Listmania: LBC Red List and others

19 06 2012

I love lists – you know, all those “best of” lists – movies, books, toxic chemicals.

Having a list makes it easy for us to tick off those bad chemicals that nobody wants to live with.  And in the building industry there have been a proliferation of lists which identify chemicals of concern:  the Perkins & Will Precautionary List, the LEED Pilot 11 and the Living Building Challenge Red List, among others.  And make no mistake, we think it’s critical that we begin to develop these lists, because we all need a baseline.   As long as we need to eat and breathe, toxics should be an important consideration.  We just have a problem with  how these lists are used.

So let me explain.

First, lists for the most part are developed on the basis of science that usually occurred five or 10 years ago, so they can  (though not always) be lagging indicators of safety to humans and the environment.  (But that’s a minor point, just wanted us to remember to maintain those lists.)

When using lists, it’s important to remember the concept of reactive chemistry:  many of the chemicals, though possibly deemed to be benign themselves, will react with other chemicals to create a third substance which is toxic.   This reaction can occur during the production of inputs, during the manufacture of the final product, or at the end of life (burning at the landfill, decomposing or biodegrading).   So isn’t it important to know the manufacturing supply chain and the composition of all the products – even those which do not contain any chemicals of concern on the list you’re using – to make sure there are no, say … dioxins created during the burning of the product at the landfill, for example?

It’s also important to remember that  chemicals are synergistic  – toxins can make each other more toxic.  A small dose of mercury that kills 1 in 100 rats and a dose of aluminum that will kill 1 in 100 rats, when combined, have a striking effect: all the rats die.  So if the product you’re evaluating is to be used in a way that introduces a chemical which might react with those in your product, shouldn’t that be taken into consideration?

So, O.K., the two problems above would be extremely difficult to define  – I mean, wouldn’t you need a degree in chemistry, not to mention the time and money, to determine if these could occur .  The average consumer wouldn’t have a clue.  Just wanted you to know that these problems do exist and contribute to our precautionary admonition regarding lists.

Each list has a slightly different interpretation – and lists different chemicals.  The Healthy Building Network published this Venn diagram of several of the most prevalent lists used in building materials:

The real reason we don’t like the way lists are used is that people see the list, are convinced by a manufacturer that their product doesn’t contain any of the chemicals listed, so without any further ado the product is used.

What does that mean in the textile industry, for example?

By attempting to address all product types, most lists do not mention many of the toxic chemicals which ARE used in textile processing. In the Living Building Challenge Red List, no mention is made of polyester, the most popular fiber for interiors, which itself is made from two toxic ingredients (ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid – both carcinogens, neither of which are on the list).  That means  a fabric made of polyester – even recycled polyester – that has been processed using some pretty nasty chemicals – could be specified.   Chemicals which are commonly used in textile processing  and which are NOT included on the Living Building Challenge Red List, for example,  but which have been found to be harmful , include:

Chlorine   (sodium hypochlorite NaOCL); registered in the Toxic Substances Control Act   as hypochlorous acid ; sodium chlorite
Sodium cyanide;   potassium cyanide
sodium sulfate   (Na2SO4)
Sodium sulfide
 APEOs ( Alkylphenolethoxylates)
Chromium III   and VI (hexavalent chromium)
pentachlorophenol   (PCP)
Dichloromethane   (DCM, methylene chloride)
Tetrachloroethylene   (also known as perchloroethylene, perc and PCE)
Methyl ethyl   ketone
Toluene:   toluene diisocyanate and other aromatic amines
Methanol (wood   alcohol)
Chloroform;   methyl chloroform
Phosphates   (concentrated phosphoric acid)
Dioxin –   by-product of chlorine bleaching; also formed during synthesis of certain   textile chemicals
Benzenes and   benzidines; nitrobenzene; C3 alkyl benzenes; C4 alkyl benzenes
Sulfuric Acid
Optical   brighteners: includes several hundred substances, including triazinyl   flavonates; distyrylbiphenyl sulfonate
ethylenediaminetetra   acetic acid [EDTA]
diethylenetriaminepenta   acetic acid [DTPA]
Perfluorooctane   sulfonates (PFOS)

In the case of arsenic (used in textile printing and in pesticides) and pentachlorophenol (used as a biocide in textile processing) – the Living Building Challenge Red List expressly forbids use in wood treatments only, so using it in a textile would qualify as O.K.

Perhaps we should manufacture with a “green list” in mind: substituting chemicals and materials that are inherently safer, ideally with a long history of use (so as to not introduce completely new hazards)?

But using any list of chemicals of concern ignores what we consider to be the most important aspect needing amelioration in textile processing – that of water treatment.  Because the chemicals used by the textile industry include many that are persistent and/or bioaccumulative which can interfere with hormone systems in people and animals and may be carcinogenic and reprotoxic, and because the industry often ignores water treatment even when it is required (chasing the lowest cost) the cost of dumping untreated effluent into our water is incalculable.

