of the produced APEO are in fact NPEO.

The three critical issues in making APEOs and NPEOs in the environment of particular concern are:

  1. They are everywhere. They’re in receipts, canned foods and couches, paint and spot cleaners. They’re in the dust in our homes, our blood and urine, in breast milk and in the cord blood of newborns. Concentrations of NP and its parent compound NPEO have been measured worldwide in surface waters, sediments, sewage, the atmosphere, aquatic organisms, and even in typical human food products. And most disturbingly, these concentrations of APEOs are on the rise.(1) The U.S. EPA has noted rising levels of alkylphenols in water samples taken from streams and rivers throughout the U.S.
  2. The life cycles indicate long term, continued environmental contamination. APEOs are slow to biodegrade and they tend to bioaccumulate. They also move up the food chain and ultimately to us. Though APEOs themselves are not carcinogenic, teratogenic or mutagenic, research has shown that when they do degrade, their byproducts have a higher toxicity, estrogenic activity, persistence and tendence to bioaccumulate than APEOs themselves.(2)
  3. They have been shown to be toxic to aquatic organisms and an endocrine disruptor in higher animals, and therefore they pose a risk to humans. As an environmental hormone disruptor, these new substances can invade the human body through a variety of channels, with estrogen-like effects, and are harmful to normal hormone secretion, leading to reduced sperm count in men. Research published in the September 2006 edition of Toxicological Sciences shows that the human placenta responds to alkylphenyls in the first trimester.(3) The result may be early termination of pregnancy and fetal growth defect.(4)

Think of using fish to replace the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Because most mills do not treat their wastewater, the effluent containing these APEOs is discharged directly into our groundwater, where it is a major source of hormone disruption in fish species. The classic example is intersex attributes in fish (suppression of testes growth in males), with other reproductive effects and anomalies; in one study, egg production of zebrafish, exposed to wastewater effluent contaminated with APEOs, was reduced by up to 89.6% (5) ; other studies found a reduced percentage of fertilized eggs, reduced embroyo survival, and abmormal embroys (6) . These results and other studies indicate that the reproductive potential of native fishes may be compromised in wastewater-dominated streams due to the presence of alkylphenyls (7). Other studies have determined that fish, when exposed to these environmental estrogens, cannot regulate their internal homeostasis (called osmoregulation, which is related to the ability of fish to prevent dehydration or waterlogging , and buffers them against the effect of fresh or sea water). These studies of APEOs in US rivers have led scientists to conclude that fish are currently being impacted – they’re our canaries.

  1. Researchers at UC Davis  found that offspring of  fish in San Francisco estuary had underdeveloped brains, inadequate energy supplies and dysfunctional livers. They grew slower and were smaller than offspring of hatchery fish raised in clean water.

    Researchers at UC Davis found that offspring of fish in San Francisco estuary had underdeveloped brains, inadequate energy supplies and dysfunctional livers. They grew slower and were smaller than offspring of hatchery fish raised in clean water.

Wastewater treatment facilities theoretically have the capabilities of effectively breaking down APEOs, but they are often not designed to remove them from the effluent. Most often sewer sludge contains these APEOs.

In the U.S., these chemicals are basically unregulated, nor is there any restriction on their use. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has focused research efforts on determining acceptable levels of these compounds in water and identified NPEs as well as the chemical nonylphenol (NP) for further study because of concern about their impact on the environment and us. Why has nothing been done? Because as you might imagine, this is big business, and the chemical lobby has not only impeded regulation but has even tried to block research.(8) The lack of action on the part of environmental regulators in the United States stems largely in part from the research conducted by the Alkylphenol and Ethoxylate Research Council formed by the Chemical Manufacturers Association to conduct studies on APEO (APE Research Council, 2001). To date this panel has disputed all claims that NP concentrations in waterways of the United States are above concentrations where a significant effect would be realized. The Alkylphenol and Ethoxylate Research Council also contests the estrogenic potential of NP (APE Research Council, 2001) (9).

