Phthalate concerns for pregnant women

29 01 2015

Three pregnant women

As if we needed something else to worry about, a peer-reviewed study from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, published in December 2014, found evidence that chemicals called phthalates can impact the children of pregnant women who were exposed to those chemicals. Children of moms who had the highest levels of phthalates during pregnancy had markedly lower IQs at age 7. [1] Phthalates had previously been linked to effects ranging from behavioral disorders and cancers to deformations of the sex organs.

Why are we talking about this in a blog about fabrics?

Because phthalates are in the fabrics we use.  Generally, phthalates are used to make plastic soft: they are the most commonly used plasticizers in the world and are pretty much ubiquitous. They’re found in perfume, hair spray, deodorant, almost anything fragranced (from shampoo to air fresheners to laundry detergent), nail polish, insect repellent, carpeting, vinyl flooring, the coating on wires and cables, shower curtains, raincoats, plastic toys, and your car’s steering wheel, dashboard, and gearshift. (When you smell “new car,” you’re smelling phthalates.) Medical devices are full of phthalates — they make IV drip bags and tubes soft, but unfortunately, DEHP is being pumped directly into the bloodstream of ailing patients. Most plastic sex toys are softened with phthalates.

Phthalates are found in our food and water, too. They are in dairy products, possibly from the plastic tubing used to milk cows. They are in meats (some phthalates are attracted to fat, so meats and cheeses have high levels, although it’s not entirely clear how they are getting in to begin with). You’ll find phthalates in tap water that’s been tainted by industrial waste, and in the pesticides sprayed on conventional fruits and vegetables.

And fabrics. People just don’t think to even mention fabrics, which we continue to identify as the elephant in the room. Greenpeace did a study of fabrics produced by the Walt Disney Company in 2004 and found phthalates in all samples tested, at up to 20% by weight of the fabric.[2] Phthalates are one of the main components of plastisol screen printing inks used on fabrics. These plasticizers are not chemically bound to the PVC, so they can leach out. They’re also used in the production of synthetic fibers, as a finish for synthetic fibers to prevent static cling and as an intermediary in the production of dyes.

Phthalates are what is termed an “endocrine disruptor” – which means they interfere with the action of hormones. Hormones do a lot more than just make the sexual organs develop. During the development of a fetus, they fire on and off at certain times to affect the brain and other organs.

“The developing brain relies on hormones,” Dr. Factor-Litvak, the lead scientist of the study, said. Thyroid hormones affect the development of neurons, for example. There might be a window of vulnerability during pregnancy when certain key portions of the brain are forming, she said, and kids whose moms take in a lot of the chemicals during those times might be at risk of having the process disrupted somehow.

“These findings further suggest a potential role for phthalates on neurodevelopment,” said Dr. Maida P. Galvez, who did not work on the study but has a specialty in environmental pediatrics. The associate professor is in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “While this requires replication in other study populations for confirmation, it underscores the fact that chemicals used in everyday products need to be rigorously evaluated for their full potential of human health impacts before they are made widely available in the marketplace.”[3]

In the United States, the new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA) banned certain phthalates from use in toys or certain products marketed to children. In order to comply with this law, a product must not contain more than 0.1% of any of six banned phthalates. But just these six – the class of phthalates includes more than 25 different chemicals.

Gwynne Lyons, policy director of the campaign group, CHEM Trust, said: “The number of studies showing that these substances can cause harm is growing, but efforts by Denmark to try and get EU action on some phthalates had run into difficulties, largely because of concerns about the costs to industry.” [4] (our highlight!)

[1] Factor-Litvak, Pam, et al., “Persistent Associations Between Maternal Prenatal Exposure to Phthalates on Child IQ at Age 7 Years”, PLOS One, December 10, 2014; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0114003

[2] Pedersen, H and Hartmann, J; “Toxic Textiles by Disney”, Greenpeace, Brussels, April 2004

[3] Christensen, “Exposure to common household chemicals may cause IQ drop”, CNN, December 11, 2014 http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/11/health/chemical-link-to-lower-iq/

[4] Sample, Ian, “Phthalates risk damaging children’s IQs in the womb, US researchers suggest”, The Guardian, December 10, 2014





Eucalyptus fiber by any other name

2 03 2012

Fibers are divided into three main categories:

  • Natural – like flax, wool, silk and cotton
  • Manufactured – made from cellulose or protein
  • Synthetic – made from synthetic chemicals

The difference between “manufactured” and “synthetic” fibers is that the manufactured fibers are derived from naturally-occurring cellulose or protein, while synthetic fibers are not.  And  manufactured fibers are unlike  natural fibers because they require extensive processing (or at least more than is required by natural fibers) to become the finished product.  The category of “manufactured” fibers is often called “regenerated cellulose” fibers.  Cellulose is a carbohydrate and the chief component in the walls of plants.

