Real life examples of the effects of our textile choices

10 02 2012

We’ve been told that using greener, healthier products of all kinds is a key way to avoid sickness and even serious diseases. Small children, being particularly vulnerable, undoubtedly need their parent’s help in this respect, so parents are urged to protect their children from exposure to the huge amount of additives, colors, toxins and chemicals which find their way into our food, products and houses.

But come on, seriously?  We’re all busy people and who has the time  – let alone the money – to make sure every product is safe.

That’s a good argument and one I work hard to dispute.  Which is why I like to find real life examples of what our textile choices (since this is a blog about fabrics) are really doing to us in the real world.

The first example you may have read about:  According to a study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association,  the more exposure children have to chemicals called perfluorinated compounds, the less likely they are to have a good immune response to vaccinations (click here to read the study).  “Routine childhood immunizations are a mainstay of modern disease prevention. The negative impact on childhood vaccinations from PFCs should be viewed as a potential threat to public health,” said Dr. Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health and the report’s lead author.

Perfluorinated compounds (PFC’s) have been used for decades  in many products, including stain resistant fabrics. In our blog post two years ago about PFC’s, we said: The multi-billion dollar “perfluorocarbon” (PFC) industry has emerged as a regulatory priority for scientists and officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because of  a flood of disturbing scientific findings which have been  published  since the late 1990s.  These findings have elevated PFCs to the rogues gallery of highly toxic, extraordinarily persistent chemicals that pervasively contaminate human blood and wildlife the world over. Government scientists are especially concerned because unlike any other toxic chemicals, the most pervasive and toxic members of the PFC family never degrade in the environment. (Click here to read that blog post about these chemicals in fabrics.)

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PFC’s:

  • 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.

Studies in animals have shown that PFCs can weaken their immune systems,  but the effects in people have been poorly documented.  Dr.  Grandjean wanted to know if the same weakened immune system response seen in animals was happening in children.   So he led a team that studied nearly 600 kids in the remote  Faroe Islands, which lie about halfway between Scotland and Iceland.

The Faroese have levels of PFCs similar to those of U.S. residents. Grandjean figured if the chemicals were having an effect, it would show up in the way kids’ bodies responded to vaccinations.

Normally, a vaccine causes the production of lots of antibodies to a specific germ. But Grandjean says the response to tetanus and diphtheria vaccines was much weaker in 5-year-olds whose blood contained relatively high levels of PFCs.  “We were surprised by the steep negative associations, which suggest that PFCs may be more toxic to the immune system than current dioxin exposures,” said Grandjean. (1)

And how do fabrics contribue to exposure to PFC’s?  There are many finishes on the market that claim to provide soil and stain repellants for fabrics – all of which contain some form of PFC’s.  The only difference among them are they way they use the chemistry to achieve their results.   Among the more well known are:

  • Scotchguard
  • GoreTex
  • Teflon
  • Zepel
  • NanoTex
  • GreenShield
  • Crypton Green

So think about this the next time you’re about to buy children’s clothing that is stain resistant – or really any fabric in your house that claims stain resistance, since the fabric will expose you and your children to PFC’s.

This is not a frivolous concern, because the levels of PFC’s globally are not going down – and in fact there are places (such as China) where the PFC level is going up.  And as there is not a “no peeing” part of the pool, the exposure problem deserves international attention.

The second example involves yet another chemical which is used in textile processing which I had not known about.  But because the textile industry has one of the longest and most complicated industrial chains in the manufacturing industry that shouldn’t surprise me.

