Why our children are at risk

18 11 2013

We hear about deaths from cancer – and how the rates are going down  (1). And that’s fabulous – but the sad fact is that the incidence of cancer seems to be going up (2).   The reason is complicated – we’re getting older, true –  but we’re also getting better at fighting it:

Cancer Research UK

Cancer Research UK

The number of new cancer cases have increased 0.6% every year since 1975 – overall, that’s an increase of 21% in the past 36 years (3) . What I find particularly disturbing is the rise in the reported incidence of cancer among young children and adolescents, especially brain cancer, testicular cancer, and acute lymphocytic leukemia. Sadly, after injuries and violence, cancer is the leading cause of death in our children (4).

National Academy of Sciences

National Academy of Sciences

At the risk of showing my bias, in case there are those among you who didn’t already know, I think part of the problem is because our environment contains many chemicals that are known to cause these cancers. But I’m not alone: the New York Times, in a recent editorial, urged the reform of the current law which purports to protect Americans from these chemicals (5), and the 2011 report of the President’s Cancer Panel has said that the “true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated.” (6)

Besides cosmetics, shampoos, detergents and building products, fabric processing uses a wide variety of synthetic chemicals, many of which remain in the fabrics. A short list of the many chemicals used in textile processing – many of which remain in the fabrics we live with – includes the following chemicals, which are all linked to cancer:

• Formaldehyde is known to cause cancer (and asthma), yet rates of formaldehyde in indoor air have grown from 14 ppb in 1980 to 200 ppb in 2010 – and these rates are increasing.
• Higher rates of chemicals called Polychlorinated Biphenyls, or PCBs, used in the production of plastics – and therefore all synthetic fabrics – also are linked with higher rates of leukemia.
• Benzene, used in the production of nylon and other synthetics, in textile dyestuffs and in the pigment printing process – is linked to leukemia, breast cancer, lymphatic and hematopoietic cancers.
• Chromium Hexavalent compounds, used in leather tanning, and the manufacture of dyes and pigments, are linked to lung, nasal and nasopharyngeal cancers.
• Bisphenol A, used in the production of polyester and other synthetic fibers and as an intermediate in the production of dyestuffs, is an endocrine disruptor linked to breast and prostate cancer.

Children are at greater risk because they are exposed at a higher rate than adults, their behaviors exacerbate exposure and they have increased susceptibility to the chemicals:

Pound for pound, children breathe twice as much air as an adult, drink two and a half times as much water, and eat three to four times more. Also – the typical newborn weighs 1/20th that of an adult male, but the infant’s surface area is just 1/8th as great. This means that the infant’s total skin area is 2.5 times more per unit of body weight than an adult (7).
Their breathing rates, at rest, are higher than those of adults, and greater levels of physical activity can increase their breathing rates even further. Their play is often at ground level, while adults breathe four to six feet above the floor. So children have greater inhalation and dermal exposure to chemicals present on floors, carpets, grass or dirt, where heavier chemicals such as lead and particulates settle.

Children put everything into their mouths when exploring their environment. This increases their ingestion of substances in soil, household dust, floors and carpets, as well as the objects themselves.

Some children will gleefully jump into a lake – even before they could swim! This lack of fear as they grow can further increase their exposure to environmental hazards.

Childhood is characterized by rapid physical and mental growth. Accordingly, certain organs may not be fully developed and may be more vulnerable to injury. Children absorb, metabolize, and excrete compounds differently than adults.
• In some instances, children may be more susceptible than adults due to their increased rates of absorption or decreased rates of elimination of foreign compounds. In other cases, the opposite may be true. Children will absorb about 50 percent of lead ingested, whereas adults will absorb only about 10 to 15 percent(8). Kidneys are the principal pathway for elimination of most chemicals from the body. At birth an infant’s kidney’s filtration rate is a fraction of adult values; by age one the rate is at adult levels. (9)
• Longer lifetimes: many diseases initiated by chemical hazards take decades to develop, so early exposure to toxicants may be more likely to lead to disease than the same exposures experienced later in life.

