How to buy safe fabric

24 02 2012

Design decisions influence our health.  Our children start life with umbilical cords infused with chemicals that affect the essence of human life itself  –   the ability to learn, reason and reproduce.  Google’s project coordinator for real estate, Anthony Ravitz, said that Google is trying to use safe building materials because:

  • By focusing on the “health and vitality” of their employees, they can avoid illness
  • –  because healthcare is costly.

One of the presenters at last year’s Living Building Challenge, inspired by writer Michael Pollan’s Food Rules,  shared a list of ways to choose products that remove the worst of the chemical contamination that plagues many products. 

These rules apply to all products, including fabrics, so I’ve just edited them a bit to be fabric specific:

  • If it is cheap, it probably has hidden costs.
  • If it starts as a toxic input (like ethylene glycol in the manufacture of polyester), you probably don’t want it in your house or office.
  • Use materials made from substances you can imagine in their raw or natural state.
  • Use carbohydrate-based materials (i.e., natural fibers) when you can.
  • Just because almost anything can kill you doesn’t mean fabrics should.
  • Pay more, use less.
  • Consult your nose – if it stinks, don’t use it.
  • If they can’t tell you what’s in it, you probably don’t want to live with it. (note: this is not just the fibers used to weave the fabric – did the processing use specific chemicals, like heavy metals in the dyestuff, or formaldehyde in the finish?)
  • Avoid materials that are pretending to be something they are not.
  • Question materials that make health claims.
  • Regard space-age materials with skepticism.
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What do you get when you hire an interior designer?

3 11 2010

I just came from showing our fabrics to a well-known interior design firm here in Seattle.   We were told that the only criteria they use to pick fabrics is that it must be beautiful – and of the right color.    Environmental and safety issues are just NOT part of the equation.

The visit was not completely a disaster because they did show interest in some of our fabrics – based solely on the beauty and coloration.  But I’ve been thinking since then about the responsibility  designers have to provide interiors for their clients which are not only beautiful, but which will not cause harm.  I know people don’t really want to think that the cute baby blanket they’re eyeing will cause a genetic malformation in their little one – or that a chemical in that blanket  will spark a cancer that only shows up 20 years from now.  So it’s easy to ignore the problem.

On top of the goal of making their client’s interior spaces safe, there is the additional problem of what THEIR choices do me and MY family – because by choosing certain fabrics they’re  ensuring that those fabrics will continue to be produced:  those choices ensure that the textile effluent is still being poured into my groundwater, and the sludge is still sent to the landfill, where it leaches the chemicals into the soils and groundwater.

Designers can continue to ignore the misery their choices may cause – at least for now.  But I think we should know what they’re doing, so I did a quick study to see what kind of effect fabric may have on us and the planet.

Let’s assume a designer orders fabric to cover one sofa, two chairs and enough fabric for drapery in a living room.  We’ll assume the amount of fabric needed would be:

  • 20 yards of upholstery fabric for the sofa, and 7 yards for each of the chairs:  34 yards of  fabric which weighs18 oz per square yard and is 54” wide (total weight: 57.4 lbs);
  • 40 yards of drapery weight fabric at 10 oz per square yard, 54” wide (total weight: 37.5 lbs).

It takes between 13 – 14 gallons of water to produce one pound of natural fiber fabric, and it takes between 6 – 8 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of polyester fabric.

If we use the 8 gallon figure which is at the top of the polyester range but low for natural fibers, the total amount of water used to produce this fabric would have been at least 759 gallons.  To put that in perspective, there are about 300 gallons in a large hot tub.

Consider that it takes between 10% and 100% of the weight of the fabric  IN CHEMICALS to produce that fabric – for detergents, bleaches, dyes, finishes, scours, optical brighteners, wetting agents, biocides – the list is at least 2,000 chemicals long.   But to be a tad conservative,  let’s say it takes just 50% of the weight of the fabric in chemicals to produce the fabrics for our room.   If the process water (from sizing, desizing, scouring, dyeing, printing and finishing)  was returned to our ecosystem without treatment – that means that 47 pounds of chemicals will have been introduced into our ecosystem.  Most of the process chemicals are not toxic to us, but remember the concept of reactive chemistry:  many of the chemicals used, though benign themselves, will react with other chemicals to create a third substance which is toxic.  This reaction can occur during the production of the fibers (in the case of synthetics), during the manufacturing process, or at end of life (i.e., burning at the landfill, decomposing or biodegrading).

