More about fabric choices for your sofa.

25 06 2015

Our previous blog post we talked about fabric – how to determine the quality of the fabric you’re considering for your new sofa.  But the most important consideration merits a blog all its own, and that is the safety of the fabrics you’ve chosen.  We define “safe” as a fabric that has been processed with none of the many chemicals known to harm human health – and in a perfect world we’d  throw in water treatment and human rights/labor issues too.

It’s a great idea to start with organic fibers, if you can.  By substituting organic natural fibers for conventionally grown fibers you are supporting organic agriculture, which has myriad environmental, social and health benefits. Not only does organic farming take far less energy than conventional farming (largely because it does not use oil based fertilizers)[1], which helps to mitigate climate change, but it also:

  • Eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which is an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity;
  • Conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion);
  • Ensures sustained biodiversity;
  • And compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire.

Organic production has a strong social element and includes many Fair Trade and ethical production principles. As such it can be seen as more than a set of agricultural practices, but also as a tool for social change [2]. For example, one of the original goals of the organic movement was to create specialty products for small farmers who could receive a premium for their products and thus be able to compete with large commercial farms.

Organic agriculture is an undervalued and underestimated climate change tool that could be one of the most powerful strategies in the fight against global warming, according to Paul Hepperly, Rodale Institute Research Manager. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years) shows conclusively that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions. [3]

But even if you start with organic natural fibers (a great choice!) but process those fibers conventionally, then you end up with a fabric that is far from safe. Think about making applesauce: if you start with organic apples, then add Red Dye #2, preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers and who knows what else – do you end up with organic applesauce? The US Department of Agriculture would not let you sell that mixture as organic applesauce.  There is no similar protection for consumers when buying fabric, even though the same issues apply, because over 2000 chemicals are used routinely in textile processing.[4] Many of the chemicals used in textile processing have unknown toxicity, and many others are known to be harmful to humans (such as formaldehyde, lead, mercury, bisphenol A and other phthalates, benzenes and others). In fact, one yard of fabric made with organic cotton fiber is about 25% by weight synthetic chemicals – many of which are proven toxic to humans [5] and are outlawed in other products.

I know you’re saying that you don’t eat those fabrics, so what’s the danger? Actually, your body is busy ingesting the chemicals, which are evaporating (so we breathe them in), or through skin absorption (after all, the skin is the largest organ of the body). Add to that the fact that each time you brush against the fabric, microscopic pieces of the fabric abrade and fly into the air – so we can breathe them in. Or they fall into the dust in our homes, where pets and crawling babies breathe them in.

Should that be a concern? Well, there is hardly any evidence of the effects of textiles themselves on individuals, but in the US, OSHA does care about workers, so most of the studies have been done on workers in the textile industry:

  • Autoimmune diseases (such as IBD, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, for example, which are linked to many of the chemicals used in textile processing) are reaching epidemic rates, and a 14 year study published by the University of Washington and the National Institutes of Health found that people who work with textiles (among other industries) are more likely to die of an autoimmune disease than people who don’t [6];
  • We know formaldehyde is bad for us, but in fabric? 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. [7] Note: most cotton/poly sheet sets in the U.S. are treated with a formaldehyde resin.
  • Women who work in textile factories which produce acrylic fibers have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than does the normal population.[8]
  • A study in France revealed a correlation between the presence of cancer of the pharynx and occupation in the textile industry.[9]
  • A high degree of colorectal cancer, thyroid cancer, testicular cancer and nasal cancer has been found among textile workers, and a relationship between non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and working in the textile industry was observed.[10]

And consider this:

  • The Mt. Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center published a list of the top 10 chemicals they believe are linked to autism – and of the 10, 6 are used in textile processing and 2 are pesticides used on fiber crops. [11].
  • Phthalates are so toxic that they have been banned in the European Union since 2005. They have recently been banned in the State of California in children’s toys. They are ubiquitous – and are also found in most textile inks.[12] So parents careful not to bring toxic toys into their homes for can be nevertheless unknowingly putting their kids to sleep on cute printed sheets full of phthalates.

Are these rates of disease and the corresponding rise in the use of industrial chemicals a coincidence? Are our increased rates of disease due to better diagnosis? Some argue that we’re confronting fewer natural pathogens. All plausible.  But it’s also true that we’re encountering an endless barrage of artificial pathogens that are taxing our systems to the maximum. And our children are the pawns in this great experiment. And if you think artificial  pathogens  are  not the main culprits, your opinion is not shared by a goodly number of scientists, who believe that this endless barrage of artificial pathogens that is taxing our systems to the max has replaced bacteria and viruses as the major cause of human illness. We don’t have to debate which source is primary; especially because, with the rise of super bugs, it’s a silly debate. The point remains that industrial pollution is a cause of human illness – and it is a cause we can take concrete actions to stem.