Rayon is the oldest manufactured fiber, having been in production since the 1880s in France, where it was originally developed as a cheap alternative to silk.   Most rayon production begins with wood pulp, though any plant material with long molecular chains is suitable.

There are several chemical and manufacturing techniques to make rayon, but the most common method is known as the viscose process. In the viscose process, cellulose is treated with caustic soda (aka: sodium hydroxide) and carbon disulfide, converting it into a gold, highly viscous  liquid about the color and consistency of honey.  This substance gives its name to the manufacturing process, called the viscose process.

The viscous fluid is allowed to age, breaking down the cellulose structures further to produce an even slurry, and is then filtered to remove impurities.  Then the mixture is forced through fine holes, called a spinerette, directly into a chemical bath where it hardens into fine strands. When washed and bleached these strands become rayon yarn.

Although the viscose process of making rayon from wood or cotton has been around for a long time, it wasn’t until 2003 that a method was devised for using bamboo for this process.(3)  Suddenly, bamboo was the darling of marketers, and the FTC had to step in to remind manufacturers to label their products as “bamboo viscose” rather than simply bamboo.

Now we hear about fabrics made from  eucalyptus, or soy.  But it’s the same story – the fibers are created using the viscose process.  Because the FTC did not specifically name these two substances in their proclamation regarding bamboo,   marketers can claim fabrics are  “made from eucalyptus”.    The reality is that the viscose process can produce fibers from any cellulose or protein source – chicken feathers, milk and even bacteria have been used (rayon comes specifically from wood or cotton).  But those inputs are not nearly as exciting to the marketers as eucalyptus or soy, so nobody has been advertising fibers made from bacteria.

After the brouhaha about bamboo viscose hit the press, many people did a quick scan of viscose and declared it “unsafe” for the environment.  The reason the viscose process is thought to be detrimental to the environment is based on the process chemicals used. Though sodium hydroxide is routinely used in the processing of organic cotton, and is approved by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), carbon disulfide can cause nervous system damage with chronic exposure.  And that “chemical bath” to harden the threads?  Sulfuric acid.  But these chemicals do not remain as a residue on the fibers – the proof of this is that almost all of the viscose produced can be (and often is) Oeko Tex certified (which certifies that the finished fiber has been tested for any chemicals which may be harmful to a person’s health and contains no trace of these chemicals.)

The environmental burden comes in disposing of these process chemicals: the sodium hydroxide (though not harmful to humans) is nevertheless harmful to the environment if dumped into our rivers as untreated effluent. Same with carbon disulfide  and, certainly, sulfuric acid.  And there are emissions of these chemicals as well, which contribute to greenhouse gasses.  And the reason that these fibers can be Oeko Tex certified:  Oeko Tex certifies only the final product, i.e.,the fibers or the fabric.  They do not look at the production process, which is where the majority of the environmental burden is found.  And then of course there is the weaving of these viscose fibers into fabric – if done conventionally, the environmental burden is devastating (in terms of chemical and water use) and the fabric itself probably contains many chemicals known to be harmful to our health.

Certainly the standard viscose production process is definitely NOT environmentally friendly, but then there is Tencel ® and Modal ®.   These fibers are manufactured by the Austrian company Lenzing, which  advertises its environmentally friendly production processes, based on closed loop systems.  Lyocell is the generic name for the fibers produced by Lenzing, which are not produced by the traditional viscose process but rather by solvent spinning.

According to Lenzing:

  • There is an almost complete recovery of the solvent, which both minimizes emissions and conserves resources.  Lenzing uses  a new non-toxic solvent (amine oxide) and the cellulose is dissolved in N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide rather than sulfuric acid. Water is also evaporated, and the resulting solution filtered and extruded as filaments through spinnerets into an aqueous bath. Over 99% of the solvent can washed from the fiber and purified for re-use. The water is also recycled.
  •  The by products of production, such as acetic acid, xylose and sodium sulphate are key ingredients in the food and glass industry. Remaining materials are used as energy for the Lenzing process.
  • Tencel ® is made from eucalyptus, which is grown on marginal land unsuitable for food crops; these trees are grown with a minimum of water and are grown using sustainable forestry initiatives.
  • The final fibers are biodegradable and can decompose in soil burial or in waste water treatment plants.

