Copper in the textile industry

14 03 2013

copperWe did a post on copper over two years ago. Here’s the post if you missed it then, because the information is still valid:

Copper is an essential trace element that is vital to life. The human body normally contains copper at a level of about 1.4 to 2.1 mg for each kg of body weight; and since the body can’t synthesize copper, the human diet must supply regular amounts for absorption. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that 10-12 mg/day may be the upper safe limit consumption.hhh

The fact that copper is essential to life is well known, but it’s also a toxic metal, and that toxicity, except for the genetic overload diseases, Wilson’s disease and hemochromatosis, is not so well known. Humans can become copper-toxic or copper-deficient, often because of “copper imbalance” (which can include arthritis, fatigue, insomnia, migraine headaches, depression, panic attacks, and attention deficit disorder) .

Copper has been used for centuries for disinfection, and has been important around the world in technology, medicine and culture.

Is copper in the environment a health risk?

The answer to this question is complex. Copper is a necessary nutrient and is naturally occurring in the environment in rocks, soil, air, and water. We come into contact with copper from these sources every day but the quantity is usually tiny. Some of that copper, particularly in water, may be absorbed and used by the body. But much of the copper we come into contact with is tightly bound to other compounds rendering it neither useful nor toxic. It is important to remember that the toxicity of a substance is based on how much an organism is exposed to and the duration and route of exposure. Copper is bioaccumulative – there are many studies of copper biosorption by soils, plants and animals. But copper in the environment, (such as that in agricultural runoff, in air and soil near copper processing facilities such as smelters and at hazardous waste sites) binds easily to compounds in soil and water, reducing its bioavailability to humans. On the other hand, many children are born with excessive tissue copper (reason unknown), and one of the ways we are told to balance a copper imbalance is to reduce your exposure to sources of copper! (see http://www.healingedge.net/store/article_copper_toxicity.html)

There are no studies on what this increased copper is doing to the environment. Copper is listed as an EPA Priority pollutant, a CA Air Toxic contaminant, and an EPA Hazardous air pollutant (see http://wsppn.org/PBT/nolan.cfm#What%20are%20PBTs?); it is also a Type II Moderate Hazard by the WHO Acute Hazard Ranking . There is NO DATA on its carcinogenity, whether it is a developmental or reproductive toxin or endocrine disruptor or whether it contaminates groundwater.

Today, because of its long use as a disinfectant and because it’s required for good health, many claims are being made about using copper in various products – including fabric. Copper-impregnated fibers have been introduced, which enables the production of anti-bacterial and self-sterilizing fabrics. These copper infused fabrics are marketed to be used in hospital settings to reduce infections, as an aid to help those suffering from asthma and allergies provoked by dust mites, and in socks to prevent athlete’s foot.

These copper impregnated fabrics are said to be safe, pointing to the low sensitivity of human tissue to copper, and because the copper is in a non-soluble form. Yet, that copper is safe because it is in a non soluble form was disproven by at least one study which tried to determine whether total copper or soluble copper was associated with gastrointestinal symptoms. It was found that both copper sulfate (a soluable compound) and copper oxide (insoluable) had comparable effects on these symptoms. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1240446/)

And then there’s this: “…(copper) toxicity is so general in the population that it is a looming public health problem in diseases of aging and in the aging process itself. Diseases of aging such as Alzheimer’s disease, other neurodegenerative diseases, arteriosclerosis, diabetes mellitus, and others may all be contributed to by excess copper (and iron). A very disturbing study has found that in the general population those in the highest fifth of copper intake, if they are also eating a relatively high fat diet, lose cognition at over three times the normal rate”.[1]

Sometimes safety is cited because of the widespread use by women of copper intrauterine devices (IUDs). But the copper IUD was developed only in 1970; that timeline would put those first users only in their 60s today. How can we know that the copper has not influenced any health problems these 60 somethings may now have? In addition, about 12% of women have the copper IUD removed because of increased menstrual bleeding or cramping.[2] There are also cases of increased menstrual cramping, acne, depression and other symptoms attributed to the copper IUD.[3] The fact that we keep ignoring is that the body, like our ecosystem, is a highly complex, interconnected system. It is extremely hard to single out any one element as contributing to a series of causes and effects.

