10 reasons to make sure your sofa choices are upholstered with safely processed fabrics.

28 10 2013

If a fabric is identified as 100%  “cotton” – or even 100% “organic cotton”  —  it’s important to remember that processing the fiber, and then weaving it into fabric, is very chemically intense.  One-quarter of the total weight of the finished fabric is made up of synthetic chemicals, so it’s important to know that the chemicals used in your fabrics are safe! [1]

There have not been a lot of studies which show the effects that chemicals contained in a fabric have on humans as a result of using that fabric, perhaps because there are no interested parties other than universities and government entities.   But there are numerous studies which document the effects which the individual chemicals have on humans – perhaps because the textile industry is so fragmented that the few really large corporations with the resources to do this kind of research tend to finance research which supports  new products (such as DuPont’s PLA fibers or Teijin’s recycling efforts).  But there have been some, and we found the following:

  1. Formaldehyde is used often in finishing textiles to give the fabrics easy care properties (like wrinkle resistance, anti cling, stain resistance, etc.).  Formaldehyde resins are used on almost all cotton/poly sheet sets in the USA.
    1. Formaldehyde is a listed human carcinogen.  Besides being associated with watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, difficulty in breathing, coughing, some pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), asthma attacks, chest tightness, headaches, and general fatigue, as well as well documented skin rashes, formaldehyde is associated with more severe health issues:  For example, it could cause nervous system damage by its known ability to react with and form cross-linking with proteins, DNA and unsaturated fatty acids.13 These same mechanisms could cause damage to virtually any cell in the body, since all cells contain these substances. Formaldehyde can react with the nerve protein (neuroamines) and nerve transmitters (e.g., catecholamines), which could impair normal nervous system function and cause endocrine disruption. [3]
      1. In January 2009, new blue uniforms issued to Transportation Security Administration officers gave them skin rashes, bloody noses, lightheadedness, red eyes, and swollen and cracked lips, according to the American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing the officers.
      2. In 2008, more than 600 people joined a class action suit against Victoria’s Secret, claiming horrific skin reactions (and permanent scarring for some) as a result of wearing Victoria Secret’s bras.   Lawsuits were filed in Florida and New York – after the lawyers found formaldehyde in the bras.
      3. Contact dermatitis is a well-known condition, and there are many websites which feature ways to get help.
      4. 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.[2]
    2. Dioxins:  Main uses of dioxin in relation to textiles is as a preservative for cotton and other fibers during sea transit,  and in cotton bleaching. It is also found in some dyestuffs.  Dioxin is known as one of the strongest poisons which man is able to produce. It causes cancer of the liver and lung, and interferes with the immune system, resulting in a predisposition to infectious diseases and embrional misgrowth.
      1. Studies have found dioxin leached from clothing  onto  the skin of participants:[3]  It was shown that these contaminants are transferred from textiles to human skin during wearing. They were also present in shower water and were washed out of textiles during washing. Extensive evidence was found indicating that contaminated textiles are a major source of chlorinated dioxins and furans in non-industrial sewage sludge, dry cleaning residues and house dust.
    3. Perfluorocarbons (PFC’s)  break down within the body and in the environment to PFOA, PFOS and similar chemicals. (Note: the chemistry here is quite dense; I’ve tried to differentiate between the groups. Please let me know if I’ve made a mistake!) They are the most persistent synthetic chemicals known to man. Once they are in the body, it takes decades to get them out – assuming you are exposed to no more. They are toxic in humans with health effects from increased chloesterol to stroke and cancer. Although little PFOA can be found in the finished product, the breakdown of the fluorotelomers used on paper products and fabric treatments might explain how more than 90% of all Americans have these hyper-persistent, toxic chemicals in their blood. A growing number of researchers believe that fabric-based, stain-resistant coatings, which are ubiquitous, may be the largest environmental source of this  controversial chemical family of PFCs.

PFC’s are used in stain resistant finishes/fabrics such as Scotchgard, GoreTex, Crypton, Crypton Green, GreenShield, Teflon:

  1. PFC’s cause developmental and other adverse effects in animals.[4]
  2. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the more exposure children have to PFC’s (perfluorinated compounds), the less likely they are to have a good immune response to vaccinations (click here to read the study).[5]

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.

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.

4. 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.  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)

  1. Alaska Airlines flight attendants were given new uniforms in 2010; shortly thereafter 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. )

The only fact which can be agreed upon between the union, the CPSC and the manufacturer is that 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.

5.  Acrylic fibers are made from acrolynitrile  (also called vinyl cyanide), which 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.  It is not easily recycled nor is it biodegradeable.

  1. Women who work in factories which produce acrylic fibers have seven times the rate of breast cancer as the normal population [6] – those working with nylon have double the risk.

6.  Chemicals used in textile processing which are associated with the immune system include formaldehyde, benzenes, toluene, phthalates. In 2007, The National Institutes of Health and the University of Washington released the findings of a 14 year study that demonstrates those who work with textiles were significantly more likely to die from an autoimmune disease than people who didn’t [7].