So Lenzing fibers can be considered a good choice if you’re looking for a sustainable fiber – in fact there is a movement to have Lenzing Tencel® eligible for GOTS certification, which we support, because the production of these fibers conforms with the spirit of GOTS.  They already have the EU Flower certification.

But Lenzing does not make fabrics – it sells yarns to mills and others which use the yarns to make fabric and other goods.

So  we’re back to the beginning again, because people totally forget about the environmental impact in the weaving of fibers into fabric, where the water and chemical use is very high –  if done conventionally, the environmental burden is devastating  and the finished fabric itself probably contains many chemicals which are outlawed in other products.

It’s critically important to look at both the fiber as well as the weaving in order to make a good choice.





Breast cancer and acrylic fibers

16 09 2010

Just in case you missed the recent report which was published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine [1], a Canadian study found that women who work with some common synthetic materials could treble their risk of developing breast cancer after menopause.  The data included  women working in textile factories which produce acrylic fabrics   –  those women have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than the normal population, while those working with nylon fibers had double the risk.

I found it interesting that the researchers justified their findings because “synthetic fibers are typically treated with several chemicals, such as flame retardants from the organophosphate family, delustering agents, and dyes, some of which have estrogenic properties and may be carcinogenic.”

These are the same organophosphate flame retardants and dyes that are used across the textile spectrum, and which are found in most textiles that we surround ourselves with each day.

But also let’s look at the fibers themselves.  The key ingredient of acrylic fiber is acrylonitrile, (also called vinyl cyanide). It is a carcinogen (brain, lung and bowel cancers) and a mutagen, targeting the central nervous system.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acrylonitrile enters our bodies through skin absorption, as well as inhalation and ingestion.  So could the acrylic fibers in our acrylic fabrics be a contributing factor to these results?

Acrylic fibers are just not terrific to live with anyway.  Acrylic manufacturing involves highly toxic substances which require careful storage, handling, and disposal. The polymerization process can result in an explosion if not monitored properly. It also produces toxic fumes. Recent legislation requires that the polymerization process be carried out in a closed environment and that the fumes be cleaned, captured, or otherwise neutralized before discharge to the atmosphere.(2)

Acrylic is not easily recycled nor is it readily biodegradable. Some acrylic plastics are highly flammable and must be protected from sources of combustion.

What about nylon?  Well, in a nutshell, the production of nylon includes the precursors benzene (a known human carcinogen) and hydrogen cyanide gas (extremely poisonous); the manufacturing process releases VOCs, nitrogen oxides and ammonia.  And finally there is the addition of those organophosphate flame retardants and dyes.

Of course, there are the usual caveats about the study, and those commenting on it said further studies were needed since chance or undetected bias could have played a role in the findings. In addition, according to Reuters, “the scientists said more detailed studies focusing on certain chemicals were now needed to try to establish what role chemical exposure plays in the development of breast cancer.”  So this is yet another area in which more research needs to be done.  No surprise there.

But in the meantime, did you know that many popular fabrics are made of acrylic fibers?   One of the most popular is Sunbrella outdoor fabrics.     Sunbrella fabrics have been certified by GreenGuard Children and Schools because the chemicals used in acrylic production are bound in the polymer – in other words, they do not evaporate.   So Sunbrella fabrics do not contribute to poor air quality, (you won’t be breathing them in), but there is no guarantee that you won’t absorb them through your skin.  And you would be supporting the production of more acrylic, the production of which is not a pretty thing.

And what about backings on fabrics?  Many are made of acrylic.  Turn those fabric samples over and see if there is a plastic film on the back – it’s often made of acrylic.  Upholsterers like fabrics to be backed because it makes the process much easier and stabilizes the fibers.

So I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll avoid those synthetics for now – at least until we know where we stand.


[1] Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi: 10.1136/oem.2009.049817  (abstract: http://oem.bmj.com/content/67/4/263.abstract)  SEE ALSO:  http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321

(2)  http://www.madehow.com/Volume-2/Acrylic-Plastic.html





What are PBDE’s and why should I be concerned?

21 07 2010

PBDE’s are chemical compounds that are used as flame retardants.  They can be found in almost anything that carries an electrical current or is highly flammable.  They’re in, for example, your TV, your computer, your cellphone,  your car, your toaster and your sofa. 