But there are chemicals used in processing which are toxic – just as they are.  Some of the chemicals expelled in the wastewater DO pose a threat to my health – and that list includes (but is not limited to):

  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s) , known to cause damage to the brains of newborns (among many other things); they’re persistent and bioaccumulative;
  • Benzenes and benzidines:  highly carcinogenic
  • Phthalates:          known to cause breast  cancer and asthma
  • Arsenic:                carcinogen
  • Lead:                     attacks the nervous system
  • Mercury:             attacks the immune system, alters genetic data and damages nervous system
  • Chlorine (sodium hypochlorite):                  hormonal disruption, infertility and immune system suppression.

These chemicals are all dumped into our environment every day.   Remember, as David Suzuki reminds us, we ARE the environment.  What is “out there” inevitably is found inside us.  That’s why PBDE’s (which are persistent in the environment – meaning they don’t break down into benign, less toxic components)  are found in animals worldwide, from penguins in the Arctic to hummingbirds in the tropics – and levels have been doubling every 3 to 5 years for the past three decades.   (you can read more about PBDE’s and the furniture in your homes here ).  We are silently and progressively changing the chemistry of our bodies.

And lest you think you can ignore what unscrupulous mill practices are doing to our environment by discharging untreated effluent – remember that the fabric you bring into your home and live with intimately  is also suffused with these chemicals.  Everybody is concerned about “outgassing” – the media is full of information about Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).  But air quality is just one component of a healthy environment.  Not all chemicals volatilize, so they do not “outgass” – but are certainly toxic nevertheless.  Take lead, for example – a component of many dyestuffs, lead is not a gas at room temperature so it does not “outgass”.  But microscopic particles of your fabric do abrade when you rub against them, and these particles settle into the dust in our homes, to be breathed in by crawling kids and pets.

And designers are hired, presumably, for their expertise.   The designer should not be a mindless  agent following a vision without regard to function or use.  Theoretically, the designer has a body of knowledge that is deeper than the client’s, so an ethical burden is placed on the designer.  The client can plead ignorance of the issues but the designer cannot.  According to Daniel Yang,  good design seeks to foster the client’s trust, then fulfills or exceeds her expectations.  Designers should advocate for a better design while striving to make the best product they can for their clients.  But how can a product be considered “good” if it compromises that clients health and well being?  Daniel Yang points out that it’s hard to advocate for a product when the people that end up consuming the product will probably never come back to complain – as is the case with fabrics.

So I wish I could go back to those designers who look only at color and aesthetics and point out that their thoughtless choice are harming not only their clients, but me and my family – all of us.  And that they should consider these questions if they want to save their professional souls –  or to save their professional license,  as many are suggesting that the law might  soon mandate that designers consider the public welfare when specifying products.





Is Ultrasuede® a “green” fabric?

8 09 2010

In 1970, Toray Industries colleagues Dr. Toyohiko Hikota and Dr. Miyoshi Okamoto created the world’s first micro fiber as well as the process to combine those fibers with a polyurethane foam into a non-woven structure – which the company trademarked as Ultrasuede®.

In April 2009,  Toray announced “a new  environmentally responsible line of products which are based on innovative recycling technology”, called EcoDesign™.    An EcoDesign™ product, according to the company press release, “captures industrial materials, such as scrap polyester films, from the Toray manufacturing processes and recycles them for use in building high-quality fibers and textiles.”

One of the first EcoDesign™ products to be introduced by Toray is a variety of their Ultrasuede®  fabrics.

So I thought we’d take a look at Ultrasuede® to see what we thought of their green claims.

The overriding reason Toray’s EcoDesign™ products are supposed to be environmentally “friendly” is because recycling postindustrial polyesters reduces both energy consumption and CO2 emissions by an average of 80% over the creation of virgin polyesters, according to Des McLaughlin, executive director of Toray Ultrasuede (America).   (Conventional recycling of polyesters generally state energy savings of between 33% – 53%.)