The fetus is particularly sensitive to environmental toxicants (10). Chemicals can affect the children born to women exposed during pregnancy, while the women remain unaffected. For example, the children of women from Michigan who ate two to three meals of fish contaminated with PCBs per month for six years before pregnancy had lower birth weights, memory deficits at seven months and four years of age, and cognitive deficits persisted at eleven years of age (11). In Iraq, children born to women who during pregnancy inadvertently ate seed grain treated with mercury to prevent fungus had severe developmental and mental deficits  (12).

(1) Jemal A, Siegel R, Ward E, Hao Y, Xu J, Thun MJ. Cancer statistics, 2009. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians 2009;59(4):225–249.
(2) Data from cancer tracking suggest that childhood cancer is increasing, although the data is not consistent from year to year; the National Cancer Institute reported that for infants less than one year old, the rate of cancer rose by 36% from 1976-84, but some say that these increases are due to improved detection rather than representing true increases in cancer.
(3) Center for Children’s Health and the Environment, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine (http://www.pbs.org/odyssey/odyssey/toxics_brain_cancer.pdf)
(4) Ibid.
(5) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/19/opinion/a-toothless-law-on-toxic-chemicals.html?emc=eta1&_r=0
(6) http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/presidents-cancer-panel/
(7) Our Children at Risk, The Natural Resrouces Defense Council, http://www.nrdc.org/health/kids/ocar/chap2.asp
(8) Royce, S. and H. Needleman, Case Studies in Environmental Medicine: Lead Toxicity, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 1995.
(9) Bearer, C., “How Are Children Different from Adults?” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 103, supp. 6, September 1995, pp. 7-12.
(10) Birnbaum, L.S., “Endocrine Effects of Prenatal Exposures to PCBs, Dioxins, and Other Xenobiotics: Implications for Policy and Future Research,” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 102, no. 8, 1994, pp.676-679. Y.L. Guo et al., “Growth Abnormalities in the Population Exposed in Utero and Early Postnatally to Polychlorinated Biphenyls and Dibenzrofurans,” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 105, suppl. 6, September 1995, pp.117-122.
(11) Jacobson, J.L. et al., “The Transfer of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs) across the Human Placenta and into Maternal Milk,” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 74, 1984, pp.378-9. J. Jacobson et al., “Effects of In Utero Exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls and Related Contaminants on Cognitive Functioning in Young Children,” Pediatrics, vol. 116, 1990, pp.38-45. S.W. Jacobson et al., “The Effect of Intrauterine PCB Exposure on Visual Recognition Memory,” Child Dev, vol. 56,1985, pp.853-60. J.L. Jacobson et al., “Effects of Exposure to PCBs and Related Compounds on Growth and Activity in Children,” Neurotoxicol. Teratol., vol.12, 1990, pp. 319-26.
(12) Gilbert, S. G. and K. Grant-Webster, “Neurobehavioral Effects of Developmental Methyl-Mercury Exposure,” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 103, supp. 6, September 1995, pp. 135-142.

What about chrome-free, or “eco” leather?

29 05 2012

With the increased interest in avoidance of certain chemicals and industrial products that are particularly harmful to our environment, it’s not surprising that manufacturers are becoming ingenious in pointing out attributes that play to this script.  So we now see claims for “chrome free” leather, or for “eco friendly” leather.

In last week’s post, I pointed out two kinds of leather tanning – chromium and vegetable. Although most leather is tanned using chromium (from 80 – 95% of all leather produced[1]) there is a third type of leather tanning, called aldehyde tanning, which like vegetable tanning does not use chromium.  Let’s revisit leather tanning for a minute:

