More about fabric choices for your sofa.

25 06 2015

Our previous blog post we talked about fabric – how to determine the quality of the fabric you’re considering for your new sofa.  But the most important consideration merits a blog all its own, and that is the safety of the fabrics you’ve chosen.  We define “safe” as a fabric that has been processed with none of the many chemicals known to harm human health – and in a perfect world we’d  throw in water treatment and human rights/labor issues too.

It’s a great idea to start with organic fibers, if you can.  By substituting organic natural fibers for conventionally grown fibers you are supporting organic agriculture, which has myriad environmental, social and health benefits. Not only does organic farming take far less energy than conventional farming (largely because it does not use oil based fertilizers)[1], which helps to mitigate climate change, but it also:

  • Eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which is an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity;
  • Conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion);
  • Ensures sustained biodiversity;
  • And compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire.

Organic production has a strong social element and includes many Fair Trade and ethical production principles. As such it can be seen as more than a set of agricultural practices, but also as a tool for social change [2]. For example, one of the original goals of the organic movement was to create specialty products for small farmers who could receive a premium for their products and thus be able to compete with large commercial farms.

Organic agriculture is an undervalued and underestimated climate change tool that could be one of the most powerful strategies in the fight against global warming, according to Paul Hepperly, Rodale Institute Research Manager. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years) shows conclusively that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions. [3]

But even if you start with organic natural fibers (a great choice!) but process those fibers conventionally, then you end up with a fabric that is far from safe. Think about making applesauce: if you start with organic apples, then add Red Dye #2, preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers and who knows what else – do you end up with organic applesauce? The US Department of Agriculture would not let you sell that mixture as organic applesauce.  There is no similar protection for consumers when buying fabric, even though the same issues apply, because over 2000 chemicals are used routinely in textile processing.[4] Many of the chemicals used in textile processing have unknown toxicity, and many others are known to be harmful to humans (such as formaldehyde, lead, mercury, bisphenol A and other phthalates, benzenes and others). In fact, one yard of fabric made with organic cotton fiber is about 25% by weight synthetic chemicals – many of which are proven toxic to humans [5] and are outlawed in other products.

I know you’re saying that you don’t eat those fabrics, so what’s the danger? Actually, your body is busy ingesting the chemicals, which are evaporating (so we breathe them in), or through skin absorption (after all, the skin is the largest organ of the body). Add to that the fact that each time you brush against the fabric, microscopic pieces of the fabric abrade and fly into the air – so we can breathe them in. Or they fall into the dust in our homes, where pets and crawling babies breathe them in.

Should that be a concern? Well, there is hardly any evidence of the effects of textiles themselves on individuals, but in the US, OSHA does care about workers, so most of the studies have been done on workers in the textile industry:

  • Autoimmune diseases (such as IBD, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, for example, which are linked to many of the chemicals used in textile processing) are reaching epidemic rates, and a 14 year study published by the University of Washington and the National Institutes of Health found that people who work with textiles (among other industries) are more likely to die of an autoimmune disease than people who don’t [6];
  • We know formaldehyde is bad for us, but in fabric? 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. [7] Note: most cotton/poly sheet sets in the U.S. are treated with a formaldehyde resin.
  • Women who work in textile factories which produce acrylic fibers have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than does the normal population.[8]
  • A study in France revealed a correlation between the presence of cancer of the pharynx and occupation in the textile industry.[9]
  • A high degree of colorectal cancer, thyroid cancer, testicular cancer and nasal cancer has been found among textile workers, and a relationship between non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and working in the textile industry was observed.[10]

And consider this:

  • The Mt. Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center published a list of the top 10 chemicals they believe are linked to autism – and of the 10, 6 are used in textile processing and 2 are pesticides used on fiber crops. [11].
  • Phthalates are so toxic that they have been banned in the European Union since 2005. They have recently been banned in the State of California in children’s toys. They are ubiquitous – and are also found in most textile inks.[12] So parents careful not to bring toxic toys into their homes for can be nevertheless unknowingly putting their kids to sleep on cute printed sheets full of phthalates.