PBDE stands for polybrominated diphenyl ether – a compound which contains bromine atoms.  PBDE’s come in different forms, depending on the number and location of the bromine atoms.   There are 209 possible variations.  Often in the U.S. PBDE’s are marketed with trade names such as DE-60F or Saytex 102E (among others).  Variations of the polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s)  include pentabrominated diphenyl ethers (pentaBDE’s); octabrominated diphenyl (octaBDE) and decabrominated diphenyl ethers (decaBDE’s).   Penta and Octa BDE’s are on the way out worldwide (are actually no longer produced in the US), but the chemical industry is waging a fierce fight to retain the use of the third major PBDE compound, Deca, which is the most widely used of the PBDE’s – about 50 million pounds a year in the U.S. alone.

PBDEs are released into the environment during manufacturing operations, as products containing these chemicals degrade, or when the products containing the PBDE’s  are disposed.

WHY SHOULD I BE CONCERNED?

SHORT ANSWER:   PBDE’s are everywhere, they accumulate and they spread.  And they’re really not good for us.

LONGER ANSWER:

Demand for flame retardants is up:  The average “escape time” that a person has to get out of a burning home has dropped from 17 minutes in 1975 to only 3 minutes today, according to a study by Underwriters Laboratories released in October 2007.  The reason for this is that plastics, from which so much of our consumer products are made, are made from oil, which is actually considered an accelerant in fires.  And synthetic fabrics (according to the UL study) produce hotter fires and more toxic smoke than natural fiber furnishings. The higher fire load of consumer products and home decorations has effectively made home fires so dangerous that fire alarms sounding will often not provide adequate time for occupants to escape. The flame retardants for plastics therefore have become more critical than ever before. Increasingly stringent fire codes and flammability requirements, especially in building materials and consumer products, are driving demand for flame retardants steadily higher.

PBDE use has increased 40% from 1992 to 2003, and is forecast to grow by at least 3% per year from 2011;   they are ubiquitous in consumer products.

Food is the major source of exposure for many contaminants, including DDT and PCBs.   But food doesn’t seem to be the culprit in this case: Since PBDEs are used as additive flame-retardantsand do not bind chemically to the polymers, they leach fromthe surface of the product and easily reach the environment.  In fact, The Environmental Working Group calculations show that dust is likely to be a more important PBDE exposure route for children than food, as PBDEs migrate from furniture and electronics into house dust.

And they don’t stay put:  Sit down on a foam cushion and you’re releasing countless, invisible PBDE particles. When the TV gets hot, still more escape and land in the dust in our homes. They rinse off our clothes in the laundry and run down the shower drain, winding up in sewage that’s applied to farm fields as fertilizer.

And what about all that plastic in the ocean gyres or in landfills?  It is slowly leaching PBDE’s.

These chemicals have characteristics that make them intrinsically hazardous to humans and other animals:  they are stable (persistent), they are fat seeking and they have the potential to act as endocrine disruptors.  What is meant by these sorta innocuous sounding terms is:

  1. persistent:  they bioaccumulate, or build up, in fish and cats and Orcas and foxes – and people.  Our bodies cannot get rid of these contaminates, so our levels just increase over time.  We eat PBDEs when they contaminate our food, particularly meat and dairy products. They latch on to dust and other particles, so we breathe them in, or ingest them when dust settles on food or when children stuff their fingers into their mouths. Scientists look for PBDEs in breast milk because the chemicals stick to fat. In 1999, Swedish researchers reported that PBDE levels in women’s breast milk had increased 60-fold between 1972 and 1997.  Similar dramatic increases were documented in California harbor seals, ringed seals from the Arctic, gull eggs from the Great Lakes and human blood from Norway.   PBDE pollution has been found essentially everywhere scientists have looked: in the tissues of whales, seals, birds and bird eggs, moose, reindeer, mussels, eels, and fish; in human breast milk, hair, fat and blood; in hot dogs and hamburgers and the cheese we put on them;  in twenty different countries and remote areas such as the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Arctic Ocean, on top of mountains and under the sea.
  2. fat seeking: this causes them to magnify up the food chain, increasing in concentration at each successively higher  level. Once PBDE’s are released into the environment, they invariably find their way into humans, including pregnant women, where they pass  to the developing fetus in utero or through the breast milk to the nursing infant.  As evidence of fetal exposure, the infant at birth has levels of PBDE’s that are up to 25% of maternal levels.  And researchers have found that children’s PBDE levels are about 2.8 times higher than their mothers. Research in animals shows that exposure to brominated fire retardants in-utero or during infancy leads to more significant harm than exposure during adulthood, and much lower levels of PBDEs are needed to cause harm to infants and children than to adults.
  3. endocrine disruptors: Many of the known health effects of PBDEs are thought to stem from their ability to disrupt the body’s thyroid hormone balance, which plays an essential role in brain development.  Laboratory animals showed deficits in learning and memory with exposure to PBDE’s.   Studies of mice showed that a single exposure to PBDEs caused permanent behavioral aberrations that worsened as the mice got older.  One study, for instance, found that women whose levels of T4 measured in the lowest 10 percent of the population during the first trimester of pregnancy were more than 2.5 times as likely to have a child with an IQ of less than 85 (in the lowest 20 percent of the range of IQs) and five times as likely to have a child with an IQ of less than 70, meeting the diagnosis of “mild retardation.”
    1. In addition to their effects on thyroid hormones and neurological development, PBDEs have been linked to a gamut of other health impacts in laboratory animals, from subtle to dramatic.  In-utero exposures have  been associated with serious harm to the fetus, including limb malformation, enlarged hearts, bent ribs,  delayed bone hardening, and lower weight gain. The malformations of the fetus were consistently seen at levels much lower than doses harmful to the mouse mothers.
    2. Only one commercial PBDE mixture has been tested for its ability to cause cancer, in a single study more than 15 years ago. High doses of Deca given to rats and mice caused liver, thyroid and pancreas tumors.

