Can you find out what’s in your fabric?

28 03 2013

I was one of those people who thought that manufacturers were not “allowed” to sell me any product that contained something that might harm me. As I quickly learned, that’s basically not true in the United States – especially with respect to fabrics. The EU is light years ahead of the US with their REACH program, designed to replace the most harmful chemicals with less toxic alternatives, but even that program focuses only on only the most high volume chemicals used in industry.
Let me just remind you why knowing what chemicals are used for processing your fabrics is important:
Because fabrics – all fabrics – are by weight about 25% finishing chemicals (i.e. dyes, finishes, softeners, etc.) And because the textile industry uses over 2000 chemicals routinely, how do we know the mix in the fabrics we’re living with are safe?
Well, you can ask the store where you’re buying the sheets or shirts – but they’ll probably look at you blankly.
You can demand information from the manufacturer. But often they don’t know the answers. To illustrate why this is, let’s take one example. Let’s pretend we’re a mill and we have just woven an organic cotton fabric, and we want to dye it. We can choose from many dyes, but settle on one called “Matisse Derivan” manufactured by Derivan Fabric Dye. Because dyes are made up of many chemicals, and because they’re proprietary, it’s next to impossible to find out what is in the particular dye you’re buying. So you might think the MSDS sheet would give us the information.
MSDS sheets are sometimes used to substantiate the “safety” of a chemical product by requiring the listing of chemical components by CAS number, which is a unique numeric identifier of a chemical substance which links to a wealth of information about that chemical. But the reality is that many of the chemicals used in industry (textile or otherwise) have never been evaluated for toxicity, and therefore in the toxicity evaluation there is no data to refer to. In addition, proprietary components do not need to be listed. So the sheets have inaccurate or missing information. According to a 2008 study, between 30 – 100% of products analyzed contained chemicals not declared on an MSDS.(1)
The MSDS sheet for Matisse Derivan (click here to see the sheet) for example, lists these substances in the composition of the dye:

SUBSTNACE                                   CAS NUMBER

  • Pigments                                             Various
  • water-based acrylic co-polymer      Proprietary
  • surfactants, dispersants, etc.           Various
  • ammonia                                             1336-21-6
  • water

In looking at an MSDS sheet, you might also find that any hazard classification or risk phase has “not been established” and “the toxicological properties of this product have not been thoroughly investigated”, or the hazard classification might be identified as “non hazardous” according to various codes, such as the TSCA. These codes are woefully inadequate as is now known (click here for more information) so to say that a chemical is non hazardous according to a code that dismisses all chemicals for which there is no data – well, you can see the problem.
There is also a lack of enforceable quality criteria, probably one of the reasons the sheets are of such poor quality.
Because testing has been done to establish wastewater criteria, some studies have shown what types of chemicals are found in textile wastewater from dyes, such as one which found benzidine, vinyl-p-base and 4-aminoazobenzene – all quite toxic.(2)
Once you get the information on the dyestuff used you’re one chemical component down  – and maybe 20 to go, because in most fabrics these functional areas also require chemical treatments:
Textile auxiliaries (such as complexing, wetting, sequestering, dispering agents; emulsifiers), textile chemicals (dyes, dye-protective, fixing, leveling agents; pH regulators, carriers, UV absorbers); finishes (stain, odor, wrinkle resistance).
And finally, even if you were able to find out which particular chemicals are used in a product, it’s possible that you won’t know what you’re looking at. For example, most everyone knows to avoid formaldehyde, but manufactures can legally use over 30 different trade names for formaldehyde, such as:
• Formalin
• Quaternium-15
• Methanal
• Methyl Aldehyde
• Methylene Oxide
• Oxymethylene
• Bfv
• Fannoform
• Formol
• Fyde
• Karsan
• Methaldehyde
• Formalith
• Methylene Glycol
• Ivalon
• Oxomethane


(2)  Rehorek, A and Plum, A; Characterization of sulfonated azo dyes and aromatic amines by pyrolysis gas chromatography/mass spectrometry; Analitical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, Aug 2007; 388(8): 1653-62.


Exactly what chemicals are used in my new sheet set?

9 12 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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