Are these rates of disease and the corresponding rise in the use of industrial chemicals a coincidence? Are our increased rates of disease due to better diagnosis? Some argue that we’re confronting fewer natural pathogens. All plausible.  But it’s also true that we’re encountering an endless barrage of artificial pathogens that are taxing our systems to the maximum. And our children are the pawns in this great experiment. And if you think artificial  pathogens  are  not the main culprits, your opinion is not shared by a goodly number of scientists, who believe that this endless barrage of artificial pathogens that is taxing our systems to the max has replaced bacteria and viruses as the major cause of human illness. We don’t have to debate which source is primary; especially because, with the rise of super bugs, it’s a silly debate. The point remains that industrial pollution is a cause of human illness – and it is a cause we can take concrete actions to stem.

Textiles are the elephant in the room – the industry is global, relatively low tech, and decentralized – certainly not the darling of venture capitalists who look for the next big thing. So not many research dollars are going into new ways of producing fabrics. Most of the time people are looking for the lowest price fabric for their projects or products – so the industry is on a race to cut costs in any way possible: in 2007, the Wall Street Journal’s Jane Spencer detailed the pollution caused by Chinese textile industries who were being pushing by their multinational clients to cut costs, resulting in untreated effluent discharge [13].

You can begin to protect yourself by looking for fabrics that have third party certifications:  either Oeko-Tex or The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which we believe is the gold standard in textiles because though Oeko-Tex assures you of a safe fabric and while GOTS confirms the same assurance, GOTS  also requires water treatment (important because the textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of water on the planet (14) – and in this era of water shortages we have to start paying attention to our water resources) and prohibits child or slave labor (sadly still an issue) and makes sure workers have safe conditions to work in and are paid fair wages.

[1] Aubert, C. et al., (2009) Organic farming and climate change: major conclusions of the Clermont-Ferrand seminar (2008) [Agriculture biologique et changement climatique : principales conclusions du colloque de Clermont-Ferrand (2008)]. Carrefours de l’Innovation Agronomique 4. Online at <http://www.inra.fr/ciag/revue_innovations_agronomiques/volume_4_janvier_2009>

A study done by Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University found that organic farming systems used just 63% of the energy required by conventional farming systems, largely because of the massive amounts of energy requirements needed to synthesize nitrogen fertilizers.

[2] Fletcher, Kate, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, p. 19

[3] http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/Rodale_Research_Paper-07_30_08.pdf Also see: Muller, Adrian, “Benefits of Organic Agriculture as a Climate change Adaptation and Mitigation Strategy for Developing Countries’, Environement for Development, April 2009

[4] See the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists’ (AATCC) Buyers Guide, http://www.aatcc.org/

[5] Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609

[6] Nakazawa, Donna Jackson, “Diseases Like Mine are a Growing Hazard”, Washington Post, March 16, 2008

[7] 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.

[8] 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

[9] Haguenour, J.M., “Occupational risk factors for upper respiratory tract and upper digestive tract cancers” , Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Vol 47, issue 6 (Br J Ind Med1990;47:380-383 doi:10.1136/oem.47.6.380).

[10] http://www.fibre2fashion.com/industry-article/3/297/safety-and-health-issues-in-the-textile-industry2.asp

[11]http://www.mountsinai.org/patient-care/service-areas/children/areas-of-care/childrens-environmental-health-center/cehc-in-the-news/news/mount-sinai-childrens-environmental-health-center-publishes-a-list-of-the-top-ten-toxic-chemicals-suspected-to-cause-autism-and-learning-disabilities

[12] “Textile Inkmaker Tackles Phthalates Ban”, Esther D’Amico, Chemical Week, September 22, 2008 SEE ALSO: Toxic Textiles by Disney, http://archive.greenpeace.org/docs/disney.pdf

[13] Spencer, Jane, “China Pays Steep Price as Textile Exports Boom”, Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2007.

(14)  Cooper, Peter, “Clearer Communication”, Ecotextile News, May 2007





Choosing a fabric for your new sofa

14 10 2013

Design decisions influence our health –so your choice of a sofa fabric could influence you and your family in ways far beyond what you imagined.  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.  And fabric – which cocoons us most of the time, awake and asleep – is a contributor to this chemical load.  One thing I know for sure is that the textile industry uses lots of chemicals. During manufacturing, it takes from 10% to 100% of the weight of the fabric in chemicals to produce that fabric.(1) And the final fabric, if made of 100% natural fibers (such as cotton or linen), contains about 27% , by weight, chemicals(2) – let’s not even talk about synthetic fabrics.