  1. Sometimes leather manufacturers will tell you that they don’t use the toxic form of chromium in tanning – the toxic form is called chromium IV or hexavalent chromium.  And that is correct:  chromium tanned leathers use chromium III salts (also called trivalent chromium) in the form of chromium sulfate.  This form of chromium is found naturally in the environment and is a necessary nutrient for the human body.   However, the leather manufacturers fail to explain that  chromium III oxidizes into chromium IV in the presence of oxygen combined with other factors, such as extremes in pH.  This happens during the tanning process.  Chromium-tanned leather can contain between 4 and 5% of chromium [2] – often hexavalent chromium, which produces allergic reactions and easily moves across membranes such as skin.  End of life issues, recovery and reuse are a great concern – chromium (whether III or IV) is persistent (it cannot be destroyed) and will always be in the environment.   Incineration, composting and gasification will not eliminate chromium.
  2. Vegetable tanning is simply the replacement of the chromium for bark or plant tannins – all other steps remain the same.  And since there are about 250 chemicals used in tanning, the replacement of chromium for plant tannins, without addressing the other chemicals used, is a drop in the bucket.   Last week I mentioned some of the other 249 chemicals routinely used in tanning:  alcohol, coal tar , sodium sulfate, sulfuric acid, chlorinated phenols (e.g. 3,5-dichlorophenol), azo dyes, cadmium, cobalt, copper, antimony, cyanide, barium, lead, selenium, mercury, zinc, polychlorinated biphenyels (PCBs), nickel, formaldehyde and pesticide residues.[3]   Here are the steps to creating leather :
  3. Aldehyde tanning is the main type of leather referred to as “chrome-free”, and is often used in automobiles and baby’s shoes.  Aldehyde tanning is often referred to as “wet white” due to the pale cream color it imparts to the skins.  But aldehydes are a group of chemicals that contain one chemical which many people are familiar with: formaldehyde.  And we all know about formaldehyde: it is highly toxic to all animals; ingestion of as little as little as 30 mL (1 oz.) of a solution containing 37% formaldehyde has been reported to cause death in an adult human[4]  and the Department of Health and Human Services has said it may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen.  Aldehyde tanning essentially uses formaldehyde, which reacts with proteins in the leather to prevent putrefication.  BLC Leather Technology Centre,  a leading independent leather testing center, states that leathers should contain no more than 200ppm of formaldehyde for articles in general use. If the item is in direct skin contact this should be 75ppm, and 20ppm for items used by babies (<36 months). Typically, with modern tanning techniques, leathers contain 400ppm or less.[5]   Yet that far exceeds levels set elsewhere – in New Zealand, for example, acceptable levels of formaldehyde in products is set at 100 ppm[6]  – the European Union Ecolabel restricts formaldehyde to 20 ppm for infant articles, 30 ppm for children and adults, while GOTS prohibits any detectable level.

BLC Leather Technology Centre Ltd.  commissioned a study by Ecobilan S.A (Reference BLC Report 002)  to do a life cycle analysis to evaluate the various tanning chemicals, to see if there was an environmentally preferable choice between chrome, vegetable and aldehyde based processes.  The result?  They found no significant differences between the three  – all have environmental impacts, just different ones.  These LCA’s demonstrate that tanning is just one of the impacts – other steps may have equal impacts.   Chrome was sited as having the disadvantage of being environmentally persistent. “Another consideration, in terms of end-of-life leather or management of chrome tanned leather waste, is the possibility of the valency state changing from the benign Cr III to the carcinogenic Cr VI.”[7]

So much for “chrome free” leather.  What about claims for “eco leather”?

In the strict sense of the definition, the term “eco leather” is meaningless. However, retailers want to imply improved environmental performance. So how can you evaluate their claims for “eco leathers”?

There are two main considerations in making leather:

  • How is it manufactured?
  • What inputs are used to produce it?

Research has shown that a significant part of the environmental impact of leather is in the manufacturing process.  In this respect it is the environmental stewardship practice of tanners coupled with chemical selection that should determine how eco friendly a leather is.  The following areas of leather manufacture have the most significant potential impact:

  • Management of restricted substances
  • Energy consumption
  • Air emissions
  • Waste management (hazardous and non hazardous)
  • Environmental management systems
  • Water consumption
  • Control of manufacturing processes
  • Effluent treatment
  • Chrome management
  • Traceability of material

In terms of the selection of inputs, we should consider the use of certain materials that could give an improved eco profile to leather. These include:

  • Biodegradable wetting agents for soaking
  • Reduced sulphide processing
  • Non synthetic or polymeric re-tannage systems
  • optimized dyestuffs
  • Vegetable oil based fatliquors
  • Optimised finishing systems to reduce waste such HVLP or roller coating
  • Biodegradable in 12 months or less

