Why use organic fabrics for your new baby?

5 10 2011

Illnesses — including remarkable combinations of symptoms — are on the rise.

  • Over the past 50 years, there has been a steady increase in the incidence of children developing cancer[1], asthma[2], attention deficit disorders[3], allergies[4], autoimmune disorders[5],  and others.

So too are the numbers of chemicals getting mixed inside us (studies have shown that babies are born pre-polluted)[6].   Chemicals accumulate, interact within the body, cause illness.

  • This is due to industrial chemicals being used in products that weren’t even formulated prior to about 1950.  Our children are subjected to an endless barrage of artificial pathogens that tax their systems to the max.

Is there a connection between the rise in illnesses and products you use in your home?


  • But inadequate data exists regarding the chronic (long term, low level) health risks of most chemicals, and proving an absolute link between chemicals and these disorders isn’t easy, because in most cases it’s a slow-brewing condition that can smolder for decades before symptoms appear.  Furthermore, the timing of toxic exposure plays a much more significant role than previously recognized – babies exposed during critical periods of development often have a more severe reaction than those exposed at other times.

The chemicals used in textile processing are among the most toxic known, yet the fabrics themselves are often overlooked as a source of pollution.

Using organic products (like fabrics) is especially important for children, because children tend to be more influenced by their environment than adults.  Children are still developing, and many of these developmental processes are very sensitive to environmental contaminants, which can easily disrupt development.  Also, children take in much more of their environment relative to their body weight.   This amount, called the dose, has a much greater effect on children than on the adults around them, because children’s bodies are much smaller.  And finally, children tend to come in contact with environmental contaminants more often than adults do, simply because of their habits – like the two year olds who put everything in their mouths, or toddlers who spend a lot of time in the dust on the floor, where contaminants collect.

In outfitting your nursery, you see lots of information about baby products – lotions, powders, foods.  But please remember that there are other products that impact your child’s health, such as mattresses and fabrics.  You almost never hear somebody mention fabrics as a source of pollution – are they really so important?  Remembering that new studies are demonstrating that even nano doses of chemicals can contribute to disease over time, there are also many studies which specifically linked diseases to chemicals found in textiles:

  • In 2007, The National Institutes of health and the University of Washington released the findings of a 14 year study that demonstrates those who work with textiles were significantly more likely to die from an autoimmune disease than people who didn’t.[7]
  • A study by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found a link in textile workers between length of exposure to formaldehyde and leukemia deaths.[8]
  • Women who work in textile factories with acrylic fibers have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than does the normal population.[9]
  • Studies have shown that if children are exposed to lead, either in the womb or in early childhood, their brains are likely to be smaller.[10] Note:  lead is a common component in textile dyestuffs.
  • Many of the chemicals found in fabrics (which are, after all, about 27% synthetic chemicals, by weight) are known to have negative health effects, such as:
    • Disruptions during development (including autism, which now occurs in 1 of every 110 births in the US); attention deficit disorders (ADD) and hyperactivity (ADHD).   Chemicals commonly used in textiles which contribute:
  • Breathing difficulties, including asthma ( in children under 5 asthma has increased 160%  between 1980-1994[11])  and allergies. Chemicals used in textiles which contribute:
    • Formaldehyde, other aldehydes
    • Benzene, toluene
    • phthalates
  • Cancer  –  all childhood cancers have grown at about 1% per year for the past two decades[12]; the environmental attributable fraction of childhood cancer can be between 5% and 90%, depending on the type of cancer[13].  Chemicals linked to cancers, all of which are used in textile processing:
    • Formaldehyde
    • Lead, cadmium
    • Pesticides
    • Benzene
    • Vinyl chloride

So how do you try to limit your child’s exposure to this chemical contamination?