What does all of that mean, exactly?  

Personal choices can make a difference. Buying furniture, fabric, cell phones or computers made without PBDEs is definitely a vote for a non-toxic future. But personal choices can only go so far – and the crisis is great.   PBDEs, like other contaminant issues, are at least as much a social as a personal issue and challenge. You can help your kids not only with your buying habits, but also by modeling social action for environmental change, and by campaigning for a non-toxic future, the kind of future where mother’s milk will regain its purity.





Why buy natural fibers instead of synthetics?

26 05 2010


Since the 1960s, the use of synthetic fibers has increased dramatically,  causing the natural fiber industry to lose much of its market share. In December 2006, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2009 the International Year of Natural Fibres (IYNF); a year-long initiative focused on raising global awareness about natural fibers with specific focus on increasing market demand to help ensure the long-term sustainability for farmers who rely heavily on their production.

International Forum for Cotton Promotion

Since I have recently been ranting about the plastics industry I thought it was time to turn to natural fibers, which have a history of being considered the highest quality fibers, valued for their comfort, soft hand and versatility.  They also carry a certain cachet:  cashmere, silk taffeta and 100% pure Sea Island cotton convey different images than does 100% rayon,  pure polyester or even Ultrasuede, don’t they?  And natural fibers, being a bit of an artisan product, are highly prized especially in light of campaigns by various trade associations to brand its fiber:    “the fabric of our lives” from Cotton, Inc. and merino wool with the pure wool label are two examples. 

Preferences for natural fibers seem to be correlated with income; in one study, people with higher incomes preferred natural fibers by a greater percentage than did those in lower income brackets.   Cotton Incorporated funded a study that demonstrated that  66% of all women with household incomes over $75,000 prefer natural fibers to synthetic.

What are the reasons, according to the United Nations, that make natural fibers so important?  As  the UN website, Discover Natural Fibers says:

  1. Natural fibers are a healthy choice.
    1. Natural fiber textiles absorb perspiration and release it into the air, a process called “wicking” that creates natural ventilation. Because of their more compact molecular structure, synthetic fibers cannot capture air and “breathe” in the same way. That is why a cotton T-shirt is so comfortable to wear on a hot summer’s day, and why polyester and acrylic garments feel hot and clammy under the same conditions. (It also explains why sweat-suits used for weight reduction are made from 100% synthetic material.) The bends, or crimp, in wool fibers trap pockets of air which act as insulators against both cold and heat – Bedouins wear thin wool to keep them cool. Since wool can absorb liquids up to 35% of its own weight, woollen blankets efficiently absorb and disperse the cup of water lost through perspiration during sleep, leaving sheets dry and guaranteeing a much sounder slumber than synthetic blankets.
    2. The “breathability” of natural fiber textiles makes their wearers less prone to skin rashes, itching and allergies often caused by synthetics. Garments, sheets and pillowcases of organic cotton or silk are the best choice for children with sensitive skins or allergies, while hemp fabric has both a high rate of moisture dispersion and natural anti-bacterial properties.   Studies by Poland’s Institute of Natural Fibers have shown that 100% knitted linen is the most hygienic textile for bed sheets – in clinical tests, bedridden aged or ill patients did not develop bedsores. The institute is developing underwear knitted from flax which, it says, is significantly more hygienic than nylon and polyester. Chinese scientists also recommend hemp fiber for household textiles, saying it has a high capacity for absorption of toxic gases.
  2. Natural fibers are a responsible choice.
    1. Natural fibers production, processing and export are vital to the economies of many developing countries and the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers and low-wage workers. Today, many of those economies and livelihoods are under threat: the global financial crisis has reduced demand for natural fibers as processors, manufacturers and consumers suspend purchasing decisions or look to cheaper synthetic alternatives.
    2. Almost all natural fibers are produced by agriculture, and the major part is harvested in the developing world.
      1. For example, more than 60% of the world’s cotton is grown in China, India and Pakistan. In Asia, cotton is cultivated mainly by small farmers and its sale provides the primary source of income of some 100 million rural households.
      2. In India and Bangladesh, an estimated 4 million marginal farmers earn their living – and support 20 million dependents – from the cultivation of jute, used in sacks, carpets, rugs and curtains. Competition from synthetic fibers has eroded demand for jute over recent decades and, in the wake of recession, reduced orders from Europe and the Middle East could cut jute exports by 20% in 2009.
      3. Silk is another important industry in Asia. Raising silkworms generates income for some 700 000 farm households in India, while silk processing provide jobs for 20 000 weaving families in Thailand and about 1 million textile workers in China. Orders of Indian silk goods from Europe and the USA are reported to have declined by almost 50% in 2008-09.
      4. Each year, developing countries produce around 500 000 tonnes of coconut fiber – or coir – mainly for export to developed countries for use in rope, nets, brushes, doormats, mattresses and insulation panels. In Sri Lanka, the single largest supplier of brown coir fiber to the world market, coir goods account for 6% of agricultural exports, while 500 000 people are employed in small-scale coir factories in southern India.
      5. Across the globe in Tanzania, government and private industry have been working to revive once-booming demand for sisal fiber, extracted from the sisal agave and used in twine, paper, bricks and reinforced plastic panels in automobiles. Sisal cultivation and processing in Tanzania directly employs 120 000 people and the sisal industry benefits an estimated 2.1 million people. However, the global slowdown has cut demand for sisal, forced a 30% cut in prices, and led to mounting job losses.
  3. Natural fibers are a sustainable choice.
    1. Natural fibers will play a key role in the emerging “green” economy based on energy efficiency, the use of renewable feed stocks in bio-based polymer products, industrial processes that reduce carbon emissions and recyclable materials that minimize waste.  Natural fibers are a renewable resource, par excellence – they have been renewed by nature and human ingenuity for millennia. They are also carbon neutral: they absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide they produce. During processing, they generate mainly organic wastes and leave residues that can be used to generate electricity or make ecological housing material. And, at the end of their life cycle, they are 100% biodegradable.
    2. An FAO study estimated that production of one ton of jute fiber requires just 10% of the energy used for the production of one ton of synthetic fibers (since jute is cultivated mainly by small-scale farmers in traditional farming systems, the main energy input is human labor, not fossil fuels).
    3. Processing of some natural fibers can lead to high levels of water pollutants, but they consist mostly of biodegradable compounds, in contrast to the persistent chemicals, including heavy metals, released in the effluent from synthetic fiber processing. More recent studies have shown that producing one ton of polypropylene – widely used in packaging, containers and cordage – emits into the atmosphere more than 3 ton of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. In contrast, jute absorbs as much as 2.4 tonnes of carbon per tonne of dry fiber.
    4. The environmental benefits of natural fiber products accrue well beyond the production phase. For example, fibers such as hemp, flax and sisal are being used increasingly as reinforcing in place of glass fibers in thermoplastic panels in automobiles. Since the fibers are lighter in weight, they reduce fuel consumption and with it carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution.
    5. But where natural fibers really excel is in the disposal stage of their life cycle. Since they absorb water, natural fibers decay through the action of fungi and bacteria. Natural fiber products can be composted to improve soil structure, or incinerated with no emission of pollutants and release of no more carbon than the fibers absorbed during their lifetimes. Synthetics present society with a range of disposal problems. In land fills they release heavy metals and other additives into soil and groundwater. Recycling requires costly separation, while incineration produces pollutants and, in the case of high-density polyethylene, 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions for every tonne of material burnt. Left in the environment, synthetic fibers contribute, for example, to the estimated 640 000 tonnes of abandoned fishing nets and gear in the world’s oceans.
  4. Natural fibers are a high-tech choice.
    1. Natural fibers have intrinsic properties – mechanical strength, low weight and low cost – that have made them particularly attractive to the automobile industry.
      1. In Europe, car makers are using mats made from abaca, flax and hemp in press-molded      thermoplastic panels for door liners, parcel shelves, seat backs, engine shields and headrests.
        1. For consumers, natural fiber composites in automobiles provide better thermal and acoustic insulation than fiberglass, and reduce irritation of the skin and respiratory system. The low density of plant fibers also reduces vehicle weight, which cuts fuel consumption.
        2. For car manufacturers, the moulding process consumes less energy than that of fibreglass and produces less wear and tear on machinery, cutting production costs by up to 30%. The use of natural fibres by Europe’s car industry is projected to reach 100 000 tonnes by 2010. German companies lead the way. Daimler-Chrysler has developed a flax-reinforced polyester composite, and in 2005 produced an award-winning spare wheel well cover that incorporated abaca yarn from the Philippines. Vehicles in some BMW series contain up to 24 kg of flax and sisal.  Released in July 2008, the Lotus Eco Elise (pictured above) features body panels made with hemp, along with sisal carpets and seats upholstered with hemp fabric. Japan’s carmakers, too, are “going green”. In Indonesia, Toyota manufactures door trims made from kenaf and polypropylene, and Mazda is using a bioplastic made with kenaf for car interiors.
    1. Worldwide, the construction industry is moving to natural fibres for a range of products, including light structural walls, insulation materials, floor and wall coverings, and roofing. Among recent innovations are cement blocks reinforced with sisal fibre, now being manufactured in Tanzania and Brazil. In India, a growing shortage of timber for the construction industry has spurred development of composite board made from jute veneer and coir ply – studies show that coir’s high lignin content makes it both stronger and more resistant to rotting than teak. In Europe, hemp hurd and fibres are being used in cement and to make particle boards half the weight of wood-based boards. Geotextiles are another promising new outlet for natural fibre producers. Originally developed in the Netherlands for the construction of dykes, geotextile nets made from hard natural fibres strengthen earthworks and encourage the growth of plants and trees, which provide further reinforcement. Unlike plastic textiles used for the same purpose, natural fibre nets – particularly those made from coir – decay over time as the earthworks stabilize.
  1. Natural fibers are a fashionable choice.