In summary, although there is no current definition, these are the key elements which should determine an “eco leather”:

  1. Control of leather manufacturing processes
  2. Clean technology chemical selection in the process
  3.  Effective management of restricted substances within the leather
  4. A measure of the end of life impact

As I mentioned in last week’s post, the production of leather can be a hellish life for the animal.  I have found only one company, Organic Leather, which looks beyond the production of the leather itself to the important questions of animal husbandry and land management practices which provide the skins, and incorporate these into a tanning process which “prevents further toxicity entering our environment and our bodies.”

The Leather Working Group (LWG)   is a multi-stakeholder group[8], whose purpose is  “to develop and maintain a protocol that assesses the compliance and environmental performance of tanners and promotes sustainable and appropriate environmental business practices within the footwear leather industry.”   The LWG, in conjunction with BLC Leather Technology Center Ltd., operates an eco rating system for leather. (This sort of mark is known as a first or second party certification, and lacks – I believe – the credibility of a true third party certification.)   Retailers, brands or tanners who are able to meet the requirements of this standard are eligible to use the EcoSure mark. To be eligible to use this mark tanneries must have achieved at least a Bronze award in the LWG Tannery Environment Auditing Protocol,  and the finished leather on which the mark is to be used must meet the requirements of the audit and testing regime. (to see the audit form, click here  ).

One issue which is a hot topic in leather production is that of deforestation and the sourcing of skins from Brazil – cattle ranching in Brazil accounted for 14% of global deforestation and ranches occupy approximately 80% of all deforested land in the Amazon.[9]  Greenpeace and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) aims to stop all deforestation in the Amazon by encouraging the meat processors to insist that their suppliers register their farms and map and log their boundaries as a minimum requirement. They also encourage companies to cancel orders with suppliers that are not prepared to stop deforestation and adhere to these minimum requirements.  Many of the LWG member brands have  made commitments to a moratorium on hides sourced from farms involved in deforestation and LWG itself has a project to identify and engage with the key stakeholders in Brazil, investigate traceability solutions, conduct trials and implement third party auditing solutions.

[1] Richards, Matt, et al, “Leather for Life”, Future Fashion White Papers, Earth Pledge Foundation

[2] Gustavson, K.H. “The Chemistry of Tanning Processes” Academic Press Inc., New York, 1956.

[3] Barton, Cat, “Workers pay high price at Bangladesh tanneries”, AFP, Feb. 2011

[4] Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, “Medical management guidelines for formaldehyde”, http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/mmg/mmg.asp?id=216&tid=39

[5] BLC Leather Technology Center Ltd, “Technology Restricted substances – Formaldehyde”, Leather International,  November 2008,  http://www.leathermag.com/news/fullstory.php/aid/13528/Technology_Restricted_substances-Formaldehyde.html

[6] “Evaluation of alleged unacceptable formaldehyde levels in Clothing”, Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Ministry of Consumer Affairs, October 17, 2007.

[8] Currently the consumer brands involved with the LWG are: Adidas-group, Clarks International, Ikea of Sweden, New Balance Athletic Shoe, Nike Inc, Pentland Group including (Berghaus, Boxfresh, Brasher, Ellesse, Franco Sarto, Gio-Goi, Hunter, KangaROOS, Mitre, Kickers (UK), Lacoste Chaussures, ONETrueSaxon, Radcliffe, Red or Dead, Speedo, Ted Baker Footwear), The North Face, The Timberland Company, Wolverine World Wide Inc including (CAT, Merrel, Hush Puppies, Patagonia, Wolverine, Track n Trail, Sebago, Chaco, Hytest, Bates, Cushe, Soft Style). New brands recently joined are Airwair International Ltd, K-Swiss International, Marks & Spencers and Nine West Group.

[9] “Broken Promises: how the cattle industry in the Amazon is still connected to deforestation…” Greenpeace, October 2011; http://www.leatherworkinggroup.com/images/documents/Broken%20promises%20-%20Oct11FINAL.pdf