Since 1999, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has tested Americans every two years in order to build a database of what are called “body burdens,”(3) in order to help toxicologists set new standards for exposure and definitively link chemicals to illness, or else decouple them. The study attempts to assess exposure to environmental chemicals in the general U.S. population – and the more chemicals they look for, the more they find: The CDC started with 27 worrisome chemicals in 1999 and now tests for 219. Their findings have shown that no matter whether you’re rich or poor; live in the center of a city or a pristine rural community; east coast, west coast or in between; are elderly or newborn; Republican, Democrat or Socialist – you have BPA in your blood, as well as polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDE)s – which can retard a fetus’s neurological development; perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – which impairs normal development; perchlorate – which can keep the thyroid from making necessary hormones and methyl tert-butyl ethers (now banned in most states) and mercury.

And the correlation between chemicals to illness seems to be on the rise (4) – certainly from studies done linking various chemicals to human disease and illness, but also because the spectrum of both “rare” and “common” illnesses is on the rise. The National Institutes of Health defines a rare disease as one affecting 200,000 or fewer Americans. Yet 25 – 30 million Americans suffer from one of the nearly 6,800 identifiable rare diseases. That compares to the 40 million Americans with one of the three “major” diseases: heart disease, cancer or diabetes.

Specifically with regard to fabrics: The 2010 AATCC (American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists) Buyer’s Guide  lists about 2,000 chemical specialties in over 100 categories offered for sale by about 66 companies, not including dyes. The types of products offered run the gamut from antimicrobial agents and binders to UV stabilizers and wetting agents. Included are some of the most toxic known (lead, mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A, PBDE, PFOA). There are no requirements that manufacturers disclose the chemicals used in processing – chemicals which remain in the finished fabrics. Often the chemicals are used under trade names, or are protected by legislation as “trade secrets” in food and drug articles – but fabrics don’t even have a federal code to define what can/cannot be used because fabrics are totally unregulated in the U.S., except in terms of fire retardancy or intended use. It’s pretty much a free-for-all.

Why does the industry use so many chemicals? What are they used for?

Most fabrics are finished in what is called “wet processing” where the process is accomplished by applying a liquid – which accomplishes some sort of chemical action to the textile – as opposed to “dry processing”, which is a mechanical/physical treatment, such as brushing. It is a series of innumerable steps leading to the finished textile, each one of which also has a complex number of variables, in which a special chemical product is applied, impregnated or soaked with the textile fiber of the fabric. A defined sequence of treatments can then be followed by another sequence of treatments using another chemical substance. Typically, treatments are arranged to permit a continuous mode of sequences.

The chemicals used can be subdivided into:
Textile auxiliaries – this covers a wide range of functions, from cleaning natural fibers and smoothing agents to improving easy care properties. Included are such things as:

  • Complexing agents, which form stable water-soluble complexes
  • Surfactants, which lowers the surface tension of water so grease and oil to be removed more easily
  • Wetting agents, which accelerates the penetration of finishing liquors
  • Sequestering agents
  •  Dispersing agents
  • Emulsifiers

Textile chemicals (basic chemicals such as acids, bases and salts)
      Colorants, such as:

  • Dyes
  •  Dye-protective agents
  • Fixing agents
  • Leveling agents
  • pH regulators
  • Carriers
  • UV absorbers

Finishes
The chemicals used get very specific: for example, Lankem Ltd. is one such manufacturer of a range of textile chemicals. According to their website, their Kemtex AP, for example, is an “anti-precipitant” to be used “where dyes of opposing ionicity may be present in the same bath” and their Kemtex TAL is a levelling agent for wool which is a “highly effective level dyeing assistant for acid, acid milling and prematallised dyes on wool.”

In addition to the branded products supplied by chemical companies, which are made of unknown components because they’re proprietary, we know many chemicals are necessary to achieve certain effects, such as PBDEs for fire retardants, formaldehyde resins for crease resistance or PFOA’s for stain protection.
The chemicals used in these branded products to create the effects above include chemicals which have been proven to be toxic, or to cause cancers or genetic mutations in mammals (i.e., us too). The following is by no means an all-inclusive list of these chemicals:
• Alkylphenolethoxylates (APEOs)
• Pentachlorophenols (PCP)
• Toluene and other aromatic amines
• Dichloromethane (DCM)
• Formaldehyde
• Phthalates
• Polybrominated diphenyl ethers ( PBDE’s)
• Perfluorooctane sulfonates (PFOS)
• Heavy metals – copper, cadmium, lead, antimony, mercury among others

One of the presenters at the 2011 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: his 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.