Although copper does have documented antimicrobial properties, it is a broad spectrum antimicrobial – meaning that it kills the good guys as well as the bad. Many studies show that this is not necessarily the best approach to infection control. Kaiser Permanente issued a December 2006 memo with this bottom line: “Review of current scientific literature reveals no evidence that environmental surface finishes or fabrics containing antimicrobials assist in preventing infections.” In fact, their policy now is to prohibit any fabrics with antimicrobial finishes in their hospitals.

Copper impregnated fabrics are legally sold in the USA, because the EPA has not issued any regulations regarding use. The reality is they don’t have any data on which to base an exclusion of use. In the US we must prove toxicity before the EPA even begins to regulate chemicals – look at the case of lead. Other organizations have evaluated copper (including the EPA, see above).

So really the question is: what possible benefit do you hope to achieve by using a product with this antimicrobial finish? Although copper isn’t one of the most alarming chemicals used in textile processing, it seems to me the benefits just aren’t that compelling. I wouldn’t risk altering my DNA or subjecting myself to copper imbalance symptoms just to eliminate stains or odors.

——————————————————————————–
[1] Brewer, George J., “Risks of Copper and Iron Toxicity during Aging in Humans”, Chemical Research in Toxicology, 2010, 23 (2), pp. 319 – 326.
[2] Zieman M, et al. (2007). Managing Contraception for Your Pocket. Tiger, GA: Bridging the Gap Foundation.
[3] http://www.aphroditewomenshealth.com/forums/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat&Number=314954





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. http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/twelfth/profiles/Tetrachloroethylene.pdf

[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





GreenGuard certification

10 08 2011

GreenGuard was launched in 2000 by Atlanta-based for-profit Air Quality Sciences (AQS), which is now a separate not-for-profit organization. Although GreenGuard was not designed specifically for fabrics, it is often advertised that a fabric is GreenGuard certified, because GreenGuard certified products can automatically meet the requirements of LEED 2009 CI Credit 4.5 and BIFMA X7.1.

GreenGuard has developed proprietary indoor air-quality pollutant guidelines based on standards developed by the government and by industrial bodies.  Maximum allowable emission levels in air concentrations, according to their website,  are based on those required by the state of Washington‘s indoor air quality program for new construction, the U. S. EPA’s procurements specifications, the recommendations from the World Health Organization, Germany’s Blue Angel Program,  LEED for New Construction (LEED-NC) and LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI).

GreenGuard  has introduced a special certification, called GreenGuard Children and Schools,  which is intended to be applied to products which are used in schools, daycares, healthcare facilities, and places where sensitive adults may reside or work.  This certification is necessary because, as they say on their website, “children are more sensitive to environmental exposures than adults. Their bodies are still developing including their brains. They breathe faster than adults and in return receive a higher dose of indoor pollution per body weight. To account for inhalation exposure to young children, a body burden correction factor has been applied to the current GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certified® allowable levels.”

Those products that pay the testing fee and pass muster earn the right to call themselves GreenGuard certified.  The GreenGuard Product Guide has become a purchasing tool for thousands of specifiers as they depend on it to preselect environmentally preferable products.

In order to become certified, all products are tested in dynamic environmental chambers following test methods as posted on the GreenGuard Environmental Institute (GEI)  web site.   The tests are designed to measure emitting chemicals coming from a product; that means it tests only for evaporating chemicals –  chemicals which are a gas at room temperature.  Specifically, for the GreenGuard certification, emission criteria are established for total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOC), formaldehyde, total aldehydes, all individual chemicals with currently published Threshold Limit Values (TLVs), respirable particles and certain odorants and irritants.  The requirements for Children and Schools is more stringent and includes limits on emissions for total phthalates,  consisting of dibutyl (DBP), diethylhexyl (DEHP), diethyl (DEP), dimethyl (DMP), butylbenzyl (BBP) and dioctyl (DOP) phthalates, because, again according to the GreenGuard website, “Results from recent research indicate that inhalation is an important route of exposure to phthalates and that these chemicals have been associated with endocrine disorders, reproductive and developmental disorders, asthma and allergies.”

