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Can tiny amounts of chemicals hurt me?

That is the position of the textile and chemical industry – such tiny amounts shouldn’t hurt you. But new research is profoundly changing our old belief systems.

For example, toxicologists used to say, “The dose makes the poison” – i.e., that a little dose of a poison would do a little bit of harm, and a big dose would do a lot of harm. Water can kill you just as surely as arsenic, given sufficient quantity.   The new paradigm shows that exposure to even tiny amounts of chemicals (in the parts-per-trillion range) can have significant impacts on our health – in fact some chemicals impact the body greatly in the parts per trillion range, but do little or no harm at much greater dosages.

Also, the old belief system did not address how chemicals can change the subtle organization of the brain. Now, according to Dr. Laura Vandenberg of the Tufts University Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology1 “we find chemicals that are working at that really low level, which can take a brain that’s in a girl animal and make it look like a brain from a boy animal, so, really subtle changes that have really important effects.”

In making a risk assessment of any chemical, we also now know that timing and order of exposure is critical – exposures can happen all at once, or one after the other. Those factors - timing and order of exposure - can make a world of difference.  

And we also know another thing: chemicals are synergistic, which means that if you’re exposed to two chemicals the effect will be different or greater than exposure to the individual chemicals separately. For example: a dose of mercury will kill 1 out of 100 rats. A dose of lead will kill 1 out of 1000 rats. But if you combine the two, and expose the rats to those same doses of lead and of mercury, then all the rats – 100% - die.

And finally, the new science called “epigenetics” is finding that pollutants and chemicals might be altering the 20,000-25,000 genes we’re born with—not by mutating or killing them, but by sending subtle signals that silence them or switch them on at the wrong times.  This can set the stage for diseases, which can be passed down for generations. So exposure to chemicals can alter genetic expression, not only in your children, but in your children’s children – and their children too. 

And here’s the rub: fabrics are just one of the many chemical stressors that people face during the day, every day: heavy metals and carcinogenic particles in air pollution; industrial solvents; household detergents; pharmaceuticals in drinking water; pesticides in flea collars; artificial growth hormones in beef; synthetic hormones in bottles, teething rings and medical devices; formaldehyde in cribs and nail polish.

These exposures all add up – and the body can flush out some of these chemicals, while it cannot excrete others.  Chlorinated pesticides, such as DDT, for example, can remain in the body for 50 years.   Scientists call the chemicals in our body our “body burden.” 

Illness does not necessarily show up in childhood or immediately after exposure. Environmental exposures, from conception to early life, can set a person’s cellular code for life and can cause disease at any time, through old age.

So our position is not that any one piece of fabric can necessarily do irreparable harm to somebody – but if that piece of fabric contains a chemical that is part of what scientists call our “body burden,” it just might be the thing that pushes you over the edge. If you can find products that do not contain the chemicals of concern, why would you not use them, given the risk of not doing so?


1Living on Earth, March 16, 2012, http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=12-P13-00011&segmentID=1