    John Patrick Organic Fall/Winter 2010

    1. Natural fibers are at the heart of a fashion movement that goes by various names: sustainable, green, uncycled, ethical, eco-, even eco-environmental. It focuses fashion on concern for the environment, the well-being of fiber producers and consumers, and the conditions of workers in the textile industry. Young designers now offer “100% carbon neutral” collections that strive for sustainability at every stage of their garments’ life cycle – from production, processing and packaging to transportation, retailing and ultimate disposal. Preferred raw materials include age-old fibres such as flax and hemp, which can be grown without agrochemicals and produce garments that are durable, recyclable and biodegradable. Fashion collections also feature organic wool, produced by sheep that have not been exposed to pesticide dips, and “cruelty-free” wild silk, which is harvested – unlike most silk – after the moths have left their cocoons.
    2. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)   sets strict standards on chemicals permitted in processing, on waste water treatment, packaging material and technical quality parameters, on factory working conditions and on residue testing.
    3. Sustainable fashion intersects with the “fair trade” movement, which offers producers in developing countries higher prices for their natural fibres and promotes social and environmental standards in fibre processing. Fair trade fashion pioneers are working with organic cotton producers’ cooperatives in Mali, hand-weavers groups in Bangladesh and Nepal, and alpaca producers in Peru. A major UK chain store launched in 2007 a fair trade range of clothing that uses cotton “ethically sourced” from farmers in the Gujarat region of India. It has since sold almost 5 million garments and doubled sales in the first six months of 2008.
    4. Another dimension of sustainable fashion is concern for the working conditions of employees in textile and garment factories, which are often associated with long working hours, exposure to hazardous chemicals used in bleaching and dyeing, and the scourge of child labor. The recently approved (November 2008) Global Organic Textile Standard, widely accepted by manufacturers, retailers and brand dealers, includes a series of “minimum social criteria” for textile processing, including a prohibition on the use of child labor, workers’ freedom of association and right to collective bargaining, safe and hygienic working conditions, and “living wages”.