GreenGuard, by measuring only emitting chemicals, is significant for what it does not measure:

  • It does not measure any of the heavy metals (lead, mercury, copper, etc.), such as those used in fabric dyestuffs, because they are not emitted at standard indoor air conditions;
  • It does not measure PVC,  which is a polymer and therefore not volatile (however, some PVC based product types have a special formulation which enables them to meet GreenGuard standards);
  • It does not measure phthalates  except in the Children and Schools certification; phthalates are semi volatile, and don’t begin to evaporate until approximately 7 days after exposure to the air.
  • It does not evaluate the manufacture of a product, nor any byproducts created during production or disposal
  • It does not evaluate any social justice issues
  • It does not evaluate carbon footprint issues

Nobody can debate that we need to rid the indoor environment from irritating contaminants that can have serious effects on people’s health, productivity and quality of life.  Since

Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors, and indoor air can be as much as 100 times more polluted than outdoor air, this issue must be taken seriously by designers.  It is incumbent on them to specify products (including fabrics) that are low-emitters of formaldehyde and all the other volatile organic compounds that contribute to poor indoor air.  But it is also true that air quality is not the only contributor to poor health, productivity and quality of life of the occupants of indoor spaces – after all, our skin is the largest organ in our bodies, and it’s quite permeable.  So designers should not take this certification as assurance that a product is the best environmental choice – not only does it bypass those chemicals that do not evaporate, it does not look at the production of the fabric, any social justice issues, nor does it look at carbon footprint.  Indeed, a product containing PVC, one of the most toxic substances known – highly toxic in all its phases: manufacture, use, and disposal – can be  GreenGuard certified.

According to GreenGuard itself, as is published on their web site:  GreenGuard is a product emissions performance-based standard, and as such, the complete toxicity effects of the chemical emissions from the products tested are beyond its scope.

So what are the take aways?  Remember that GreenGuard tests for emitting chemicals only, and they do that very well.   But it should not be used as a tool to evaluate a product’s environmental impact and safety.





Copper and fabric

15 12 2010

Copper is an essential  trace element that is vital to life. The human body normally contains copper at a level of about 1.4 to 2.1 mg for each kg of body weight; and since the body can’t synthesize copper, the human diet must supply regular amounts for absorption.   The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that 10-12 mg/day may be the upper safe limit consumption.

The  fact that copper is essential to life  is well known, but it’s also a toxic metal, and that toxicity, except for the genetic overload diseases, Wilson’s disease and hemochromatosis, is not so well known.    Humans can become copper-toxic or copper-deficient, often because of “copper imbalance” (which can include arthritis, fatigue,  insomnia, migraine headaches, depression, panic attacks, and attention deficit disorder) .

Copper has been used for centuries for disinfection, and has been important around the world in technology, medicine and culture.

Is copper in the environment a health risk?

The answer to this question is complex. Copper is a necessary nutrient and is naturally occurring in the environment in rocks, soil, air, and water. We come into contact with copper from these sources every day but the quantity is usually tiny. Some of that copper, particularly in water, may be absorbed and used by the body. But much of the copper we come into contact with is tightly bound to other compounds rendering it neither useful nor toxic. It is important to remember that the toxicity of a substance is based on how much an organism is exposed to and the duration and route of exposure. Copper is bioaccumulative – there are many studies of copper biosorption by soils, plants and animals.  But copper in the environment, (such as that in agricultural runoff, in air and soil near copper processing facilities such as smelters and at hazardous waste sites) binds easily to compounds in soil and water, reducing its bioavailability to humans.  On the other hand,  many children are born with excessive tissue copper (reason unknown), and one of the ways we are told to balance a copper imbalance is to reduce your exposure to sources of copper!  (see  http://www.healingedge.net/store/article_copper_toxicity.html)