  • Our #1 recommendation is to use only natural fiber fabrics, rather than synthetics (including those ubiquitous cotton/poly blends), which are petroleum based and made entirely of toxic chemicals.   On top of that, synthetics are highly flammable.  So ditch the synthetics.
  • And don’t think that a fabric made of “organic cotton” is safe, because that doesn’t address the question of processing, where all the chemical contamination occurs.  If you use natural fibers, try to find GOTS  or Oeko Tex certified fabrics.
  • Don’t buy clothing or bedding (or anything made of fabric) that has a stain resistant or wrinkle resistant finish on it:  stain resistant finishes contain perfluorochemicals (Teflon, Scotchguard, Stainmaster, Crypton, Nanotex, Gore-Tex) and wrinkle resistant finishes use formaldehyde.
  • Crib mattresses are often made of polyurethane foam enclosed in vinyl covers.  These plastic products are made by combining highly toxic chemicals together to form the final material. When your child is asleep, every breath pulls in air that is literally inches away from the petroleum chemical materials used in the manufacturing of the bed itself.  With each breath, these chemical molecules are pulled across the child’s airways and then transferred to the blood from deep within the lungs. This process is repeated with each breath 365 nights a year.[14]
    Best choice:  Buy a natural latex core covered in organic GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabric.
  • Sleepwear, bedding, even curtains and upholstery fabric – because they’re  made of fabric!  Why should you use organic fabrics – not just fabrics made with organic fibers –  for your baby?  The skin is the largest organ of the body and the skin allows many chemicals to pass into your baby through absorption.  Also, a baby’s skin is thinner and more permeable than an adult’s skin.  Not to mention the fact that many chemicals evaporate, to be breathed in.   Best choice:  GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabrics.
  • Diapers – first choice would be organic diapers made of natural fibers (GOTS or Oeko Tex certified) – even though it probably means you’ll have to do the diaper laundering.   Hey, there are worse things.

[1] Reinberg,
“US Cancer Rates Continue to Fall”, Business Week, March 31, 2011; all
childhood cancers have grown at about 1% per year for the past two decades[1]

Type 1 diabetes has increased fivefold in past 40 years, in children 4 and
under, it’s increasing 6% per year. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/14/AR2008031403386.html

Goodman, Sarah,  “Tests Find More than
200 Chemicals in Newborn Umbilical Cord Blood”, Scientific American, December,

Nakazawa, Donna Jackson, “Diseases Like Mine Are a Growing Hazard”, Washington
, March 16, 2008.

Pinkerton, LE, Hein, MJ and Stayner, LT, “Mortality among a cohort of garment
workers exposed to formaldehyde: an update”, Occupational Environmental
Medicine, 2004 March, 61(3): 193-200.

Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi:
10.1136/oem.2009.049817  SEE ALSO:  http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp  AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321

Dietrich, KN et al, “Decreased Brain Volume in Adults with Childhood Lead
Exposure”, PLoS Med 2008 5(5): e112.

[13] Gouveia-Vigeant,
Tami and Tickner, Joel,  “Toxic Chemicals
and Childhood Cancer:  a review of the
evidence”, U of Massachusetts, May 2003

[14] http://www.chem-tox.com/beds/frame-beds.htm.  See also “Respiratory Toxicity of mattress
emissions in mice”, Archives of Environmental health, 55 (1): 38-43, 2000.

What about soil resistant finishes like Scotchgard, GoreTex, NanoTex and GreenShield – are they safe?

10 02 2010

Last week I promised to take a look at soil and stain repellant finishes to see how each is applied and/or formulated.  Some of these trademarked finishes claim impeccable green credentials, so it’s important that we are able to evaluate their claims – or at least know the jargon!  The chemistry here, as I said in last week’s post, is dense.  The important thing to remember about all these finishes is that they all depend on flurocarbon based chemistry to be effective.

The oldest water repellant finishes for fabrics were simply coatings of paraffin or wax – and they generally washed out eventually.  Perfluorochemicals (PFC’s) are the only chemicals capable of repelling water, oil and other liquids that cause stains. Fabrics finished with PFCs have nonstick properties; this family of chemicals is used in almost all the stain repellant finishes on the market today.  Other materials can be made to perform some of these functions but suffer when subjected to oil and are considerably less durable.