It seems that Alaska Airlines flight attendants were given new uniforms early last year.  Shortly after the attendants put on these new uniforms, many reported “dermal symptoms” (e.g., hives, rash, blisters, skin irritation), while some also referenced respiratory symptoms and eye irritation; some have more recently been diagnosed with abnormal thyroid function. The symptoms apparently occurred only while wearing the new uniforms.  (To read the report filed with the Consumer Product Safety Commission by the Association of Flight Attendants, click here. )

And now there is a lot of name calling between the uniform manufacturers and the union representing the flight attendants, but a few things are certain:

  1. Some unknown percent of the fabric used to make the uniforms was “contaminated” with TBP, tributylphosphate, as reported by the manufacturer  – but since not all the fabric was tested, it is unknown the final percentage of contaminated fabric.  Later testing of individual uniforms also indicated the presence of TBP, according to the report filed by the Association of Flight Attendants.
  2. Alaska Airlines and the manufacturer tells the flight attendants that these chemicals can be removed by washing or dry cleaning.

So.  But first, what is this substance?

Tributylphosphate – or TBP – is used in the production of synthetic resins and as a flame-retarding plasticizer.  It is also used as a primary plasticizer in the manufacture of plastics and as a pasting agent for pigment pastes used in printing.  Because it is a strong wetting agent, it is used often in the textile industry.

Many fabrics have resins applied as a functional finish – from crease and stain resistance to antibacterial resistance.   Often these resins have that other notorious skin sensitizer as a component – formaldehyde.   These finishes are designed to bind with the fabric and not wash or wear out – after all, how happy would you be with your new crease resistant pants if they wrinkled after one or two washes?  Or even 20?

In addition to being a known skin irritant (click here to see the MSDS with a warning that it causes eye and skin irritation), TBP also causes bladder cancer in rats. (2)

So we have a chemical which is often used in the textile industry in a number of different ways, which is known to cause skin and eye irritation in humans – and flight attendants are complaining of skin irritation after wearing uniforms that have been tested and are found to contain TBP (3).

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck:  seems a pretty good hypothesis that something in the fabric is causing the distress – and since tests found both TBP as well as formaldehyde in the fabrics, it seems logical to conclude that one or both might be the culprit.    I would also argue that wearing this fabric puts these flight attendants at risk of cancer – not something that they will get tomorrow, like the skin irritation – more like 20 years from now.

The flight attendants are between a rock and a hard place, because they must wear these uniforms in order to perform their jobs.  But what about the rest of us?  Why are we still supporting the production of fabrics which contain these chemicals which are doing us harm?  Why are we not acting to protect our children, these children who are suffering from what is being called an epidemic of chronic illness?(4) .  Asthma, autism, ADHD, allergies, juvenile diabetes, celiac disease, obesity and many other illness are growing at astounding rates – and even “healthy” children are showing signs of chronic immunological impairment and unhealthy physiological imbalances.  And we do not know why – though every scholar explaining the problem refers at some point to the chemical toxicity surrounding us.

I’m just mystified by the reasoning behind our choices.  I know a woman who is very well off (thereby negating the argument that cost might be a factor) who just had a baby – and though the products  that are both easily found and discussed in the media (like a cute, safe crib) were vetted for safety, harder-to-find products were just ignored.  “Cute” triumphed.  So the child wears darling dresses and sleeps on sheets and with blankets that are made of conventionally produced fabric.   Her skin is slowly absorbing the many processing chemicals used to make the fabric.  But she doesn’t have skin sensitivity to any of the processing chemicals, so there is no immediate effect and no effort to change buying habits.   But even though they can’t be seen, the changes are going on slowly, at the cellular level.    And some of the changes won’t be apparent right away  –  mom may not even be alive when the effect of this exposure becomes known –  while others might, such as those in the long sad list of neurological problems.  But because there is no outcry in the media, and we’re not paying attention,  who would link behavior problems with the fabric choices being made by mom every day?

(1) http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2012/01/pfcs-may-hinder-vaccine response/

(2) http://toxsci.oxfordjournals.org/content/40/2/247.short

(3) http://www.alaskamec.org/.pdf/Complaint%20from%20AFA%20to%20CPSC%2024%20Oct%202011.pdf

(4) Lambert, Beth, “A Compromised Generation“, Sentient Publications, 2010.

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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