In Europe, the use of NPEO has been banned or voluntarily restricted since 1986. Since 1998, the use of APEO in detergents has been forbidden in Germany – and since January 2005 the EU directive 2003/53/ EG has forbidden the use of NPEO in higher concentrations than 0.1% in product formulations. However it will take years before there is progress in phasing out APEOs completely, as was done by Norway in 2002.(10)

Although forbidden in the EU, many companies have production sites or suppliers outside Europe, where the use of NPEO is not forbidden. Textile eco-labels such as the EU flower and Öko-Tex 1000 have also forbidden the use of APEOs.

But voluntary certifications and the prohibition in some countries is not enough to stem the tide, as Greenpeace found recently. Their Detox Campaign was designed to expose the links between clothing brands, their suppliers and toxic water pollution around the world. The Greenpeace studies found that these NPEs aren’t just expelled into wastewater – they also remain in the finished textile. The chemicals found in the finished clothing of top name brands (Calvin Klein, Levi’s and Victoria’s Secret, among others) included nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). Concentrations of NPEOs were found in 89 garments (just under two thirds of those tested) at levels ranging from just above 1 part per million up to 45000 parts per million in the top name brand items tested (Calvin Klein, Levi’s, Victoria’s Secret, H&M, Gap among others) (11); over 20% of the items tested had more than 100 parts per million.

To see the PBS series on Frontline entitled “Poisoned Waters”, click here.

[1] Zoller, Uri, “Endocrine disrupting APEOs in Isreal/Palestinian water resrouces: What should it take to prevent future pollution?”, http://www.researchgate.net/publication/228493491_ENDOCRINE_DISRUPTING_APEOs_IN_ISRAELIPALESTINIAN_WATER_RESOURCES_WHAT_SHOULD_IT_TAKE_TO_PREVENT_FUTURE_POLLUTION
[2] Wessels, Denise, “Policy Brief: Endocrine Disrupters in Wastewater Alkylphenol Ethoxylates and the City of Indianapolis Combined Sewer System”,
[3] Bechi, N., Estrogen-Like Response to p-Nonylphenol in Human First Trimester Placenta and BeWo Choriocarcinorna Cells, Toxicological Sciences, 93(1), 75-8 1 (September, 2006).http:lltoxsci.oxford~ournals.org/cgi/content~full/93/1l75.
[4] Potential adverse effects of NP and NPEs on human health is also discussed in Vazquez-Duhalt, Nonylphenol, an integrated vision of a pollutant, Applied Ecology and Environmental Research 4(1): 1-25 ISSN1589 1623, http:lIwww.ecology.kee.hu~pdf/O401~001025.pdf. Widespread exposure of the U.S. population to NP has been demonstrated. Calafat, A., Kuklenyik Z., Reidy J., Cauhll S., Ekong J., Needham L. 2005. Urinary Concentrations of Bisphenol A and 4-Nonylphenol in a Human Reference Population. Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 113, p. 391. NP at high doses has been llnked to breast cancer in mice. BBC News. 2005. Chemical Link to Breast Cancer.http:llnews.bbc.co.uW1/hl/healthl676129.strnin 612005.
[5] Tyler, C.R. and Routledge, E.J., “Oestrogenic effects in fish in English rivers with evidence of their causation”, Dept. of Biology and Biochemistry, Brunel University, UK, Pure and Applied Chemistry, Vol 70, No. 9 pp. 1796-1804, 1998.
[6] Dickey, Philip, “Troubling Bubbles: Alkylphenol ethoxylate surfactants”, Washington Toxics Coalition
[7] “Response to comments submitted by the Alkylphenols and ethoxylates research council”, by Victoria Whitney, Deputy Director, Division of Water Quality, State Water Resources Control Board, Sacramento, California, June 20, 2011 ALSO SEE: Tyler, C.R. and Routledge, E.J., “Oestrogenic effects in fish in English rivers with evidence of their causation”, Dept. of Biology and Biochemistry, Brunel University, UK, Pure and Applied Chemistry, Vol 70, No. 9 pp. 1796-1804, 1998.
(8) Kristof, Nicholas, “Warnings from a Flabby Mouse”, New York Times, January 19, 2013.
[9] Porter, A. and Hayden, N., “Nonylphenol in the Environment: A Critical Review”, Dept of Civil and Encironmental Engineering, University of Vermont.
[10] Norris, David and Carr, James, “Endocrine Disruption: Biological Bases for Health Effects in Wildlife and Humans”, Oxford University Press, 2006
[11] http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/publications/Campaign-reports/Toxics-reports/Big-Fashion-Stitch-Up/

