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Can I ask the retailer to find out what’s in the fabric?

Well, you can ask the retailer where you're buying the sheets/shirts/towels/fabric – but they'll probably not be able to tell you. You can demand information from the manufacturer, but they often don't know the answers either. To illustrate why this may be so, let's take an example.

Let's pretend we're a vertical mill. We have just woven an organic cotton fabric, and we want to dye it. We can choose from many dyes, but settle on one called "Matisse Derivan" manufactured by Derivan Fabric Dyes. Because dyes are made up of many chemicals, and because they're proprietary, it's next to impossible to find out what is in the particular dye you're buying. You might think the MSDS, the Material Safety Data Sheet, would give us the information, so you rustle up the MSDS sheet.

MSDS, Material Data Safety Sheets, are sometimes used to substantiate the "safety" of a chemical product by requiring the listing of chemical components by CAS number, which is a unique numeric identifier of a chemical substance which links to a wealth of information about that chemical. But the reality is that many of the chemicals used in industry (textile or otherwise) have never been evaluated for toxicity, and therefore in the toxicity evaluation there is no data to refer to. In addition, proprietary components do not need to be listed. So the sheets have inaccurate or missing information. According to a 2008 study, between 30 – 100% of products analyzed contained chemicals not declared on an MSDS.1

The MSDS sheet for Matisse Derivan for example, lists these substances in the composition of the dye:

SUBSTANCE CAS NUMBER
Pigments Various
Water-based acrylic co-polymer Proprietary
Surfactants, dispersants, etc. Various
Ammonia 1336-21-6
Water  

 

In looking at an MSDS sheet, you might also find that any hazard classification or risk phase has "not been established" and "the toxicological properties of this product have not been thoroughly investigated", or the hazard classification might be identified as "non hazardous" according to various codes, such as the TSCA. These codes are known to be woefully inadequate, so to say that a chemical is non hazardous according to a code that dismisses all chemicals for which there is no data – well, you can see the problem.  There is also a lack of enforceable quality criteria, probably one of the reasons the sheets are of such poor utility.

Once you get the information on the dyestuff used you're one chemical component down  in your quest to determine what's in your fabric – and maybe 20 to go, because many chemicals are used on fabrics to produce many different desired qualities. In addition to dyeing, chemicals are used in textile production for: wetting, sequestering, dispersing, emulsifying, dye-protection, fixing, leveling agents; pH regulators, carriers, UV absorbers; stain, odor, and wrinkle resistance.

Finally, even if you were able to find out which particular chemicals are used in a product, it's possible that you won't know what you're looking at. For example, most everyone knows to avoid formaldehyde, but manufactures can legally use over 30 different trade names for formaldehyde, which include:

  • Formalin
  • Quaternium-15
  • Methanal
  • Methyl Aldehyde
  • Methylene Oxide
  • Oxymethylene
  • Bfv
  • Fannoform
  • Formol
  • Fyde
  • Karsan
  • Methaldehyde
  • Formalith
  • Methylene Glycol
  • Ivalon
  • Oxomethane

1 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18651574