Textiles are the elephant in the room – the industry is global, relatively low tech, and decentralized – certainly not the darling of venture capitalists who look for the next big thing. So not many research dollars are going into new ways of producing fabrics. Most of the time people are looking for the lowest price fabric for their projects or products – so the industry is on a race to cut costs in any way possible: in 2007, the Wall Street Journal’s Jane Spencer detailed the pollution caused by Chinese textile industries who were being pushing by their multinational clients to cut costs, resulting in untreated effluent discharge [13].

You can begin to protect yourself by looking for fabrics that have third party certifications:  either Oeko-Tex or The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which we believe is the gold standard in textiles because though Oeko-Tex assures you of a safe fabric and while GOTS confirms the same assurance, GOTS  also requires water treatment (important because the textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of water on the planet (14) – and in this era of water shortages we have to start paying attention to our water resources) and prohibits child or slave labor (sadly still an issue) and makes sure workers have safe conditions to work in and are paid fair wages.

[1] Aubert, C. et al., (2009) Organic farming and climate change: major conclusions of the Clermont-Ferrand seminar (2008) [Agriculture biologique et changement climatique : principales conclusions du colloque de Clermont-Ferrand (2008)]. Carrefours de l’Innovation Agronomique 4. Online at <http://www.inra.fr/ciag/revue_innovations_agronomiques/volume_4_janvier_2009>

A study done by Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University found that organic farming systems used just 63% of the energy required by conventional farming systems, largely because of the massive amounts of energy requirements needed to synthesize nitrogen fertilizers.

[2] Fletcher, Kate, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, p. 19

[3] http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/Rodale_Research_Paper-07_30_08.pdf Also see: Muller, Adrian, “Benefits of Organic Agriculture as a Climate change Adaptation and Mitigation Strategy for Developing Countries’, Environement for Development, April 2009

[4] See the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists’ (AATCC) Buyers Guide, http://www.aatcc.org/

[5] Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609

[6] Nakazawa, Donna Jackson, “Diseases Like Mine are a Growing Hazard”, Washington Post, March 16, 2008

[7] 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.

[8] Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi:

10.1136/oem.2009.049817 SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321

[9] Haguenour, J.M., “Occupational risk factors for upper respiratory tract and upper digestive tract cancers” , Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Vol 47, issue 6 (Br J Ind Med1990;47:380-383 doi:10.1136/oem.47.6.380).

[10] http://www.fibre2fashion.com/industry-article/3/297/safety-and-health-issues-in-the-textile-industry2.asp

[11]http://www.mountsinai.org/patient-care/service-areas/children/areas-of-care/childrens-environmental-health-center/cehc-in-the-news/news/mount-sinai-childrens-environmental-health-center-publishes-a-list-of-the-top-ten-toxic-chemicals-suspected-to-cause-autism-and-learning-disabilities

[12] “Textile Inkmaker Tackles Phthalates Ban”, Esther D’Amico, Chemical Week, September 22, 2008 SEE ALSO: Toxic Textiles by Disney, http://archive.greenpeace.org/docs/disney.pdf

[13] Spencer, Jane, “China Pays Steep Price as Textile Exports Boom”, Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2007.

(14)  Cooper, Peter, “Clearer Communication”, Ecotextile News, May 2007





Why use organic fabrics for your new baby?

5 10 2011

Illnesses — including remarkable combinations of symptoms — are on the rise.

  • Over the past 50 years, there has been a steady increase in the incidence of children developing cancer[1], asthma[2], attention deficit disorders[3], allergies[4], autoimmune disorders[5],  and others.

So too are the numbers of chemicals getting mixed inside us (studies have shown that babies are born pre-polluted)[6].   Chemicals accumulate, interact within the body, cause illness.

  • This is due to industrial chemicals being used in products that weren’t even formulated prior to about 1950.  Our children are subjected to an endless barrage of artificial pathogens that tax their systems to the max.

Is there a connection between the rise in illnesses and products you use in your home?

Yes.

  • But inadequate data exists regarding the chronic (long term, low level) health risks of most chemicals, and proving an absolute link between chemicals and these disorders isn’t easy, because in most cases it’s a slow-brewing condition that can smolder for decades before symptoms appear.  Furthermore, the timing of toxic exposure plays a much more significant role than previously recognized – babies exposed during critical periods of development often have a more severe reaction than those exposed at other times.

The chemicals used in textile processing are among the most toxic known, yet the fabrics themselves are often overlooked as a source of pollution.