Environmental concerns, textiles and fast fashion

12 12 2012

I went to the stores this week, looking for presents (as it’s the season), and was bombarded with slogan after slogan of companies trying to make their product stand out from the crowd.   It made me think  about  the journey I’ve personally taken since founding O Ecotextiles – going from somebody who was totally clueless, to having an exquisitely sensitive slant to environmental concerns regarding textiles.  And now I talk every day to people who I realize are at the place I was seven years ago.  Bridging the gap between what Steven Bland says are those who are climbing the mountain, and those who haven’t even heard of the mountain is maybe the hardest part. As he says, “the reality is that the core messages and realities of sustainable development are often lost in a sea of ‘greenwash’ and climate-change frenzy”.  “We have a fully GOTS certified fabric for upholstery” I say, excitedly.  The response?  Blank faces (or silence over the phone), or “what’s GOTS?”  Explaining the concept behind GOTS (including my belief that the chemicals in the fabrics are subtly altering us), while staying positive, has been difficult.

So in this optimistic season, it’s important to remember to remain positive as we climb.  Here are some important concepts to remember as we go forward:

  1. Remember the importance of optimism. The catastrophic and  negative portrayals of the environmental movement have desensitized people to many environmental issues. The number of people who deny that human  activity causes climate change is growing, not diminishing. How do we  create a positive vision of the future, whilst convincing people of the  scale and urgency of the problem at hand?
  2.  Adopt systems  thinking.  Steven Bland, writing in Forum for the Future puts it this way:  “Are Christmas trees sustainable, I ask myself, as I wrap them in  plastic netting which I fear could end up in the stomach of some  unfortunate seabird.”   Truly  understanding the sustainability of the humble Christmas tree has less to  do with netting and more about the systems with which the tree interacted  and was a part. What effect did growing have on local ecological systems?  Were the people who trimmed them into shape paid a living wage? And how did this impact local societies?  The importance of systems thinking involves  seeing the forest, in spite of the trees. Creating a more just and  prosperous future will require us to change the way we think fundamentally.”[1]
  3. Remember to push on with those things that make business  sense in finding some responses to climate change:  responding to this constraint can drive  game-changing innovation.  Learn to win with sustainability.  As Zac Goldsmith says,  “We have to rewrite  the rules so that the market, which for so long has been an engine of  unsustainable, colossal destruction, becomes a force for good. The market  is the most powerful force for change, other than nature itself. And there  are so many signs that it can be transformed, so many examples: if you make  waste a liability, waste is minimized; if you put a value on something,  it’s valued. It’s really very simple: we free the market to do what it’s  best at, but change the parameters in which it operates…you simply need to take the best of today and turn  it into the norm of tomorrow. If you did that in every sector, we would be  there. Yes the problem is formidable, it’s huge, it’s off the scale. But  it’s not so big that we can’t deal with it.”[2]   A market-based, fee-and-dividend program for carbon emissions, for      example,  could have an impact by  charging polluters for emitting carbon into the atmosphere, yet it seems  unlikely that such measures will have the regulatory teeth they need. The  rapidly spreading method of fossil fuel extraction known as fracking, for  instance, is already exempt from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory.