The earliest type of stain resistant finish (using these PFCs)  prevented the soil from penetrating the fiber by coating  the fiber. For use on a textile, the chemicals are joined onto binders (polyurethane or acrylic) that acts as a glue to stick them to the surface of the fabric.  Gore Tex is one of these early coatings – a thin film was laminated onto the fabric; another, manufactured by 3M Corporation for nearly 50 years,  is Scotchgard.   Scotchgard was so popular and became so ubiquitous that “Scotchgard” entered the language as a verb.  

The chemical originally used to make Scotchgard and Gore Tex breaks down into perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, a man-made substance that is part of the family of perfluorochemicals.   PFOS and PFOA have chains of eight carbon atoms; the group of materials related to PFOA and PFOS is called C8 –  this is often referred to as “C8 chemistry”.

An aside on C8 chemistry:

If you recall from last week’s post, the PFC family consists of molecules having a carbon backbone, fully surrounded by fluorine.  Various “cousins” have carbon backbones of different lengths:  PFOS or C8, for example,  has 8 carbon atoms, C7 has 7, and so on.  There is controversy today  about  the so-called  “bad” fluorocarbons (C8 ) and the “good” ones (C6) which I’ll address below.

C8  –  (the backbone  is made of a chain of 8 carbon atoms):  two methods are used to produce two slightly different products:

1)     electrofluorination:  uses electrolysis to replace hydrogen atoms in a molecule by fluorine atoms to create the 8 unit chain containing just carbon and fluorine.  A small amount of PFOS (perfluorooctane sulphonate) is created during this process.

2)     Telomerisation:  chemical equivalent of making a daisy chain: produces mini polymers by joining single units together in chains.  The usual aim is to produce chains that are an average of 8 units long, but the process is not perfect and a range of chain length will result – ranging from 4 units to 14 units in length. So you can have a C4, C6, C12, etc. In this method a small amount of byproduct called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) is produced.

C6 – this chemistry produces a by-product called PFHA (perfluorohexanoic acid), which  is supposed to be 40 times less bioaccumulative than PFOA.  But it’s also less effective, so more of the chemical has to be used to achieve the same result.  Manufacturers are trying to find smaller and smaller perfluorocarbon segments in their products, and even C4 has been used.  The smaller the fluorocarbon, the more rapidly it breaks down in the environment.  Unfortunatley, the desired textile performance goes down as the size of the perfluorocarbon goes down. “C6 is closest chemically to C8, but it contains no PFOA. It breaks down in the environment – a positive trait – but it doesn’t stick as well to outerwear and it doesn’t repel water and oil as well as C8, which means it falls short of meeting a vague industry standard, as well as individual company standards for durability and repellency.”[1]

Back to Scotchgard:

Scientists noticed that PFOS (the C8 fluorocarbon) began showing up everywhere: in polar bears, dolphins, baby eagles, tap water and human blood. So did its C8 cousin PFOA.   These two man-made perfluorochemicals (PFOS and PFOA) don’t decompose in nature. They kill laboratory rats at higher doses, and there are potential links to tissue problems, developmental delays and some forms of cancer.  Below are tables of results which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released from data collected by 3M and DuPont; some humans have more PFOA in their blood than the estimated levels in animals in this study.  For a complete review of this study, see the Environmental Working Group’s website, http://www.ewg.org/node/21726.

PFOA and PFOS, according to the U.S. EPA:

  • Are very persistent in the environment.
  • Are found at very low levels both in the environment and in the blood of the U.S. population.
  • Remain in people for a very long time.
  • Cause developmental and other adverse effects in laboratory animals.