Using organic products (like fabrics) is especially important for children, because children tend to be more influenced by their environment than adults.  Children are still developing, and many of these developmental processes are very sensitive to environmental contaminants, which can easily disrupt development.  Also, children take in much more of their environment relative to their body weight.   This amount, called the dose, has a much greater effect on children than on the adults around them, because children’s bodies are much smaller.  And finally, children tend to come in contact with environmental contaminants more often than adults do, simply because of their habits – like the two year olds who put everything in their mouths, or toddlers who spend a lot of time in the dust on the floor, where contaminants collect.

In outfitting your nursery, you see lots of information about baby products – lotions, powders, foods.  But please remember that there are other products that impact your child’s health, such as mattresses and fabrics.  You almost never hear somebody mention fabrics as a source of pollution – are they really so important?  Remembering that new studies are demonstrating that even nano doses of chemicals can contribute to disease over time, there are also many studies which specifically linked diseases to chemicals found in textiles:

  • 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]
  • 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.[8]
  • Women who work in textile factories with acrylic fibers have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than does the normal population.[9]
  • 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.[10] Note:  lead is a common component in textile dyestuffs.
  • Many of the chemicals found in fabrics (which are, after all, about 27% synthetic chemicals, by weight) are known to have negative health effects, such as:
    • Disruptions during development (including autism, which now occurs in 1 of every 110 births in the US); attention deficit disorders (ADD) and hyperactivity (ADHD).   Chemicals commonly used in textiles which contribute:
  • Breathing difficulties, including asthma ( in children under 5 asthma has increased 160%  between 1980-1994[11])  and allergies. Chemicals used in textiles which contribute:
    • Formaldehyde, other aldehydes
    • Benzene, toluene
    • phthalates
  • Cancer  –  all childhood cancers have grown at about 1% per year for the past two decades[12]; the environmental attributable fraction of childhood cancer can be between 5% and 90%, depending on the type of cancer[13].  Chemicals linked to cancers, all of which are used in textile processing:
    • Formaldehyde
    • Lead, cadmium
    • Pesticides
    • Benzene
    • Vinyl chloride

So how do you try to limit your child’s exposure to this chemical contamination?

  • Our #1 recommendation is to use only natural fiber fabrics, rather than synthetics (including those ubiquitous cotton/poly blends), which are petroleum based and made entirely of toxic chemicals.   On top of that, synthetics are highly flammable.  So ditch the synthetics.
  • And don’t think that a fabric made of “organic cotton” is safe, because that doesn’t address the question of processing, where all the chemical contamination occurs.  If you use natural fibers, try to find GOTS  or Oeko Tex certified fabrics.
  • Don’t buy clothing or bedding (or anything made of fabric) that has a stain resistant or wrinkle resistant finish on it:  stain resistant finishes contain perfluorochemicals (Teflon, Scotchguard, Stainmaster, Crypton, Nanotex, Gore-Tex) and wrinkle resistant finishes use formaldehyde.
  • Crib mattresses are often made of polyurethane foam enclosed in vinyl covers.  These plastic products are made by combining highly toxic chemicals together to form the final material. When your child is asleep, every breath pulls in air that is literally inches away from the petroleum chemical materials used in the manufacturing of the bed itself.  With each breath, these chemical molecules are pulled across the child’s airways and then transferred to the blood from deep within the lungs. This process is repeated with each breath 365 nights a year.[14]
    Best choice:  Buy a natural latex core covered in organic GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabric.
  • Sleepwear, bedding, even curtains and upholstery fabric – because they’re  made of fabric!  Why should you use organic fabrics – not just fabrics made with organic fibers –  for your baby?  The skin is the largest organ of the body and the skin allows many chemicals to pass into your baby through absorption.  Also, a baby’s skin is thinner and more permeable than an adult’s skin.  Not to mention the fact that many chemicals evaporate, to be breathed in.   Best choice:  GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabrics.
  • Diapers – first choice would be organic diapers made of natural fibers (GOTS or Oeko Tex certified) – even though it probably means you’ll have to do the diaper laundering.   Hey, there are worse things.

[1] Reinberg,
“US Cancer Rates Continue to Fall”, Business Week, March 31, 2011; all
childhood cancers have grown at about 1% per year for the past two decades[1]

[5]
Type 1 diabetes has increased fivefold in past 40 years, in children 4 and
under, it’s increasing 6% per year. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/14/AR2008031403386.html

[6]
Goodman, Sarah,  “Tests Find More than
200 Chemicals in Newborn Umbilical Cord Blood”, Scientific American, December,
2009.

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

[8]
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.

[9]
Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi:
10.1136/oem.2009.049817  SEE ALSO:  http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp  AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321

[10]
Dietrich, KN et al, “Decreased Brain Volume in Adults with Childhood Lead
Exposure”, PLoS Med 2008 5(5): e112.

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

[14] http://www.chem-tox.com/beds/frame-beds.htm.  See also “Respiratory Toxicity of mattress
emissions in mice”, Archives of Environmental health, 55 (1): 38-43, 2000.