If that is the only advance in terms of environmental stewardship, we feel it falls far short of being considered an enlightened choice.  If we just look at the two claims made by the company:

  1. Re: energy reduction:  If we take the average energy needed to produce 1 KG of virgin polyester, 125 MJ[1], and reduce it by 80% (Toray’s claim), that means it takes 25 MJ to produce 1 KG of Ultrasuede® –  still far more energy than is needed to produce 1 KG of organic hemp (2 MJ), linen (10 MJ), or cotton (12 MJ).
  2. CO2 emissions are just one of the emissions issues – in addition to CO2, polyester production generates particulates, N2O, hydrocarbons, sulphur oxides and carbon monoxide,[2] acetaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane (also potentially carcinogenic).[3]

But in addition to these claims, the manufacture of this product creates many concerns which the company does not address, such as:

  1. Polyurethane, a component of Ultrasuede®, is the most toxic plastic known next to PVC; its manufacture creates numerous hazardous by-products, including phosgene (used as a lethal gas during WWII), isosyanates (known carcinogens), toluene (teratogenic and embryotoxic) and ozone depleting gases methylene chloride and CFC’s.
  2. Most polyester is produced using antimony as a catalyst.  Antimony is a carcinogen, and toxic to the heart, lungs, liver and skin.  Long term inhalation causes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.  So, recycled  – or not –  the antimony is still present.
  3. Ethylene glycol (EG) is a raw material used in the production of polyester.  In the United States alone, an estimated 1 billion lbs. of spent ethylene glycol is generated each year.  The EG distillation process creates 40 million pounds of still bottom sludge. When incinerated, the sludge produces 800,000 lbs of fly ash containing antimony, arsenic and other metals.[4] What does Toray do with it’s EG sludge?
  4. The major water-borne emissions from polyester production include dissolved solids, acids, iron and ammonia.  Does Toray treat its water before release?
  5. And remember, Ultrasuede®  is still  . . .plastic.  Burgeoning evidence about the disastrous consequences of using plastic in our environment continues to mount.  A new compilation of peer reviewed articles, representing over 60 scientists from around the world, aims to assess the impact of plastics on the environment and human health [5]and they found:
    1. Chemicals added to plastics are absorbed by human bodies.   Some of these compounds have been found to alter hormones or have other potential human health effects.
    2. Synthetics do not decompose:  in landfills they release heavy metals, including antimony, and other additives into soil and groundwater.  If they are burned for energy, the chemicals are released into the air.
  1. Nor does it take into consideration our alternative choices:  that using an organic fiber supports organic agriculture, which may be one of our most underestimated tools in the fight against climate change, because it:
    1. Acts as a carbon sink:   new research has shown that what is IN the soil itself (microbes and other soil organisms in healthy soil) is more important in sequestering carbon that what grows ON the soil.  And compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years)  demonstrates that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions. [6]
    2. eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which is  an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity
    3. conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion)
    4. ensures sustained biodiversity

Claiming that the reclamation and use of their own internally generated scrap is an action to be applauded may be a bit disingenuous.   It is simply the company doing what most companies should do as efficient operations:  cut costs by re-using their own scrap. They are creating a market for their otherwise un-useable scrap polyester from other operations such as the production of polyester film.  This is a good step by Toray, but to anoint it as the most sustainable choice or even as a true sustainable choice at all is  premature. Indeed we have pointed in prior blog posts that there are many who see giving “recycled polyester” a veneer of environmentalism by calling it a green option is one of the reasons plastic use has soared:     indeed plastic use has increased by a factor of 30 since the 1960s while recycling plastic has only increased by a factor of 2. [7] We cannot condone the use of this synthetic, made from an inherently non-renewable resource, as a green choice for the many reasons given above.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again:  The trend to eco consciousness in textiles represents major progress in reclaiming our stewardship of the earth, and in preventing preventable human misery.  You have the power to stem the toxic stream caused by the production of fabric. If you search for and buy an eco-textile, you are encouraging a shift to production methods that have the currently achievable minimum detrimental effects for either the planet or for your health. You, as a consumer, are very powerful. You have the power to change harmful production practices. Eco textiles do exist and they give you a greener, healthier, fair-trade alternative.

What will an eco-textile do for you? You and the frogs and the world’s flora and fauna could live longer, and be healthier – and in a more just, sufficiently diversified, more beautiful world.


[1]“Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, by Cherrett et al, Stockholm Enviornemnt Institute

[2] “Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, by Cherrett et al, Stockholm Environment Institute

[3] Gruttner, Henrik, Handbook of Sustainable Textile Purchasing, EcoForum, Denmark, August 2006.