(1)    Environmental Hazards of the Textile Industry, Hazardous Substances Research Centers, South and Southwest Outreach Program, US EPA funded consortium, June 2006.

(2)     Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts; German Environmental Protection Agency, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609.

(3)    What is a “body burden”: Starting before birth, children are exposed to chemicals that impair normal growth and development. Exposures continue throughout our lives and accumulate in our bodies. These chemicals can interact within the body and cause illness. And they get passed on from parent to child for generations.

(4)    World Health Organization; http://www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/en/index.html





I know the polyester fabric costs less, but what else comes with it?

19 06 2013

When plastic was introduced in 1869, it was advertised as being able to replace natural products like ivory and tortoiseshell in items such as jewelry, combs and buttons – so it would “no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.”(1)

What a success: Plastics are versatile – they can be hard or soft, flexible or brittle, and are durable, lightweight, formable – in fact, they’re so versatile that they’ve become a vital manufacturing ingredient for nearly every existing industry. They are practically ubiquitous. And now we’re beginning to find that our relationship with plastic is not healthy. Using dwindling fossil fuels to manufacture the stuff, plastic leaches toxic chemicals into our groundwater, litters landscapes and destroys marine life. As Susan Freinkel points out in her book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, it’s worth noting that discoveries of plastic’s toxic effects are being made in a world that is at least ten times more plastic than it was half a century ago. In the ’60s, an American might have used about 30 pounds of plastic a year – in 2011, 300 pounds. And we’re producing 300 million tons more every year.(2)

Plastics were marketed as “the material of the future”. And how true that is, because large polymers take practically forever to break down, so much of the plastic that has ever been manufactured is still with us, in landfills, in the plastic filled gyres found in our oceans (where the mass of plastic exceeds that of plankton sixfold) (3), and the stomachs of northern seabirds. And it will stay there for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Just as some chemicals can impact children’s bodies much more than adult bodies, Judith Shulevitz, writing in the New Republic, reminds us: “plastic totally dominates the world of the child. Children drink formula in baby bottles and water in sippy cups, eat food with plastic spoons on bright melamine trays, chew on bath books and rubber ducks, and, if they don’t do these things at your house, they’ll do them at someone else’s or at school, no matter how many notes you write or mad-housewife-ish you’re willing to appear.” (4)

There are many studies to support the belief that these plastics are changing us – but what has really changed is that the scientific understanding of how these chemicals are poisoning us has undergone a conceptual revolution – our grandchildren may see our current attitudes about living with these chemicals as being analogous to doctors in the 1950s who appeared in ads for cigarettes.

Old toxicological notions are being stood on their heads. Certainly, the old “dose makes the poison” notion, which was first expressed by Paracelsus in the 16th century and which means that a substance can only be toxic if it is present in a high enough concentration in the body – because all things are poisonous in the right amounts. He wrote: “All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy”. But today scientists are finding that timing of exposure might be the critical factor – a fetus might respond to a chemical at one-hundredfold less concentration or more than in an adult, and when the chemical is taken away the body is altered for life. Another theory is known as the “developmental origins of health and disease,” or DOHaD (for more about DOHaD, click here), and it paints a picture of almost unimaginably impressionable bodies, responsive to biologically active chemicals until the third generation.(5)

New methods have been developed which have taken the guesswork out of what were once theories: for example, biomonitoring now means that scientists can actually discover the degree to which people have been exposed to poisonous stuff when in the past their conclusions were largely guesswork; and microarray profiling, which means we’re beginning to understand how tiny doses of certain chemicals switch genes on or off in harmful ways during exquisitely sensitive periods of development.

