Design decisions influence our health –so your choice of a sofa fabric could influence you and your family in ways far beyond what you imagined. Our children start life with umbilical cords infused with chemicals that affect the essence of human life itself – the ability to learn, reason and reproduce. And fabric – which cocoons us most of the time, awake and asleep – is a contributor to this chemical load. One thing I know for sure is that the textile industry uses lots of chemicals. During manufacturing, it takes from 10% to 100% of the weight of the fabric in chemicals to produce that fabric.(1) And the final fabric, if made of 100% natural fibers (such as cotton or linen), contains about 27% , by weight, chemicals(2) – let’s not even talk about synthetic fabrics.
Since 1999, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has tested Americans every two years in order to build a database of what are called “body burdens,”(3) in order to help toxicologists set new standards for exposure and definitively link chemicals to illness, or else decouple them. The study attempts to assess exposure to environmental chemicals in the general U.S. population – and the more chemicals they look for, the more they find: The CDC started with 27 worrisome chemicals in 1999 and now tests for 219. Their findings have shown that no matter whether you’re rich or poor; live in the center of a city or a pristine rural community; east coast, west coast or in between; are elderly or newborn; Republican, Democrat or Socialist – you have BPA in your blood, as well as polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDE)s – which can retard a fetus’s neurological development; perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – which impairs normal development; perchlorate – which can keep the thyroid from making necessary hormones and methyl tert-butyl ethers (now banned in most states) and mercury. (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are both included as PFAS.)
And the correlation between chemicals to illness seems to be on the rise (4) – certainly from studies done linking various chemicals to human disease and illness, but also because the spectrum of both “rare” and “common” illnesses is on the rise. The National Institutes of Health defines a rare disease as one affecting 200,000 or fewer Americans. Yet 25 – 30 million Americans suffer from one of the nearly 6,800 identifiable rare diseases. That compares to the 40 million Americans with one of the three “major” diseases: heart disease, cancer or diabetes.
Specifically with regard to fabrics: The 2010 AATCC (American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists) Buyer’s Guide lists about 2,000 chemical specialties in over 100 categories offered for sale by about 66 companies, not including dyes. The types of products offered run the gamut from antimicrobial agents and binders to UV stabilizers and wetting agents. Included are some of the most toxic known (lead, mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A, PBDE, PFOA). There are no requirements that manufacturers disclose the chemicals used in processing – chemicals which remain in the finished fabrics. Often the chemicals are used under trade names, or are protected by legislation as “trade secrets” in food and drug articles – but fabrics don’t even have a federal code to define what can/cannot be used because fabrics are totally unregulated in the U.S., except in terms of fire retardancy or intended use. It’s pretty much a free-for-all.
Why does the industry use so many chemicals? What are they used for?
Most fabrics are finished in what is called “wet processing” where the process is accomplished by applying a liquid – which accomplishes some sort of chemical action to the textile – as opposed to “dry processing”, which is a mechanical/physical treatment, such as brushing. It is a series of innumerable steps leading to the finished textile, each one of which also has a complex number of variables, in which a special chemical product is applied, impregnated or soaked with the textile fiber of the fabric. A defined sequence of treatments can then be followed by another sequence of treatments using another chemical substance. Typically, treatments are arranged to permit a continuous mode of sequences.
The chemicals used can be subdivided into:
• Textile auxiliaries – this covers a wide range of functions, from cleaning natural fibers and smoothing agents to improving easy care properties. Included are such things as:
- Complexing agents, which form stable water-soluble complexes
- Surfactants, which lowers the surface tension of water so grease and oil to be removed more easily
- Wetting agents, which accelerates the penetration of finishing liquors
- Sequestering agents
- Dispersing agents
Textile chemicals (basic chemicals such as acids, bases and salts)
Colorants, such as:
The chemicals used get very specific: for example, Lankem Ltd. is one such manufacturer of a range of textile chemicals. According to their website, their Kemtex AP, for example, is an “anti-precipitant” to be used “where dyes of opposing ionicity may be present in the same bath” and their Kemtex TAL is a levelling agent for wool which is a “highly effective level dyeing assistant for acid, acid milling and prematallised dyes on wool.”
In addition to the branded products supplied by chemical companies, which are made of unknown components because they’re proprietary, we know many chemicals are necessary to achieve certain effects, such as PBDEs for fire retardants, formaldehyde resins for crease resistance or PFOA’s for stain protection.
The chemicals used in these branded products to create the effects above include chemicals which have been proven to be toxic, or to cause cancers or genetic mutations in mammals (i.e., us too). The following is by no means an all-inclusive list of these chemicals:
• Alkylphenolethoxylates (APEOs)
• Pentachlorophenols (PCP)
• Toluene and other aromatic amines
• Dichloromethane (DCM)
• Polybrominated diphenyl ethers ( PBDE’s)
• Perfluorooctane sulfonates (PFOS)
• Heavy metals – copper, cadmium, lead, antimony, mercury among others
One of the presenters at the 2011 Living Building Challenge, inspired by writer Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, shared a list of ways to choose products that remove the worst of the chemical contamination that plagues many products.
These rules apply to all products, including fabrics, so I’ve just edited them a bit to be fabric specific:
- If it is cheap, it probably has hidden costs.
- If it starts as a toxic input (like ethylene glycol in the manufacture of polyester), you probably don’t want it in your house or office.
- Use materials made from substances you can imagine in their raw or natural state.
- Use carbohydrate-based materials (i.e., natural fibers) when you can.
- Just because almost anything can kill you doesn’t mean fabrics should.
- Pay more, use less.
- Consult your nose – if it stinks, don’t use it.
- If they can’t tell you what’s in it, you probably don’t want to live with it. (note: his is not just the fibers used to weave the fabric – did the processing use specific chemicals, like heavy metals in the dyestuff, or formaldehyde in the finish?)
- Avoid materials that are pretending to be something they are not.
- Question materials that make health claims.
- Regard space-age materials with skepticism.
(1) Environmental Hazards of the Textile Industry, Hazardous Substances Research Centers, South and Southwest Outreach Program, US EPA funded consortium, June 2006.
(2) Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts; German Environmental Protection Agency, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609.
(3) What is a “body burden”: Starting before birth, children are exposed to chemicals that impair normal growth and development. Exposures continue throughout our lives and accumulate in our bodies. These chemicals can interact within the body and cause illness. And they get passed on from parent to child for generations.
(4) World Health Organization; http://www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/en/index.html