[4] Sustainable Textile Development at Victor,  http://www.victor-innovatex.com/doc/sustainability.pdf

[5] “Plastics, the environment and human health”, Thompson, et al, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, July 27, 2009

[6] http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/Rodale_Research_Paper-07_30_08.pdf

[7] http://www.edf.org/documents/1889_SomethingtoHide.pdf and http://discovermagazine.com/2009/oct/21-numbers-plastics-manufacturing-recycling-death-landfill





Why should I choose an organic fabric when I have to put an FR treatment on it anyway?

9 05 2009

The questions is whether it’s a better choice to use inherently flame retardant fabrics such as AvoraFR rather than a natural fiber (like cotton) which has been doused with toxic FR chemicals.  The answer is complicated and like most in this emerging green area, there may be no “best” answer.  We think the answers may lie in the tradeoffs we have to make.  But we’ve got an opinion, and it’s based on the following reasoning:

Fabrics which are inherently flame retardant are synthetics which have been changed at the molecular level to make the fabrics thermally stable and able to pass commercial flame tests.   Some petroleum-based synthetic fibers, such as Avora FR, Trevira CS and Lenzing FR viscose – add a flame retardant to the chemical treatment before polymer extrusion rather than change the molecular structure of the polymer.  This process builds the chemical treatment into the backbone of the polyester rather than adding it later to the finished product.  It is presumed to be less likely to expose the occupants to chemicals.

So how do you compare the two?

When comparing the synthetic with a natural fiber, we think it’s important to look at the carbon footprint of the fibers.  A synthetic like polyester requires much more energy to produce a ton of fiber than does conventional cotton – in megajoules (MJ) of energy the difference is about four times: 126,000 MJ polyester vs. 33,000 MJ for conventional cotton.  Organic cotton is even less:  only 16,000MJ.

It’s important to look at how these fibers are woven into fabric.  (And that’s a different set of carbon calculations).  If the polyester or the cotton is produced conventionally, the finished fabric has residuals of many chemicals which have been proven to harm human health.  The majority of Americans mistakenly believes that the government tests chemicals used in consumer products to ensure safety, accoring to an opinion poll released by the Washington Toxics Coalition.  However, under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), there is no legal requirements to test most chemicals for health effects, including impacts on neurological development, at any stage of production, marketing and use.  An organic fabric is one which has not used any of the many chemicals used in textile production which are known to be toxic.

So looking at two fabrics (even if one polyester fabric is produced using optimized production methods – i.e., avoiding the toxic chemicals) the organic cotton (or better yet, hemp or linen) fabric is one I’d rather live with.  But fire kills many people every year and we have reason to keep fire codes in place in public spaces.  So the issue focuses on the chemistry used to fire retard the fabrics.

Natural fibers must have a topical FR treatment applied after manufacture.  In the past, these treatments were based on halogenated chemistry, like PBDEs.  The industry is moving away from these chemicals and most have been banned, but decaBDE is still allowed in the US.  With careful attention and questioning of your supplier, you can have a natural fiber fabric that has an FR treatment which meets all codes – and which is not persisten, bioaccumulative and compromises your health.

So now the question becomes how dothe two fibers react in actual fires?

An important thing to remember about synthetics is that they do not burn, they melt.  That’s why protective clothing (firemen, police, rescue) is not made of synthetics – even inherently fire retardant synthetics – because the melting fabric would cause severe burns.

Another issue (and one we think is most important) is that the smoke created by burning or melting fabrics.   Conventionally produced fabrics (natural fiber or synthetic) release chemicals which add an extra dimension to the already toxic smoke.

https://i1.wp.com/noburn.com/images/picture3.jpg

So where do we stand?

  • With a carbon footprint of 16,000 MJ vs 126,000 MJ (organic cotton vs. polyester) to make the fiber and
  • with organic fabrics having little or none of the chemicals which have been proven to harm human health and
  • because of the ability to use a nonhalogenated FR treatment on an organic fabric and
  • in the case of a fire, not having to breathe toxic fumes from melting synthetics or conventionally produced fabrics

is there really a choice?





About pre polluted children

17 03 2009

The Environmental Working Group has a new campaign, to gather support for the new Kid Safe Chemicals Act.  To understand what the fuss is all about, we’ve copied the page from the EWGs web site, below, but you can go to http://www.ewg.org/kidsafe and see what you can do to help.  There is a declaration you can sign in support of the bill as well as lots of information.  This legislation is sorely needed in the US – Europe has already passed it’s own REACH legislation, which mandates replacing approximately 2,000 known toxic chemicals with more benign models.