What are you wearing right now? No peeking at the label  –  do you know what it’s made of, who manufactured it and where? And how do you think your answers might be different in 15 years’ time?

Clothing is ripe for some futures thinking. There are thorny issues like water and pesticide use in cotton fields;  residual chemicals in the fabrics we live with and the water used to produce them; massive challenges over worker conditions (the recent fire in a Bangladesh factory made news in the West this time, unlike many others which didn’t) and wages in production; and lengthy supply chains that criss-cross the world and navigate tit-for-tat protectionism. And there’s the small matter of consumer power: a cool trillion dollars worldwide is spent on clothes by consumers, whose demands change faster than the models’ outfits on a catwalk.

Society’s fascination with ‘fast fashion’ is emerging as a hot topic. Critics argue that this high-turnover industry is fundamentally unsustainable: cheap and cheerful goods are worn one day and thrown away the next.  Fashion Futures is aiming to discover how behavioral changes or new technologies can create a different future.  Supported by Levi Strauss & Co, they’re exploring various possible worlds for the global apparel industry in 2025.  Here’s a YouTube video about Fashion Futures:

Nylon 6 and Nylon 6,6

5 06 2012

Nylon is a synthetic polymer called a polyamide  because of the characteristic monomers of amides in the backbone chain.  Polyamides are also naturally occurring – proteins such as wool and silk are also polyamides.

We commonly see two basic types of nylon used in fabrics: nylon 6 and nylon 6,6:

  • Nylon 6,6:  Two different molecules (adipic acid and hexamethylene diamine)  are combined to create repeat units of 6 carbon atoms, thus the name nylon 6,6.
  • Nylon 6:  Only one type of molecule is used in the formation of nylon 6, which also has 6 carbon atoms.  The repeat unit for type 6 nylon is made from caprolactam (also called ε-caprolactam).

Remember polyester is also a polymer (as are lots of naturally occurring things).  And like polyester, the nylon polymers are theoretically unreactive and not particularly harmful, but that’s not true of the monomers:

  • A small % of the monomers escape during production (off gassing or into water), which have environmental consequences.
  • With production expected to be over  4.4 million pounds/year by 2020, burden on water treatment facilities is immense.
  • Monomers are precipitated out during treatment, so they are present in the sludge.

The manufacture of both nylon 6,6 and nylon 6 uses cyclohexane as a precursor [1] – and cyclohexane is made from benzene, “one of the most challenging processes in the chemical industry”.[2]  Benzene is listed as a human carcinogen by the US Department of Health and Human Services.  It is associated with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), aplastic anemia, myleodysplastic syndrome (MDS), acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), and chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)[3]  The American Petroleum Institute (API) stated in 1948 that “it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero.” [[4]

But the real culprits are the generation of unwanted by-products of nylon manufacture:  ammonium sulfate [5] in the case of nylon 6 and nitrous oxide in the case of nylon 6,6.

For nylon 6, the conventional synthesis route to caprolactam uses toxic hydroxylamine (NH2OH) and, in the last two steps, concentrated sulfuric acid. Every metric ton of caprolactam produces up to 4.5 tons of ammonium sulfate as a by-product [6].  As with many chemicals now in use, there is no data to evaluate ammonium sulfate as to toxicity to humans, though it has been shown to affect development, growth and mortality in amphibians, crustaceans, fish, insects, mollusks, and other organisms.[7]

In addition, waste water generated during production of nylon-6 contains the unreacted monomer, caprolactam. Owing to the polluting and toxic nature of ε-caprolactam, “its removal from waste streams is necessary”[8]

In evaluating the chief components of nylon 6,6  (hexamethlylenediamine and adipic acid), we find a darker situation.   Hexamethlylenediamine is a  petroleum derivative,  with the usual consequences of petroleum processing. It is considered “mildly toxic”[9] (though in one study, ten administrations of 700 mg/kg to mice killed 3 of 20[10]).   But the production of the other monomer,  adipic acid,  requires the oxidation of cyclohexanol or cyclohexanone by nitric acid, a process which produces nitrous oxide (N2O) –  a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2.[11]  A study published in 1991 credits the production of nylon – and the concurrent by-product of nitrous oxide – as contributing as much as 10% to the increased observance of atmospheric N2O.[12]  And this is a great concern, so much so that there is increased talk of our “nitrogen footprint”.