The textile industry uses a LOT of water – according to the World Bank, 20% of industrial freshwater pollution is from the textile industry; that’s another way of saying that it’s the #1 industrial polluter of water on the planet.  In India alone textile effluent averages around 425,000,000 gallons per day, largely untreated[1].   The chemically infused effluent – saturated with dyes, de-foamers, detergents, bleaches, optical brighteners, equalizers and many other chemicals –  is often released into the local river, where it enters the groundwater, drinking water, the habitat of flora and fauna, and our food chain.  The production of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were banned in USA more than 30 years ago (maybe that’s why they’re not listed on any of these lists?), but are still showing up in the environment as unintended byproducts of  the chlorination of wastes in sewage disposal plants that have a large input of biphenyls (used as a dye carrier) from textile effluent.[2]

Please click HERE to see the PDF by Greenpeace on their new campaign on textile effluent entitled  “Dirty Laundry”, which points the finger at compliant corporations which basically support what they call the “broken system”.  It asks corporations to become champions for a post toxic world, by putting in place policies to eliminate the use and release of all hazardous chemicals across a textile company’s entire supply chain based on a precautionary approach to chemicals management, to include the whole product lifecycle and releases from all pathways.

Another problem in the textile industry which is often overlooked is that of end of life disposal.  Textile waste in the UK, as reported by The Ecologist, has risen from 7% of all waste sent to landfills to 30% in 2010.[3]  The US EPA estimates that textile waste account for 5% of all landfill waste in the U.S.[4]  And that waste slowly seeps chemicals into our groundwater, producing environmental burdens for future generations.  Textile sludge is often composted, but if untreated,  that compost is toxic for plants.[5]

What about burning:    In the United States, over 40 million pounds of still bottom sludge from the production of ethylene glycol (one of the components of PET fibers) is generated each year. When incinerated, the sludge produces 800,000 lbs of fly ash containing antimony, arsenic and other metals.[6]

These considerations are often neglected in looking at environmental pollution by textile mills[7] – but is never a consideration on a list of chemicals of concern.

So yes, let’s recognize that there are chemicals which need to be identified as being bad, but let’s also look at each product and make some kind of attempt to address any other areas of concern which the manufacture of that product might raise.  Using a list doesn’t get us off the hook.

[1] CSE study on pollution of Bandi river by textile industries in Pali town, Centre for Science and Environment,New Delhi, May 2006 and “Socio-Economic, Environmental and Clean Technology Aspects of Textile Industries in Tiruppur,South India”, Prakash Nelliyat, Madras School of Economics.  See also:

Jacks Gunnar et al (1995), “The Environmental Cost of T-Shirts”, Sharing Common Water Resources, First Policy Advisory Committee Meeting, SIDA, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.

Also:  CSE: Down to Earth Supplement on Water use inIndia, “To use or to misuse”;

[3] Ecologist, “’Primark effect’ sill clogging up UK landfills”, January 19, 2010,

[5] Scientia Agricola, vol. 62, no 3 May/June 2005

[6] Sustainable Textile Development at Victor,

[7] Assuming a beginning value of 375ppm of antimony in an undyed polyester fiber, as much as 175ppm of antimony can be leached from the fiber during the dyeing process. This seemingly insignificant amount translates into a burden on water treatment facilities and is still a hazardous waste when precipitated out during treatment. The U.S. EPA lists the allowable limit for antimony in drinking water to be 6 parts per billion (ppb). Countries that can afford technologies that precipitate the metals out of the water are left with a hazardous sludge that must then be disposed of in a properly managed landfill or incinerator operations. Countries who cannot, or who are unwilling to employ these end-of-pipe treatments, release antimony along with a host of other dangerous substances to open waters. Victor Defining Sustainability,


PERC – PCE – perchloroethylene

2 04 2012

The solvents used in dry cleaning establishments have long been known to effect human health.

Perchloroethylene  –  also called perchlorethylene, tetrachloroethylene, tetrachlorethylene, PCE, or PERC – is used for dry cleaning clothing and  fabrics. Perc removes stains and dirt without causing clothing to shrink or otherwise get damaged. You know that sweetish smell from a newly dry cleaned sweater?  That’s it.  PERC may also be an ingredient in spot removers, rug and upholstery cleaners, water repellents, aerosols, adhesives, sealants, wood cleaners and polishes, lubricants, typewriter correction fluid and shoe polish.

From "Greening the Apple" blogspot.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists PERC as a “likely carcinogen” and by the World Health Organization as a “probable carcinogen” because long-term exposure to perchloroethylene can cause leukemia and cancer of the skin, colon, lung, larynx, bladder, and urogenital tract; recent studies have been published linking PERC to breast cancer.[1] The US Environmental Protection Agency says that it causes liver and kidney damage in humans; workers exposed to large amounts of PERC experience memory loss and confusion; if you are pregnant, long-term exposure to perchloroethylene may damage a developing fetus.  Just not something you want to live with.