Exposure to all that plastic has a cumulative effect. Now toxicologists can see that lots of tiny doses from many different estrogen-mimicking chemicals entering the body by multiple pathways can have a big impact. “If you’re being exposed to two-hundred fifty chemicals and only thirty of them have estrogenic activity, but they’re each very low, still, thirty of them might add up to be significant,” says Jerrold Heindel, of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

Judith Shulavith asks– if we live in this plastic environment – why we’re not sicker than we are? And sicker than we used to be? “The answer is, we’re healthier in some ways and sicker in others. Medical advances mean we’re likelier than ever to survive our illnesses, but all kinds of diseases are on the rise. Childhood cancers are up 20 percent since 1975. Rates of kidney, thyroid, liver, and testicular cancers in adults have been steadily increasing. A woman’s risk of getting breast cancer has gone from one in ten in 1973 to one in eight today. Asthma rates doubled between 1980 and 1995, and have stayed level since. Autism-spectrum disorders have arguably increased tenfold over the past 15 years. According to one large study of men in Boston, testosterone levels are down to a degree that can’t be accounted for by factors such as age, smoking, and obesity. Obesity, of course, has been elevated to the status of an epidemic.”(6)

There are many ways to explain upticks in rates of any particular ailment; for starters, a better-informed populace and better tools for detecting disease mean more diagnoses. Other environmental stressors include Americans’ weirdly terrible eating habits, our sedentary lifestyle, and stress itself. But why can’t we just figure this out and come to some conclusions about certain chemicals as the cause of certain diseases? John Vandenberg, a biologist, explains the difficulty : “Well, one of the problems is that we would have to take half of the kids in the kindergarten and give them BPA and the other half not. Or expose half of the pregnant women to BPA in the doctor’s office and the other half not. And then we have to wait thirty to fifty years to see what effects this has on their development, and whether they get more prostate cancer or breast cancer. You have to wait at least until puberty to see if there is an effect on sexual maturation. Ethically, you are not going to go and feed people something if you think it harmful, and, second, you have this incredible time span to deal with.”(7)

Which diseases, exactly, have fetal origins and which chemicals have the power to sidetrack development, and how, is the goal of a giant, 21-year study of 100,000 children called the National Children’s Study (NCS), under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. However, in 2013, it was announced that the decade-old effort would undergo radical restructuring to cut costs.(8)

Meanwhile, what can you do to protect yourself and your family, since the government isn’t doing that job?  I’ll have some ideas next week.

(1) Freinkel, Susan, “Plastic: Too Good to Throw Away”, The New York Times, March 17, 2011
(2) Ibid.
(3) Moore, C.J., et al, “Density of Plastic Particles found in zooplankton trawls from coastal waters of Northern California to the North Pacific Central Gyre”, Algalita Marine Research Foundation
(4) Shulevitz, Judith, “The Toxicity Panic”, The New Republic, April 7, 2011
(5) Ibid.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Groopman, Jerome, “The Plastic Panic”, The New Yorker, May 31, 2010.
(8) Belli, Brita, “Changes to Children’s Study Threaten its value, experts say”, Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative; 7 March 2013





You are what you wear.

13 06 2013

In Memoriam: U.S. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D – NJ).

Sen. Lautenberg fought valiantly to reform the weak laws protecting consumers in the US from chemical incursions in their lives. He introduced the “Safe Chemicals Act of 2010”, which was defeated, but followed up with the “Chemical Safety Improvement Act” which has been endorsed by the New York Times, the Washington Post and has bipartisan support at this time. It caps eight years of work by Senator Lautenberg to fix the nation’s broken chemical law (the TSCA) which has been proven ineffective and is criticized by both the public health community and industry. Thank you Senator Lautenberg.
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You are what you wear.

I don’t mean like in “the clothes make the man” kind of way, but in the “our bodies absorb chemicals found in our environment” kind of way.

The new science of biomonitoring has enabled scientists to take the guesswork out of the effects of toxic exposure in blood, urine, breast milk, semen and all the other parts of us where chemicals tend not to flush out. It has brought home the truth in the saying that we are what we wear – or eat, sit on, breathe, rub up against or drink. The “environment” is not “out there” as David Suzuki reminds us: We are the environment and it is us.

Since 1999, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has tested Americans every two years in order to build a database of what are called “body burdens,”(1) in order to help toxicologists set new standards for exposure and definitively link chemicals to illness, or else decouple them. The study attempts to assess exposure to environmental chemicals in the general U.S. population – and the more chemicals they look for, the more they find: The CDC started with 27 worrisome chemicals in 1999 and now tests for 219. Their findings have shown that no matter whether you’re rich or poor; live in the center of a city or a pristine rural community; east coast, west coast or in between; are elderly or newborn; Republican, Democrat or Socialist – you have BPA in your blood, as well as polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDE)s – which can retard a fetus’s neurological development; perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – which impairs normal development; perchlorate – which can keep the thyroid from making necessary hormones and methyl tert-butyl ethers (now banned in most states) and mercury.