For the next few weeks I’ll talk about various fiber types, starting with my favorite, hemp.





carbon footprints…

2 06 2009

Please be aware that our suggestions are just starting points for you to consider when looking at a fabric, because actually calculating a carbon footprint is very complex and time consuming.  Peter Tydemers, who is an ecological economist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, has warned that many of the energy calculators we see should be taken with a pinch of salt – because every detail of where and how something is produced can change and therefore affect the outcome. For example, simply changing an animals feed can have an influence on its CO2 footprint. “It’s all very fluid”, he says, “There’s a tremendous hunger for these sorts of numbers and this has created the assumption that any existing figures are robust. They’re not.” We suggest that you examine carefully any studies to see the variables and the assumptions  made.  Something else to determine is who funded the study!  I was really perplexed to see a web site which had “data” on the energy used to create various fibers; the conclusions being drawn were just a bit outside the limits of any studies I had seen earlier.  But when I saw the industry group that funded the study it all became clear.

That being said, to begin to evaluate the carbon footprint of any fabric the first thing you have to do is  figure out what the fabric is made of  – the fiber.    The fiber tells you a lot about the energy needed to make the yarns, and then the fabric.  The energy needed to produce different fibers varies a lot.

To make it easy to compare the fibers, I”ll divide them into two types: “natural” (from plants, animals and – less commonly – minerals), and “synthetic” (man made)

For synthetics, it’s important to remember that most synthetic fibers  started as fossil fuel, an inherently non renewable resource.  Very high amounts of energy are needed to both extract the oil from the ground as well as to produce the polymers (as it is done under high temperatures).

For natural fibers you must look at field preparation, planting and field operations (mechanized irrigation, weed control, pest control and fertilizers (manure vs. synthetic chemicals)), harvesting and yields.  Synthetic fertilizer use is a major component of the high cost of conventional agriculture:  making just one ton of nitrogen fertilizer emits nearly 7 tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases.

A study done by the Stockholm Environment Institute on behalf of the BioRegional Development Group  concludes that the energy used (and therefore the CO2 emitted) to create 1 ton of spun fiber is much higher for synthetics than for hemp or cotton:

KG of CO2 emissions per ton of spun fiber:

crop cultivation

fiber production

TOTAL

polyester USA

0.00

9.52

9.52

cotton, conventional, USA

4.20

1.70

5.89

hemp, conventional

1.90

2.15

4.10

cotton, organic, India

2.00

1.80

3.75

cotton, organic, USA

0.90

1.45

2.35

The table above only gives results for polyester; other synthetics have more of an impact:  acrylic is 30% more energy intensive in its production than polyester and nylon is even higher than that.

Not only is the quantity of GHG emissions of concern regarding synthetics, so too are the kinds of gasses produced during production of synthetic fibers.  Nylon, for example, creates emissions of Nitrous Oxide,  N2O, which is 300 times more damaging than CO2.[1] In fact, during the 1990s, N2O emissions from a single nylon plant in the UK were thought to have a global warming impact equivalent to more than 3% of the UK’s entire CO2 emissions.[2] A study done for the New Zealand Merino Wool Association shows how much more total energy is required for the production of  synthetics than any natural fibers:

Energy used in production of various fibers:

energy use in MJ perKG of fiber:
flax fibre (MAT)

10

cotton

55

wool

63

Viscose

100

Polypropylene

115

Polyester

125

acrylic

175

Nylon

250

SOURCE:  “LCA: New Zealand Merino Wool Total Energy Use”, Barber and Pellow,      http://www.tech.plym.ac.uk/sme/mats324/mats324A9%20NFETE.htm

Natural fibers, in addition to having a smaller carbon footprint in the production of the spun fiber, have the benefit of

  1. being able to be degraded by micro-organisms and composted; in this way the fixed CO2 in the fiber will be released and the cycle closed.  Synthetics do not decompose.
  2. sequestering carbon.  Sequestering carbon is the process through which CO2 from the atmosphere is absorbed by plants through photosynthesis and stored as carbon in biomass (leaves, stems, branches, roots, etc.) and soils.

As I said, looking at the production of the fiber is just the first part of the equation.  It is clear that, in terms of energy use and CO2 emissions, synthetics are  significantly higher in both cases than any natural fiber.  How the fibers are grown or managed also makes a huge contribution to energy use, and as you might have suspected, organic methods improve these results even more and widen the gap between synthetic and natural fibers.  That’s next week’s topic.


[1] “Tesco carbon footprint study confirms organic farming is energy efficient, but excludes key climate benefit of organic farming, soil carbon”, Prism Webcast News, April 30, 2008, http://prismwebcastnews.com/2008/04/30/tesco-carbon-footprint-study-confirms-organic-farming%E2%80%99s-energy-efficiency-but-excludes-key-climate-benefit-of-organic-farming-%E2%80%93-soil-carbon/

(2) Fletcher, Kate, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles,  Earthscan, 2008,  Page 13