It has been found that homes with freshly dry cleaned clothing have perchloroethylene levels that are 2 to 30 times higher than average background levels.[2]   The U.S. Department of Labor, in its Occupational Safety & Health guidelines (OSHA), attempts to protect workers by limiting their exposure to PERC to 100 parts per million.[3]

Last year a high school student, Alexa Dantzler, looking for a memorable science-fair project, decided to look at what chemicals might remain in dry cleaned clothing.  But since she didn’t have access to the proper equipment, she emailed several chemistry professors with her idea and hit gold with Paul Roepe, then-chairman of Georgetown University’s chemistry department.  He took on the project “for fun.

According to The Washington Post (read article here):

… what started out as something to “sponsor the kid’s curiosity” prompted a chain reaction in the university lab: an email exchange, an invitation to collaborate and, last week, a paper published online in a peer-reviewed environmental journal. The paper gives new details about the amount of a toxic chemical that lingers in wool, cotton and polyester clothing after it is dry-cleaned.

“At the end of the day, nobody, I mean nobody, has previously done this simple thing — gone out there to several different dry cleaners and tested different types of cloth” to see how much of the chemical persists, said Roepe, who supervised the study.

Dantzler, with help from her mother, sewed squares of wool, cotton, polyester and silk into the lining of seven identical men’s jackets, then took them to be cleaned from one to six times at seven Northern Virginia dry cleaners. The cleaners, who were not identified, had no prior knowledge of the experiment.

She kept the patches in plastic bags in the freezer — to preserve the samples — and went to Georgetown once or twice a week to do the chemical analysis with two graduate students, Katy Sherlach and Alexander Gorka. The research team found that perchloroethylene, a dry cleaning solvent that has been linked to cancer and neurological damage, stayed in the fabrics and that levels increased with repeat cleanings, particularly in wool. The study was published online  in  Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.[4]

What they found is consistent with most regulations concerning fabrics:  that although there are voluntary guidelines for atmospheric concentrations of PERC in the workplace, there are no standards which exist for levels in dry-cleaned fabric.

According to the team, it is difficult to say how much risk consumers accept from wearing dry cleaned clothing for a year – or from breathing air from a closet full of dry cleaned clothes.  It’s most likely that the risk depends on how much and how long – sort of like UV exposure and cigarette smoke.

How much PERC did they find in the clothing?  The study found that cotton and polyester absorption of PERC leveled off after two or three cleaning cycles, but that levels in wool increased with each of six cycles.   Researchers calculated what they thought would happen if four people in a car each had on a freshly dry cleaned item of wool clothing.  After one hour of driving, with windows closed, the PERC circulating in the air would produce a level as high as 126 parts per million – which both exceeds the OSHA guidelines for workplace safety, as well as the limits widely recommended by industry and government scientists.

It’s possible that the dry cleaning delivery man might be exposed to more PERCE than the workers at the plant, who are covered by OSHA regulations.

And yes, Alexa Dantzler won first place in chemistry at last year’s Arlington county science fair.  Way to go Alexa!

How to minimize exposure to perchloroethylene:

    • One of the easiest ways to avoid PERC is by choosing alternatives to dry-cleaning your clothes. Be aware, however, that some non-PERC dry-cleaners use alternatives, sometimes called “hydrocarbon” treatments, that are also toxic. Wetcleaning, a professional alternative to perchloroethylene that uses biodegradable soaps  instead, is also available. Look for a cleaner near you at the Professional Wetcleaning Network’s website . There is ongoing research into different ways to dry clean without perc, so check local professionals to see what they might be looking into to move away from perc.
    • Another good option, but less available, is CO2 cleaning, which uses liquid carbon dioxide to clean clothes. Check the Pollution Control Center site at Occidental College for wet-cleaners and CO2 cleaners near you. Another resource is the National Clearing House for Professional Wet Cleaners.
      • If dry-cleaned goods have a strong chemical odor when you pick them up, ask your cleaner to dry them further. If it keeps happening, switch to a different cleaner.
      • Air out dry-cleaned garments by taking them out of the plastic sheath and hanging them briefly outdoors before bringing them indoors.
  • Some clothing labeled “Dry Clean Only” may be safely handwashed, according to Consumer Reports. “Dry Clean Only” labels are overused because manufacturers prefer to err on the side of caution.
    • Handwash plain-weave rayon and solid-colored silks separately in cool water, squeeze rather than wring, and lay flat to dry.
    • Wash sweaters in cold water by hand or machine; cashmere and cotton do best in the washing machine inside out; dry sweaters flat, except cotton sweaters, which can be machine-dried.
    • Angora sweaters and structured or lined garments should be sent to a professional cleaner, however.

[1] Aschengrau, A., et al., “Perchloroethylene-Contaminated Drinking Water and the Risk of Breast Cancer: Additional Results from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA”, Environmental Health Perspectives,  February 2003

[2] Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition (2011); U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program.

[4]  Sherlach, K; Gorka, A., Dantzler, A and Roepe, P.,  “Quantification of perchloroethylene residues in dry cleaned fabrics”, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry;  20 September 2011