And the correlation between chemicals to illness seems to be on the rise(2) – certainly from studies done linking various chemicals to human disease and illness, but also because the spectrum of both “rare” and “common” illnesses is on the rise. The National Institutes of Health defines a rare disease as one affecting 200,000 or fewer Americans. Yet 25 – 30 million Americans suffer from one of the nearly 6,800 identifiable rare diseases. That compares to the 40 million Americans with one of the three “major” diseases: heart disease, cancer or diabetes.

Specifically with regard to fabrics: over 2,000 chemicals are used in textile processing, and these include some of the most toxic known (lead, mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A, PBDE, PFOA). There are no requirements that manufacturers disclose the chemicals used in processing – chemicals which remain in the finished fabrics. Often the chemicals are used under trade names, or are protected by legislation as “trade secrets” in food and drug articles – but fabrics don’t even have a federal code to define what can/cannot be used because fabrics are totally unregulated in the U.S., except in terms of fire retardancy or intended use. It’s pretty much a free-for-all.

What they’re finding is that this chemical onslaught seems to be changing us. Using a computer-assisted technique called microarray profiling, scientists can now examine the effects of toxins on thousands of genes at once (before they could only study 100 at a time at most). They can also search for signs of chemical subversion at the molecular level, in genes and proteins. This means that we are beginning to understand how even small doses of certain chemicals may switch genes on and off in harmful ways during the most sensitive period of development.

In a talk at the National Academy of Sciences, Linda Birnbaum, the head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program, called toxicogenomics (the study of how genes respond to toxins) the “breakthrough” that pushed the study of poisons beyond the “obvious things,” that is, the huge doses that led to “death or low birth weight.”(3) Scientists are developing new ideas about how chemicals can, in effect, re-program animals and humans to be more susceptible to certain diseases—and to pass that susceptibility on to their offspring. This theory is known as the “developmental origins of health and disease” (DOHad) , and is now an emerging field.

So why not seek products – fabrics, soaps, cosmetics, perfumes, deodorants, food – that don’t contain chemicals that harm you – or your children or grandchildren?
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(1) What is a “body burden”: Starting before birth, children are exposed to chemicals that impair normal growth and development. Exposures continue throughout our lives and accumulate in our bodies. These chemicals can interact within the body and cause illness. And they get passed on from parent to child for generations.
(2) World Health Organization; http://www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/en/index.html
(3) Shulevitz, Judith, “The Toxicity Panic”, The New Republic, April 28, 2011





The President’s Cancer Panel and fabric choices

6 10 2010

Ever wonder why you buy those organic foods that cost more?  It’s always a bit of sticker shock when you see the organic and conventional side by side.   The organic strawberries may taste better, but this economy means we have to pinch every penny.  As my husband says, an apple is an apple, so why pay more for one when you can get the other cheaper?  It’s not going to do anything to me – at least not today.

Turns out you might want to re-think those – and lots of other –  choices you make every day.  The President’s Cancer Panel issued a 240-page report in May, 2010, called “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now” This year’s report is the first time the panel has emphasized the environmental causes of cancer. It warns of “grievous harm” from chemicals and other hazards, and “a growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer.” Children are especially vulnerable.

The report is based on testimony from a series of meetings held between September 08 and January 09 which  included 45 invited experts from academia, government, industry, the environmental and cancer advocacy communities, and the public. The report urged President Obama to “use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”  Because industrial chemicals are so ubiquitous and exposure to these potential environmental carcinogens so widespread, “the Panel was particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated,”

The report said previous estimates that environmental pollutants and occupational exposures cause 6% of all cancers are low and “woefully out of date.”  In fact, the National Institutes of Health estimates that environmental factors contribute to 75-80% of all cancers: from tobacco smoke, ultraviolet light, radiation, obesity and certain viruses and sexually-transmitted diseases – in addition to environmental carcinogens. One excerpt reads, “With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market. … many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are. … largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.”

The President’s Panel report clearly states that much work has to be done to better characterize environmental determinants of cancer—including better research methods, standardized measurements, and more realistic models that can help estimate the cumulative risks associated with multiple environmental toxins.  But scientists have been scrambling for decades for scarce funding  – and the work was given a low priority.  The fundamental problem is that research into environmental causes of cancer has little potential for yielding profits—at least in the short-term. In fact, it is more likely to cost industry through stronger regulation and removal of products from the market, litigation and the added expense of developing new products based on “green chemistry.” So it’s not a stretch to understand why the government and the pharmaceutical industry would rather spend billions of dollars promoting screening and developing profitable new cancer drugs.  Peter Montague, a long-time environmental advocate puts it this way: “To be blunt about it, there’s no money in prevention, and once you’ve got cancer you’ll pay anything to try to stay alive.”