KID SAFE CHEMICALS ACT:

“The nation’s toxic chemical regulatory law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, is in drastic need of reform. Passed in 1976 and never amended since, TSCA is widely regarded as the weakest of all major environmental laws on the books today.

When passed, the Act declared safe some 62,000 chemicals already on the market, even though there were little or no data to support this policy. Since that time another 20,000 chemicals have been put into commerce in the United States, also with little or no data to support their safety.

The human race is now polluted with hundreds of industrial chemicals with little or no understanding of the consequences. Babies are born pre-polluted with as many as 300 industrial chemicals in their bodies when they enter the world. Testing by Environmental Working Group has identified 455 chemicals in people, and again, no one has any idea if these exposures are safe.

We are at a tipping point, where the pollution in people is increasingly associated with a range of serious diseases and conditions from childhood cancer, to autism, ADHD, learning deficits, infertility, and birth defects. Yet even as our knowledge about the link between chemical exposure and human disease grows, the government has almost no authority to protect people from even the most hazardous chemicals on the market.

The Campaign: Pass the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act

This pollution in people is the direct result of a statute that does not require chemicals to be proven safe to get on the market, or stay on the market. Under federal law EPA does not have the authority to demand the information it needs to evaluate a chemical’s risk, and neither manufacturers nor the EPA are required to prove a chemical’s safety as a condition of use.

The Kid-Safe Chemical Act will change all this through a fundamental overhaul of our nation’s chemical regulatory law. Specifically, the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act:

  • requires that industrial chemicals be safe for infants, kids and other vulnerable groups;
  • requires that new chemicals be safety tested before they are sold;
  • requires chemical manufacturers to test and prove that the 62,000 chemicals already on the market that have never been tested are safe in order for them to remain in commerce;
  • requires EPA to review “priority” chemicals, those which are found in people, on an expedited schedule; babybath.jpg
  • requires regular biomonitoring to determine what chemicals are in people and in what amounts;
  • requires regular updates of health and safety data and provides EPA with clear authority to request additional information and tests;
  • provides incentives for manufacturers to further reduce health hazards;
  • requires EPA to promote safer alternatives and alternatives to animal testing;
  • protects state and local rights; and
  • requires that this information be publicly available.

Through the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act we can give our children a safer and healthier future.





What’s the greenest product?

26 01 2009

Did anybody see the Goyard canvas shopping tote for sale over the holidays?  It cost $1065, plus $310 if you wanted a triangular “recycle” symbol painted in gold.  The canvas was advertised as being “100% recyclable”.

 

Let’s not go into all the ramifications of that one product, but I want to use this example to make one point:  the perfect green product probably doesn’t exist – and maybe never will.  We’ve all heard that the greenest clothing is what you already own, the greenest mode of transport is probably walking  – you get my drift.  Our product choices are all about compromises, and as Leslie Hoffman of Earth Pledge says, “making them with your eyes open instead of arbitrarily is the best piece of advice I could give.”

 

That’s why we at O Ecotextiles are so committed to spreading the word about what we’ve discovered about textiles and what each choice involves – in terms of our own and our family’s long-term health, in terms of the pollution burden imposed on our planet by the production of our choice, in terms of contribution to greenhouse gases which are contributing to global warming at a frightening pace, and in terms of the workers who made our chosen product (whether they’re children or laborers working under bonded conditions, working in unhealthful working environments).  Your choices do impact you – maybe you won’t see an impact next week, but your choice does make a difference. 

 

And lest you think that you – one small person – can’t possibly make a difference, remember what Margaret Mead said: 

 “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world.

 

Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”





New research into the effects of environmental chemicals on children’s health

21 01 2009

The new Children’s Environmental Health Center of the Mt. Sinai Department of Community Health and Preventitive Medicine (www.childenvironment.org)  is looking into, as they say, a “whole host of diseases that come from toxic environments”,  including: asthma, autism, allergies, ADD and ADHD, leukemias, brain cancer and birth defects.

The chemicals they focus on in the YouTube videos on their web site include those used routinely in textile manufacturing, and which remain in residual amounts in the fabrics:  lead, mercury, phthalates, other synthetic chemicals; pesticides from the growing of the fibers.  Check it out!