Nitrogen is one of the 5 elements (the others are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus) that make life possible. It is essential for the creation of DNA, amino acids and proteins. 79% of the earth’s atmosphere is made up of nitrogen, but living things can’t use it in this form called dinitrogen (N2).  So in the nitrogen cycle, lightning  converts N2 into nitrate, which is carried to Earth by rain, where it enters the food chain.  When organisms die, bacteria recycles the nitrogen in them and it returns to the atmosphere.  Pretty elegant, isn’t it?

From: Nitrous Oxide Focus Group

But we have disrupted this nitrogen cycle.  A study by University of Virginia environmental scientist James Galloway and colleagues reported that from 1970 to 2008, world population increased by 78% and reactive nitrogen creation grew 120%.[13] The turning point, according to the International Nitrogen Initiative, came in 1909 when humans figured out how to combine hydrogen with N2 to create ammonia – which was used to produce fertilizer. Humans have introduced additional reactive nitrogen into the environment by expanding the production of soybeans, peanuts and alfalfa, (leguminous) crops which host nitrogen-fixing bacteria that convert N2 into reactive nitrogen. We use ammonia to manufacture nylon, plastics, resins, animal and fish feed supplements, and explosives. Fossil fuel burning industries and vehicles produce nitrogen emissions, and nitrogen is a component of the electronics, steel, drug, missile and refrigerant industries.

A single nitrogen molecule can cascade through the environment affecting air and water quality, human health and global warming in numerous ways(click here for a summary):

  • Runoff from agriculture—from fertilized crops fed to animals, from manure, and from biofuel and crops—enters rivers and streams and can contaminate groundwater. When nitrogen-loaded runoff makes its way to the ocean, it can result in eutrophication, where algae bloom, then die, depleting the oxygen and suffocating plants and animals. Runoff from urban areas, sewage treatment plants, and industrial wastewater also contribute to eutrophication.
  • Nitrogen is also a component of acid rain, which can acidify soils, lakes and streams. While some trees may utilize the extra nitrogen to grow, others experience foliage damage and have reduced tolerance for stress.
  • Our air quality is affected by nitrogen emissions from vehicles, fossil fuel burning industries (like coal), and the ammonia from agriculture, which cause ground-level ozone. High concentrations of ozone affect human respiratory and cardiovascular health and disrupt photosynthesis in plants.
  • Climate change is both influenced by and exacerbated by nitrogen. For example, nitrogen may stimulate plant growth, resulting in more carbon dioxide uptake in some forests.

Scientists have stressed the need to reduce fossil fuel emissions, improve wastewater treatment, restore natural nitrogen sinks in wetlands, and both reduce the use and increase the efficiency of nitrogen fertilizers. Galloway’s study also underscores the importance of better management of animal waste from the concentrated animal feeding operations that produce most of our meat today.

Another concern of using nylon is that all nylons break down in fire and form hazardous smoke.  Also smoke from burning nylon at a landfill emits the same chemicals,  typically containing  hydrogen cyanide, nitrous oxide (N2O) and dioxins[14].

Because nylon 6,6 is made from two different molecules, it is very difficult to recycle and/or repurpose.  Trying to separate and re-use them is like “trying to unbake a cake”.  However, nylon 6, because it is made from only one molecule, can easily be re-polymerized, and therin lies it’s claims to environmental superiority.  But  nylon production uses a lot of energy – about double that of polyester.  If recycling it uses about half the energy as is needed to produce virgin nylon, then recycled nylon and virgin polyester use about the same amount of energy.