Eventually 3M discontinued Scotchgard production.  Yet accounts differ as to whether 3M voluntarily phased out the problematic C8 chemistry or was pressured into it by the EPA after the company shared its data in late 1999.  Either way, the phase-out was begun in December 2000, although 3M still makes small amounts of PFOA for its own use in Germany. 3M, which still monitors chemical plants in Cottage Grove, Decatur, and Antwerp, Belgium, insists there are no risks for employees who handled or were exposed to the chemicals.  Minnesota Public Radio published a timeline for milestones in 3M’s Scotchgard, which can be accessed here.

The phase-out went unnoticed by most consumers as 3M rapidly substituted another, less-effective spray for consumers, and began looking for a reformulated Scotchgard for carpet mills, apparel and upholstery manufacturers.   For its substitute, 3M settled on perfluorobutane sulfonate, or PFBS, a four-carbon cousin of the chemical in the old Scotchgard, as the building block for Scotchgard’s new generation. This new C4-based Scotchgard is completely safe, 3M says. The company adds that it has worked closely with the EPA and has performed more than 40 studies, which are confidential. Neither 3M nor the EPA will release them.

According to 3M, the results show that under federal EPA guidelines, PFBS isn’t toxic and doesn’t accumulate the way the old chemical did. It does persist in the environment, but 3M concluded that isn’t a problem if it isn’t accumulating or toxic. PFBS can enter the bloodstream of people and animals but “it’s eliminated very quickly” and does no harm at typical very low levels, said Michael Santoro, 3M’s director of Environmental Health, Safety & Regulatory Affairs. 3M limits sales to applications where emissions are low.

3M says convincing consumers Scotchgard is safe is not its No. 1 challenge; rather it’s simply getting the new, new Scotchgard out. The brand, 3M maintains, is untarnished. “This issue of safety, oddly enough, never registered on the customers’ radar screen,” said Michael Harnetty, vice president of 3M’s protective-materials division.

Scotchgard remains a powerful brand:  “We still get really good requests like, ‘Will you Scotchgard this fabric with Teflon?’ ” said Robert Beaty, V.P. of Sales for The Synthetic Group, a large finishing house.[2]

Another early soil resistant finish is Teflon, which was produced by DuPont.  Teflon is based on C8 chemistry, and PFOA is a byproduct of the manufacturing of fluorotelomers used in the Teflon chemistry.

There has been a lot of information on 3M, DuPont and these two products, Scotchgard and Teflon, on the web.  The Environmental Working Group  http://www.ewg.org/ has detailed descriptions of what these chemicals do to us, as well as the information on the many suits, countersuits, and research studies.  The companies say their new reformulated products are entirely safe – and other groups such as the Environmental Working Group, question this assumption.

By the way, both DuPont and 3M advertise their products as being “water based” – and they are, but that’s not the point and doesn’t address the critical issues.  In TerraChoice’s “Seven Sins of Greenwashing” this would be considered Sin #5: the sin of irrelevance, which is:  “An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. ‘CFC-free’ is a common example, since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law.”

In January 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approached the eight largest fluorocarbon producers and requested their participation in the 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program, and their commitment to reduce PFOA and related chemicals globally in both facility emissions and product content 95 percent by 2010, and 100 percent by 2015.

The fluoropolymer manufacturers are improving their processes and reducing their waste in order to reduce the amount of PFOA materials used. The amount  of PFOA in finishing formulations is greatly diminished and continues to go down, but even parts per trillion are detectable. Finishing formulators continue to evaluate new materials which can eliminate PFOA while maintaining performance but a solution is still over the horizon.  One critical piece in this puzzel is that PFOA is also produced indirectly through the gradual breakdown of fluorotelomers – so a stain resistant finish may be formulated with no detectable amounts of PFOA yet STILL produce PFOA when the chemicals begin to decompose.