There are no studies on what this increased copper is doing to the environment.    Copper is listed as an EPA Priority pollutant, a CA Air Toxic contaminant, and an EPA Hazardous air pollutant (see http://wsppn.org/PBT/nolan.cfm#What%20are%20PBTs?);   it is also a Type II Moderate Hazard by the WHO Acute Hazard Ranking .  There is NO DATA on its carcinogenity,   whether it is a developmental or reproductive toxin or endocrine disruptor or whether it contaminates groundwater.

Today, because of its long use as a disinfectant and because it’s required for good health, many claims are being made about using copper in various products – including fabric.  Copper-impregnated fibers have been introduced, which enables the production of anti-bacterial and self-sterilizing fabrics.  These copper infused fabrics are marketed to be used in hospital settings to reduce infections, as an aid to help those suffering from asthma and allergies provoked by dust mites, and in socks to prevent athlete’s foot.

These copper  impregnated fabrics are said to be safe, pointing to the low sensitivity of human tissue to copper, and because the copper is in a non-soluble form.   Yet, that copper is safe because it is in a non soluble form was disproven by at least one study which tried to determine whether total copper or soluble copper was associated with gastrointestinal symptoms.  It was found that both copper sulfate (a soluable compound) and copper oxide (insoluable) had comparable effects on these symptoms. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1240446/)

And then there’s this:   “…(copper)  toxicity is so general in the population that it is a looming public health problem in diseases of aging and in the aging process itself.  Diseases of aging such as Alzheimer’s disease, other neurodegenerative diseases, arteriosclerosis, diabetes mellitus, and others may all be contributed to by excess copper (and iron). A very disturbing study has found that in the general population those in the highest fifth of copper intake, if they are also eating a relatively high fat diet, lose cognition at over three times the normal rate”.[1]

Sometimes safety is cited because of the widespread use by women of copper intrauterine devices (IUDs).  But the copper IUD was developed only in 1970;  that timeline would put those first users only in their 60s today.  How can we know that the copper has not influenced any health problems these 60 somethings may now have?  In addition, about 12% of women have the copper IUD removed because of increased menstrual bleeding or cramping.[2] There are also cases of increased menstrual cramping, acne, depression and other symptoms attributed to the copper IUD.[3] The fact that we keep ignoring is that the body, like our ecosystem, is a highly complex, interconnected system.  It is extremely hard to single out any one element as contributing to a series of cause and effect.

Although copper does have documented antimicrobial properties, it is a broad spectrum antimicrobial – meaning that it kills the good guys as well as the bad.  Many studies show that this is not necessarily the best approach to infection control.   Kaiser Permanente issued a December 2006 memo with this bottom line: “Review of current scientific literature reveals no evidence that environmental surface finishes or fabrics containing antimicrobials assist in preventing infections.”  In fact, their policy now is to prohibit any fabrics with antimicrobial finishes in their hospitals.

Copper impregnated fabrics are legally sold in the USA, because the EPA has not issued any regulations regarding use.  The reality is they don’t have any data on which to base an exclusion of use.  In the US we must prove toxicity before the EPA even begins to regulate chemicals – look at the case of lead.  Other organizations have evaluated copper (including the EPA, see above).

So really the question is: what possible benefit do you hope to achieve by using a product with this antimicrobial finish?   Although copper isn’t one of the most alarming chemicals used in textile processing,  it seems to me the benefits just aren’t that compelling.    I wouldn’t risk altering my DNA or subjecting myself to copper imbalance symptoms just to eliminate stains or odors.


[1] Brewer, George J., “Risks of Copper and Iron Toxicity during Aging in Humans”, Chemical Research in Toxicology, 2010, 23 (2), pp. 319 – 326.

[2] Zieman M, et al. (2007). Managing Contraception for Your Pocket. Tiger, GA: Bridging the Gap Foundation.