Nylon 6 is becoming the new green darling of designers – but unless the recyling process captures all emissions, treats wastewater and sludge and also recaptures the energy used, the claim is tepid at best.  And nylon, unlike polyester, does degrade,  but slowly[15], giving it plenty of time to release its chemical load into our groundwater

I couldn’t find any data on the toxicity of nylon as fabric, but the government of Canada has evaluated nylon 6,6 because it is also used in cosmetics, and classified it as a “medium human health priority”; it is also on the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List.[16]  Another study found that some of the chemicals in nylon kitchen utensils migrated into food.[17]

[1] The remaining less than five percent of installed caprolactam capacity is via the cyclohexane photonitrozation process of Toray, which goes directly from cyclohexane to the oxime, or the SNIA Viscosa process, which utilizes toluene as feedstock and proceeds via oxidation-hydrogenation-nitrozation.  http://www.chemsystems.com/about/cs/news/items/PERP%200910_1_Caprolactam.cfm

[2] Villaluenga, J.P. Garcia, Tabe-Mohammadi, A., “A review on the separation of benzene/cyclohexane mixtures by pervaporation processes, Journal of Membrane Science, Vol 169, issue 2, pp. 159-174, May 2000.

[3] Smith, Martyn T. (2010). “Advances in understanding benzene health effects and susceptibility”. Ann Rev Pub Health 31: 133–48. DOI:10.1146/annurev.publhealth.012809.103646.

[4] American Petroleum Institute, API Toxicological Review, Benzene, September 1948, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Department of Health and Human Services

[6] Hoelderich, Wolfgang and Dahlhoff, Gerd, “The Greening of Nylon”, Chemical Innovation, February 2001, Vol 31, ppg. 29-40 and Weston, Charles et al, “Ammonium Compounds”, Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, June 20, 2003, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/0471238961.0113131523051920.a01.pub2/abstract

[8] Kulkarni, Rahul and Kanekar, Pradnya, “Bioremediation of e-Caprolactum from Nylon 6 waste water…” MICROBIOLOGY, Vol 37, Number 3 1997

[10] “Handbook of Toxic Properties of Monomers and Additives”, Victor O. Sheffel, CRC Press, Inc., 1995

[11] 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) by Working Group 1 (WG1), Chapter 2 “Changes in Atmospheric Constituents and in Radiative Forcing” which contains information on global warming potential (GWP) of greenhouse gases

[12] Thiemens, Mark and Trogler, William, “Nylon Production: An unknown source of atmospheric nitrous oxide”, Science, February 1991, vol 251, pp 932-934

[13] Galloway, JN, and Gruber,  “An Earth-system perspective of the global nitrogen cycle.” Nature 451, 2008, 293-296.

[15] For nylon fabric, current estimates are 30 – 40 years.

Is biomass carbon neutral?

8 05 2012

Global climate change is the major environmental issue of current times. Evidence for global climate change is accumulating and there is a growing consensus that the most important cause is humankind’s interference in the natural cycle of greenhouse gases. (Greenhouse gases get their name from their ability to trap the sun’s heat in the earth’s atmosphere – the so-called greenhouse effect.)

CO2 emissions are recognized as the most important contributor to this problem. Since the turn of the 20th century the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases has been increasing rapidly, and the two main causes have been identified as:

  1. burning of fossil fuels and
  2. land-use change, particularly deforestation.

And now the world has discovered plants.  People seem to think there is some magic in nature – that they can keep taking and things will grow back.  We can buy “carbon offsets” to mitigate our guilt – trees planted to “offset” our energy consumption for, maybe, a plane ride to Hawaii.

Because the carbon emitted when plants are burned is equal to that absorbed during growing, it seems self-evident that biomass is a zero carbon (or carbon neutral) fuel.[1]  The thinking goes like this:  Plants are busy converting CO2 to stored (“sequestered”) carbon in their branches, roots, stems and leaves – so when that plant is burned, the carbon which is released (as CO2) is replaced by another plant which is busy sequestering that carbon.