Recently a new dimension was added to stain resistant formulations, and that is the use of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is defined as the precise manipulation of individual atoms and molecules to create layered structures. In the world of nanoscience, ordinary materials display unique properties at the nanoscale.  The basic premise is that properties can dramatically change when a substance’s size is reduced to the nanometer range. For example, ceramics which are normally brittle can be deformable when their size is reduced. In bulk form, gold is inert, however, once broken down into small clusters of atoms it becomes highly reactive.

Like any new technology, nanomaterials carry with them potential both for good and for harm. The most salient worries concern not apocalyptic visions,  but rather the more prosaic and likely possibility that some of these novel materials may turn out to be hazardous to our health or the environment.  As John D. Young and Jan Martel report in “The Rise and Fall of Nanobacteria,” even naturally occurring nanoparticulates can have an deleterious effect on the human body. If natural nanoparticulates can harm us, we would be wise to carefully consider the possible actions of engineered nanomaterials.  The size of nanoparticles also means that they can more readily escape into the environment and infiltrate deep into internal organs such as the lungs and liver. Adding to the concern, each nanomaterial is unique. Although researchers have conducted a number of studies on the health risks of individual materials, this scattershot approach cannot provide a comprehensive picture of the hazards—quantitative data on what materials, in what concentrations, affect the body over what timescales.

As a result of these concerns, in September, 2009,  the U.S. EPA  announced a study of the health and environmental effects of nanomaterials – a step many had been advocating for years.  And this isn’t happening any too soon:  more than 1,000 consumer products containing nanomaterials are available in the U.S. and more are added every day.

And nanotechnology has been used for textiles in many ways: at the fiber as well as the fabric level, providing an extraordinary array of nano-enabled textile products (most commonly nanofibers, nanocomposite fibers and nanocoated fibers)  – as well as in soil and stain resistance.

For scientists who were trying to apply nanotechnology to textile soil and stain repellency, they turned, as is often the case in science, to nature:  Studying the surface of lotus leaves, which have an incredible ability to repel water, scientists noticed that the surface of the lotus leaf appears smooth but is actually rough and naturally dirt and water repellent. The rough surface reduces the ability of water to spread out. Tiny crevices in the leaf’s surface trap air, preventing the water droplets from adhering to the service. As droplets roll off the surface they pick up particles of dirt lying in their path. Using this same concept, scientists developed a nanotechnology based finish that forms a similar structure on the fibers surface. Fabrics can be cleaned by simply rinsing with water.

Nano-Tex (www.nano-tex.com) was the first commercially available nanoparticle based soil repellant fabric finish.  It debuted in December of 2000.  Another nanotech based soil repellant is GreenShield (www.greenshieldfinish.com) which debuted in 2007. Both these finishes, although they use nanotechnology, also base their product on fluorocarbon chemistry.  Nano-Tex’s website does not give much information about their formulation – basically they only say that it’s a new technology that “fundamentally transforms each fiber through nanotechnology”.  You won’t get much more in the way of technical specifications out of Nano-Tex.   GreenShield is much more forthcoming with information about their process.

In the GreenShield finishes, the basic nanoparticle is amorphous silica, an inert material that has a well-established use in applications involving direct human consumption, and is generally recognized as safe and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency for such applications.  The use of silica enables GreenShield to reduce the amount of flurocarbons by a factor of 8 or more from all other finishes and it reduces overall chemical load by a factor of three – making GreenShield the finish which uses the least amount of these flurocarbons.

The GreenShield finish gets mixed environmental ratings, however.   Victor Innovatix’s Eco Intelligent Polyester fabrics with GreenShield earned a Silver rating in the Cradle to Cradle program. However, the same textile without the GreenShield finish (or any finish) earned a higher Gold rating, reflecting the risk of toxicity introduced to the product by GreenShield. Information on product availability is at www.victor-innovatex.com.

[1]PFOA Puzzle – Textile Insights — http://www.textileinsight.com/articles.php?id=37

[2] Bjorhus, Jennifer, “Scotchgard is Attractive Again”, St. Paul Pioneer Press, May 27, 2003