What chemicals in my fabric are unsafe?

Many of the chemicals used in fabric production are known to have negative health effects.

Unsafe chemicals in fabrics

Here are some chemicals that are often used in textile processing. Not every chemical listed below is found in every fabric, but they (or some of their equally bad relations ) are often found residual in finished fabric:

Lead: Lead is a neurotoxin. It affects the human brain and cognitive development, as well as the reproductive system. Specifically, it affects reading and reasoning abilities in children and is also linked to hearing loss, speech delay, balance difficulties, and violent tendencies1. Children are uniquely susceptible to lead exposure over time. Neural damage - which might occur from 1 to 3 years of age - is not likely to be reversible. It's also important to be aware that lead available from tested products would not be the only source of exposure in a child's environment. Lead is a uniquely cumulative poison: the daily intake of lead is not as important a determinant of harm as is the duration of exposure and the total lead ingested over time.

Lead is used in the textile industry as a component of dyestuffs and other ways under a variety of names:

  • Lead acetate: dyeing of textiles
  • Lead chloride: preparation of lead salts
  • Lead molybdate: pigments used in dyestuffs
  • Lead nitrate: mordant/oxidizer in dyeing

Bisphenol A and other phthalates: Phthalates are a large class of chemicals, of which Bisphenol A is just one example. As a class, they are so toxic, with so many human health concerns (i.e., breast cancers, birth defects, asthma – especially harmful to newborn babies and fetuses), that they have been banned in the EU since 2005. They've recently been banned in California and Washington State in children's toys. In the textile industry, they are often found in textile inks, as solvents, and as a softener for PVC.

One study found that there is a direct relationship between a mother's exposure to phthalates during pregnancy and changes in the ways a baby boy's genitals develop.2 Other studies have shown associations between phthalates and human reproductive systems, such as reductions in semen quality which were detected in three studies between 2000 and 2003.3

Bisphenol A is used as a processing aid in the production of synthetic fibers4, also in the production of flame retardants, and as an intermediate in the production of antioxidants and dyes. It is also found in printing inks. Greenpeace tested a variety of Disney-themed clothing and found levels of Bisphenol A from between 4% and 10% by weight5. Bisphenol A is a concern because of possible health effects on the brain, behavior, fetuses, infants, and children. In 2012, the FDA banned it in baby bottles.

Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEOs): APEOs are very persistent and do not readily degrade. They move up the food chain and ultimately to us. In 1998, the use of APEOs was outlawed in Germany. Since 2005, the EU has forbidden the use of APEO byproduct NPEO in concentrations above 0.1%. Greenpeace studies found these APEOs in the finished fabric at concentration levels ranging from 1 part per million to 45000 parts per million6. APEOs are surfactants that have emulsifying and dispersing action, so they have good wetting, penetration, emulsification, dispersion, solubilizing, and washing characteristics. In the textile industry, they're used in industrial detergents as a scouring, coating, or waterproofing agent, in printing pastes and adhesives, and dyeing.

Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde is a listed human carcinogen7. Besides being associated with watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, difficulty in breathing, coughing, some pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), asthma attacks, chest tightness, headaches, and general fatigue, as well as well documented skin rashes, formaldehyde also associates with more severe health issues. For example, it could cause nervous system damage by its known ability to react with and form cross-linking with proteins, DNA, and unsaturated fatty acids. These same mechanisms could cause damage to virtually any cell in the body since all cells contain these substances. Formaldehyde can react with the nerve protein and nerve transmitters, which could impair normal nervous system function and cause endocrine disruption.8

Used in textiles as a resin combined with fibers, it is designed to be irremovable (so it cannot be washed out as is popularly assumed). It's in virtually all poly-cotton blends on the market today. It's also used in many finishes (like a permanent press, easy-care, no iron), also as a binding agent for printing inks; in nylon fabrics as FR treatment; and as a fixative for dyes and pigments.

Studies have been done that link formaldehyde in indoor air as a risk factor for childhood asthma9. How does that translate to fabric? Think about adding the formaldehyde found in your indoor air to the formaldehyde in the Finding Nemo t-shirt that was tested by Greenpeace and found to have 1,100 ppm formaldehyde.

Perfluorocarbons (PFC's): PFC's are toxic to humans with health effects from increased cholesterol to stroke and cancer. PFC's cause developmental and other adverse effects in animals.10 And according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the more exposure children have to PFC's, the less likely they are to have a good immune response to vaccinations.11 PFC's break down within the body and in the environment to PFOA, PFOS, and similar chemicals. They are the most persistent synthetic chemicals known to man. Once they are in the body, it takes decades to get them out – assuming you are exposed to no more. They are used in fabrics as stain repellants.

Benzene: Benzene is highly carcinogenic; causes immune system dysfunction. Easily absorbed by the skin. In the textile industry, it is used in dyestuffs, emulsion concentrations of pigment printing; in production of nylon and other synthetic fibers; also produced as a byproduct of the dyeing process.12

To read about some of the chemicals that are used frequently in textile manufacturing, click on any of the following links:

1'Safe' levels of lead still harm IQ", Associated Press, 2001

2Swan, SH, et al., The Study for Future Families Research Group 2005; "Decrease in Anogenital Distance Among Male Infants with Prenatal Phthalate Exposure", Environmental Health Perspectives (in press). 

3See discussion and full citations at Our Stolen Future. 

4Grant, Christine; Hauser, Peter; Oxenham, William, "Improving the Thermal Stability of Textile Processing Aids".

5Pedersen, Henrik and Hartmann, Jacob, "Toxic Textiles by Disney", Greenpeace, April 2004. 

Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up.

7Being a "listed" carcinogen means that a chemical is included in The Report on Carcinogens, a congressionally mandated report prepared by the National Toxicology Program, identifies agents, substances, mixtures, or exposures known or reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens. Formaldehyde was included in 2010. National Toxicology Program; Report on Carcinogens, Thirteenth Edition. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program. 

8Horstmann, M and McLachlan, M; "Textiles as a source of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans (PCDD/F) in human skin and sewage sludge", Environmental Science and Pollution Research, Vol 1, Number 1, 15-20, DOI: 10.1007/BF02986918 

SEE ALSO: Klausmeier, K, et al; "PCDD/F's in textiles – part II: transfer from clothing to human skin", Ecological Chemistry and Geochemistry, University of Bayreuth, CHEMOSPHERE, 1.1999 38(1):97-108 See Also: Hansen, E, and Hansen, C; "Substance Flow Analysis for Dioxin 2002", Danish Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Project No.811 2003

9Rumchev, K.B., et al, "Domestic exposure to formaldehyde significantly increases the risk of asthma in young children", Microsoft Academic Search 2002

10Philippe Grandjean, et al, "Serum Vaccine Antibody Concentrations in Children Exposed to Perfluorinated Compounds", Journal of the American Medical Association, January 25, 2012



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