Environmental toxins are rarely considered in health policy initiatives (except for tobacco and sunlight), despite the findings that people who live in polluted areas and work with toxic substances (most often the poor and minorities) have higher rates of cancer incidence.  The Cancer Panel  pointed out  “Cancer Alley“, the stretch along the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, as an example.  Louisiana ranked second in the nation for on-site toxic releases, and many studies exist which demonstrate the cancer rate is above the average for the rest of the United States.  In one small Louisiana town in Cancer Alley, 3 cases of rhabdomyosarcoma were reported in a 14 month period.  Rhabdomyosarcoma is an extremely rare and devastating childhood cancer, with a national average of one child in a million.  Five years ago a group of residents of Mossville, Louisiana, filed a human rights complaint against the US government, alleging it was not protecting their right to live in a healthy environment.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights agreed this year to hear their complaint.

In a consensus statement,  the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, an international partnership of some 3,000 individuals and organizations, says that the net result of this inadequate funding is a body of research that is in danger of being irrelevant:

“The methods that have been used to attribute cancer risk to environmental exposures are outdated and flawed, and should no longer be used to determine policy or set research priorities.”

So it’s not just organic foods that we should be concerned about, but the whole phalanx of products which are made using harmful chemistry, and the manufacturers that don’t capture emissions or treat their waste products, thereby polluting our entire ecosystem.  That’s why O Ecotextiles has made a commitment to sell only fabrics which are safe for both you and the Earth.

I found it interesting that there is a new branch of science that is also studying how these environmental factors can influence us.  Called epigenetics, it is the study of changes in gene activity that don’t involve changes to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one successive generation.   These patterns of gene expression are governed by the cellular material — the epigenome — that sits on top of the genome, just outside it (hence the prefix epi-, which means above). It is these epigenetic “marks” that tell your genes to switch on or off, to speak loudly or whisper. It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors like diet, stress and prenatal nutrition can make an imprint on genes that is passed from one generation to the next.

One could think of the genome as a book of blueprints,  laying out a number of options in the form of genes. The epigenome is like the contractor who goes through the book, deciding which options to include in a house. Two different contractors can build radically different houses from the same book of blueprints, in the same way that two organisms with identical DNA can look very different.

This field of study, some believe, might hold the key to understanding how environmental toxins cause serious, and often life-threatening diseases, such as obesity, diabetes and cancer.  For quite some time scientists have been trying to determine how exposure to environmental toxins can result in serious disease years or even decades later. Epigenetics may provide the mechanism. An exposure to an environmental toxin at one point in a person’s life (and most critically during gestation) can trigger the epigenome to turn on or turn off a key gene. Years later, because of that epigenetic change, a disease may appear.

“We can no longer argue whether genes or environment has a greater impact on our health and development, because both are inextricably linked,” said Randy Jirtle,  Ph.D., a genetics researcher in Duke’s Department of Radiation Oncology. “Each nutrient, each interaction, each experience can manifest itself through biochemical changes that ultimately dictate gene expression, whether at birth or 40 years down the road.”

Exposures to pesticides, toxins and synthetic compounds can give rise to a host of diseases – such as cancer and asthma — whose prevalence has soared in recent decades, says H. Kim Lyerly, M.D., director of the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center.  Pesticides encountered in utero might be dormant in the fetus, only to cause cancer ten, 20 or 50 years later, he said.

Even the lowest detectable limits of a chemical can have dire effects on a living organism, added William Schlesinger, Ph.D., Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke. Atrizine is a prime example. Less than one part per billion of this widely used corn herbicide de-masculinizes developing frogs or causes dual male-female genitalia. Yet often the Environmental Protection Agency’s instrumentation doesn’t record such minute levels of chemical exposure, he said.