  1. Allergies and asthma are both thought to be associated with impaired immune systems.   Twice as many Americans (not just children) have asthma now as 20 yrs ago[8] and 10% of American children now have asthma.[9]
  2. As well as allergies and asthma, there are numerous other ‘chronic inflammatory diseases’ (CIDs) such as Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis which seem to stem from impaired regulation of our immune systems.[10]

7.  Chemicals commonly used in textiles which contribute to developmental disorders (such as (ADD, ADHA, autism, Dyslexia): Bisphenol A, flame retardants, heavy metals (lead, mercury, cadmium), phthalates, PCB’s:

  1. Currently one of every six American children has a developmental disorder of some kind.[11]
  2. Bisphenol A  – used as a finish in the production of synthetic fibers: It mimics estrogens (is an endocrine disruptor) and can cause infertility and cancer.[12] 

8.  PCB’s :  used in flame retardants on fabrics; they are neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors and carcinogenic

  1. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) commissioned psychologists to study children whose mothers were exposed to PCB’s during pregnancy. The researchers found  that the more PCBs  found in the mother’s cord blood, the worse the child did on tests for things such as short-term memory. By age eleven, the most highly exposed kids had an average IQ deficit of 6.2 [13].

9.  Cancer – chemicals used in textile processing which are linked to cancer include formaldehyde, lead, cadmium, pesticides, benzene, vinyl chloride – as well as pesticides on crops: 

  1. all childhood cancers have grown at about 1% per year for the past two decades[14]
  2.  brain cancer in children increased nearly 40% from 1973 to 1994[15]
  3. the environmental attributable fraction of childhood cancer can be between 5% and 90%, depending on the type of cancer[16]

10.  Lead – used in the textile industry in a variety of ways and as a component in dyestuffs –  is a neurotoxin – it affects the human brain and cognitive development, as well as the reproductive system. Some of the kinds of neurological damage  caused by lead are not reversible.        Specifically, it affects reading and reasoning abilities in  children, and is also linked to hearing loss, speech delay, balance difficulties and violent tendencies.[17]     Children are uniquely susceptible to lead exposure over time,  and  neural damage occurring during the period from 1 to 3 years of age is not likely to be reversible.  It’s also important to be aware  that lead available from tested products would not be the only source of  exposure in a child’s environment.        Lead is used in the textile industry in a variety of ways and under a variety of names:

    1. Lead acetate:                        dyeing of textiles
    2. Lead  chloride                      preparation of lead salts
    3. Lead molybdate                   pigments used in dyestuffs
    4. Lead nitrate                         mordant in dyeing; oxidizer in dyeing(4)

Studies have shown that if children are exposed to lead, either in the womb or in early childhood, their brains are likely to be smaller.[18]

Lead is a uniquely cumulative poison: the daily intake of lead is not as important a determinant of ultimate harm as is the duration of exposure and the total lead ingested over time.

 


[1] Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals, Springer, New York, 2004,  page 609; on behalf of the German Environmental Protection Agency.

[2] 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.

[3] Horstmann, M and McLachlan, M; “Textiles as a source of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurrans (PCDD/F) in human skin and sewage sludge”, Environmental Science and Pollution Research, Vol 1, Number 1, 15-20, DOI: 10.1007/BF02986918  SEE ALSO:  Klasmeier, K, et al; “PCDD/F’s in textiles – part II: transfer from clothing to human skin”, Ecological Chemistry and Geochemistry, University of Bayreuth,  CHEMOSPHERE, 1.1999 38(1):97-108 See Also:  Hansen,E and Hansen, C; “Substance Flow Analysis for Dioxin 2002”, Danish Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Project No.811 2003

[4] Philippe Grandjean, et al, “Serum Vaccine Antibody Concentrations in Children Exposed to Perfluorinated Compounds”, Journal of the American Medical Association,  january 25, 2012

[6] 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

[7] Nakazawa, Donna Jackson, “Diseases Like Mine Are a Growing Hazard”, Washington
Post
, March 16, 2008.

[11] Boyle, Coleen A., et al, “Trends in the Prevalence of Developmental Disabilities in U.S. children, 1997-2008”, Pediatrics,  February, 2011.

[12] Grant, Christine; Hauser, Peter; Oxenham, William, “Improving the Thermal Stability of Textile Processing Aids”, www.ntcresearch.org/pdf-rpts/AnRp04/C01-NS08-A4.pdf

[13] Shulevitz, Judith, “The Toxicity Panic”, The New Republic, April 7, 2011.

[15] New York Times, “New Toxins Suspected as Cancer Rate Rises in children”, September 29, 1997

[16] Gouveia-Vigeant, Tami and Tickner, Joel, “Toxic Chemicals and Childhood Cancer: a review of the evidence”, U of Massachusetts, May 2003

[17] ‘Safe’ levels of lead still harm IQ”, Associated Press, 2001

[18] Dietrich, KN et al, “Decreased Brain Volume in Adults with Childhood Lead
Exposure”, PLoS Med 2008 5(5): e112.





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.