Why is burning fossil fuel – which  also releases CO2 when burned  – not considered to be carbon neutral?  As far as I can tell, it’s a matter of definition.  Today, the definition of carbon neutral means that the greenhouse gases released  by burning fuel is the same or less than the carbon that was stored in recent history (translation = plants, which grow and mature within 100 years or so, i.e., “recent history”). Releasing carbon that was stored in ancient history, such as  burning fossil fuels (which comes from plant material millions of years old)  introduces extra carbon to the environment. Because fossil fuels contain carbon that was in the environment in ancient times, by burning fossil fuels we release greenhouse gasses that wouldn’t naturally be there!

That concept took off.  Beginning with the Koyoto Protocol, which overlooked reduction targets for biomass, others embraced the concept of using biomass as a carbon neutral fuel:  the EU Emissions Trading Scheme counts biomass as “carbon neutral” as do UK Building Regulations, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the World Resources Institute –  despite the recognition that this definition is problematic.[2]  Biomass burning is being ramped up all around the world in the name of green energy.

The concept of biomass as being carbon neutral is so popular that the European Union’s energy objectives for 2020 include the requirement that 20% of the total be from renewable sources, made up from biomass such as wood, waste and agricultural crops and residues.[3]  And the biomass industry in the US asked for an exemption from the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas regulations because, it claims, biomass is carbon neutral.  In January 2011, the EPA gave them a 3 year exemption.

This loophole gives oil companies, power plants and industries that face tighter pollution limits a cheap means to claim reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. According to a number of studies, applying this incentive globally could lead to the loss of most of the world’s natural forests as carbon caps tighten.  A very frightening scenario indeed, since deforestation is responsible for up to 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – more than all cars, trains, planes, boats and trains in the world combined. [4]

I found a great blog post on this subject by Jeff Gibbs on Huffington Post Green, and I’ve relied on it for much of this post.  Here are just two of the issues:

Issue 1:  “Trees not harvested will eventually die and be decomposed by insects, fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms which will release all the carbon dioxide that burning would. This cycling process has been going on for half a billion years, long before humans had a hand in it, and will continue with or without us.”

Here’s what Jeff Gibbs has to say:

  • “Actually nature has plans for that dead tree. For one it’s food for the next generation of forest life. And it turns out trees are pretty good at transferring their CO2 to the soil rather than the atmosphere when they fall over dead. Underground roots of mushrooms called mycorrhiza digest the wood and keeps the carbon the trees had sucked from the air in the forest soil.   The proof? It’s called coal.  Millions of generations of plants and trees have taken in carbon from the air and deposited it as mountains of coal. It’s what trees and plants do. Because trees and plants took the CO2 out of the atmosphere we have the nice comfortable climate we enjoy today. It’s not their fault we’re releasing everything they worked so hard to lock away, and if we cut then down they are going to have that much more difficult of a time soaking the carbon back up.”

Issue 2:  “Carbon dioxide –  released by burning biomass – is carbon dioxide that was taken from the air as the trees grew, and the trees that replace the harvested biomass will grow by taking in carbon dioxide again.”

This is so fraught with different issues that we have to break it down into manageable segments to understand why this is not as simple as it seems:

  1.   When you cut down a fully mature, multi-ton tree, how long do you think it will be before the one-ounce sapling that replaces it will be able to replicate the carbon uptake of the multi-ton tree?  Some trees take 100 years or more to mature.  When burned for energy, a mature tree (80-100 years old) takes minutes to release its full load of carbon into the atmosphere, but its replacement, if grown, takes a full century to re-sequester that carbon. For those 100 years, the CO2 is still aloft in the atmosphere helping push the climate toward the point of dangerous change, and yet carbon accounting rules treat it as non-existent.  After the initial release of carbon sequestered in a standing forest, a well-managed forest will start re-growing and at some point in time will achieve approximately the same concentration of carbon sequestration as the original forest.  But during that time, the atmospheric concentration of heat trapping gasses has been higher than it would otherwise have been, increasing associated environmental damages, and we have foregone the sequestration that would have happened in the original forest![5]
  2.  Chopping down forests to burn for ethanol production — even if replanted as tree plantations — is like biting the hand that feeds you. “Natural forests, with their complex ecosystems, cannot be regrown like a crop of beans or lettuce,” reports the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental group. “And tree plantations will never provide the clean water, storm buffers, wildlife habitat and other ecosystem services that natural forests do.”[6]
  3.  Recent studies show that there is more biomass contained IN the soil than in what grows ON the soil above ground.   This soil carbon can be disturbed and released by harvesting and reforestation activities.[7]
  4.  In a study published by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, it was found that burning  trees emits about 30% more carbon pollution than coal, which the report calls the “carbon debt” of biomass. [8]   According to the study,  under normal forest management   it takes over 21 years just to re-absorb the extra pollution that is released in the first year of burning the wood.    Also, the energy content of biomass is about 40% lower than that of regular fossil fuels, so you need to burn more of it to get the same power, which means more CO2. (to read more about this, click here.)
  5.  It is simply not possible to plant sufficient numbers of trees to deal with the increased carbon dioxide emissions that are expected over the next half century.  According to Harpers Index, the number of years the United States could meet its energy needs by burning all its trees is … 1.
  6.  Recent evidence suggests that global warming itself is stressing ecosystems and turning forests and forest soils into failing forests and, in the long run, into net sources of CO2. Thus, if we don’t curb our use of fossil fuels, it won’t matter how many trees we plant because these forests will be overcome and die as the climate continues to warm.[9]
  7.  Old-growth forests are often replaced by tree-farm plantations that are heavily managed (including with chemicals and fossil fuel-intensive machinery) and do not offer the same biodiversity benefits as natural forests.
  8.  Investment in forestry offsets does not contribute to reducing society’s dependence on fossil fuels, something that is ultimately needed to address climate change. Responding to climate change means fundamentally changing the way we produce and use energy.
  9.  All biomass is not created equal.  According to Jeff Gibbs, some biomass plants burn old tires; others shovel in old houses and creosote soaked railroad ties. I don’t know what’s “bio” about all this but the energy you get is considered carbon neutral and renewable.

Here are Jeff Gibb’s seven truths that the Lorax would have us remember:

  1. Saving our forests (and that doesn’t mean more tree plantations) is the best way to stop global warming and save humanity.
  2. Deforestation is just as likely to result in the end of humanity as climate change and it’s right on track to do so.
  3. Burning things is the most insane way to stop global warming since doctors drilled holes in skulls to let the demons out and gave you a bill for it.
  4. There is no extra in nature and there is not enough “bio” on the planet to be burned, turned to ethanol, biodiesel or jet fuel, or bio-charcoal.
  5. Woody biomass falsely deemed renewable energy increases the CO2 in the atmosphere, destroys forests, and prevents renewables from being fully explored.
  6. Geo-engineering the forests, atmosphere or oceans to stop global warming isn’t going to work. We can’t even figure out how to stop carp from taking over a river or bugs from eating a forest.
  7. There is a possibility that the only way to heal the planet is to get control of our own numbers and consumption while letting nature do the work she has done for three billion years: run the planet.

[2] Johnson, Eric, “Goodbye to carbon neutral:  Getting Biomass footprints right”, Atlantic Consulting, Gattikon, Switzerland, November 2008.

[3] Neslan, Arthur, Guardian Environment Network, April 2, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/apr/02/eu-renewable-energy-target-biomass

[4] Greenpeace, “Solutions to Deforestation”;  http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/campaigns/forests/solutions-to-deforestation/

[5] Natural Resrouces Defense Council comments with respect to draft Policy DAR-12, June 17, 2010.

[8] “Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study”, Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, June 2010

[9] David Suzuki Foundation, Ibid.