What does the Cancer Panel suggest we do in the meantime?  Here is their list, with a few of additions of our own:

  • Remove your shoes before entering your home to avoid tracking in toxic chemicals such as pesticides.
  • Filter tap water.
  • Use stainless steel, glass or BPA-free plastic water bottles.
  • Microwave in ceramic or glass instead of plastic containers.
  • Become aware of what you’re eating:  minimize consumption of food grown with pesticides, and meat raised with antibiotics and growth hormone.
  • Minimize consumption of processed, charred or well-done meats, which contain carcinogenic heterocyclic amines and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.
  • Reduce radiation from X-rays and other medical sources.
  • Be aware of the products you use, especially those that come in contact with your skin, such as:  lotions, cosmetics, wipes, sheets, clothing, hair dyes.  Check ingredient labels, look for third party certifications where appropriate.
  • And finally:  use sunscreen, stop smoking and lose weight if necessary.




What is the energy profile of the textile industry?

16 06 2009

carbon_footprint

If you’ve been following along you’ll know we haven’t even reached the point where we begin weaving – everything up till now dealt only with producing the raw materials (the fiber) and spinning into yarn!

So, the yarns are at the mill.  And that’s the kicker: we’ve been talking about how much energy it takes to produce the various fibers – and it varies dramatically – but there is no dramatic difference in the amount of energy needed to weave fibers into fabric depending on fiber type.[1] The processing is generally the same whether the fiber is nylon, cotton, hemp, wool or polyester:

  • thermal energy required per meter of cloth is 4,500-5,500 Kcal and
  • electrical energy required per meter of cloth is 0.45-0.55 kwh. [2]

This translates into 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.

So let’s go with the energy used to produce one KG of fabric (which is 92 MJ per KG as the New Zeland Merino Wool LCA study found).   Keeping  the energy needed for production as a  constant the synthetic fabrics still top the list:

Embodied Energy in production of various fibers + processing:
energy use in MJ per KG of fiber: energy use in MJ per KG of fabric TOTAL energy use in MJ per KG of fabric to produce fiber + weave into cloth
flax 10 92 102
Cotton, convt’l. 55 92 147
wool 63 92 155
Viscose 100 92 192
Polypropylene 115 92 207
Polyester 125 92 217
acrylic 175 92 267
Nylon 250 92 342

 

That means that it takes 3,886 MJ of energy to produce 25 yards of nylon fabric, which is  about enough to cover one average sofa.  That compares to 1,158 MJ if the fiber you used was flax (linen).  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.(4)

Textile_total_energy_input

In addition to the energy requirements for textile production,  there is an additional dimension to consider during processing:  environmental pollution.  Conventional textile processing is highly polluting:

  • Up to 2000 chemicals are used in textile processing, many of them known to be harmful to human (and animal) health.   Some of these chemicals evaporate, some are dissolved in treatment water which is discharged to our environment, and some are residual in the fabric, to be brought into our homes (where, with use, tiny bits abrade and you ingest or otherwise breathe them in).  A whole list of the most commonly used chemicals in fabric production are linked to human health problems that vary from annoying to profound.  And new research is linking many diseases and disorders to exposure to chemicals.  Through the new science of environmental health science, we are learning that exposure to toxic chemicals (at levels once thought to have been safe) is increasing the  chronic disease burden for millions of us.  For more information about this disturbing concept,  check out the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health.
  • The application of these chemicals uses lots  of water. In fact, the textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of fresh water on the planet.[3] These wastewaters are discharged (largely untreated) into our groundwater with a high pH and temperature as well as chemical load.  I wrote about a documentary which catalogues the ravages brought on by water pollution and how it impacts those downstream, called (interestingly enough), DOWNSTREAM.

We are all downstream.


[1] 24thsession of the FAO Committee on Commodity Problems IGG on Hard Fibers of the United Nations

[2] “Improving profits with energy-efficiency enhancements”, December 2008,  Journal for Asia on Textile and Apparel,  http://textile.2456.com/eng/epub/n_details.asp?epubiid=4&id=3296

[3] Cooper, Peter, “Clearer Communication,” Ecotextile News, May 2007.

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

Embodied Energy in production of various fibers + processing:
beach image energy use in MJ per KG of fiber: energy use in MJ per KG of fabric TOTAL energy use in MJ per KG of fabric to produce fiber + weave into cloth
flax 10 92 102
Cotton, convt’l. 55 92 147
wool 63 92 155
Viscose 100 92 192
Polypropylene 115 92 207
Polyester 125 92 217
acrylic 175 92 267
Nylon 250 92 342