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Aren’t all fabrics safe?

The textile industry uses lots of chemicals to turn coarse fibers into the soft, lustrous, smooth, colorful fabrics we demand.

Think of turning organic apples into applesauce:  if you added Red Dye #2, preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers and other chemicals to the mix, the final product would not be organic applesauce. 

The same thing happens in textile manufacturing:  organic fibers are washed, sized, desized,  bleached, dyed, treated with detergents, optical brighteners, biocides, wetting agents, lubricants, sequestering agents,  stabilizers, emulsifiers, complexing agents …and more. The American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists Buyers Guide for 2007 lists over 2000 chemicals used in textile manufacturing – many of which are known to bioaccumulate, persist in our environment and are associated with a host of human health issues, such as infertility, autoimmune diseases, cancers, nervous system disorders and many others1.

It takes from 10% to 100% of the weight of the fabric in chemical additives to produce the fabric to cover an average sofa2. And since one average size sofa uses about 25 yards of fabric, which weights about 1 lb. per yard on average, then the total weight of the fabric to cover a sofa would be 25 lbs., so from 2.5 to 25 pounds of chemicals were used to produce the fabric.

And the finished fabric, advertised as being made from 100% cotton, is actually made of  73% cotton fibers and 27% "other", such as, for example:

  • 2% polyacryl
  • 8% dyestuff
  • 14% urea formaldehyde
  • 3% softening agents
  • 0.3% optical brighteners3

The fabrics we bring into our homes contain lots of chemicals by weight - chemicals which are often outlawed in other products. These chemicals which remain in the fabric are absorbed by our bodies: some chemicals evaporate into the air; some are absorbed through our skin. Another way our bodies absorb these chemicals is over time, microscopic particles are abraded and fall into the dust in our homes, where we can breathe them in.

Studies are being published that specifically link diseases to chemicals found in textiles.4

The fabrics we live with contain chemicals which have been proven to affect us in many ways, from subtle to profound: in terms of infertility, asthma, nervous disorders (ranging from depression and anxiety to brain tumors), immune system suppression and genetic alteration. And the industry pollutes our groundwater by dumping untreated effluent into our waterways, where it circulates around the globe.

Stands to reason why we'd want safe fabrics doesn't it?



1See, for example:

  • “Killer Couches”, Sara Schedler, Friends of the Earth,
  • “Dioxins and Dioxin-like Persistent Organic Pollutants in Textiles and Chemicals in the Textile Sector”, Bostjan Krizanec and Alenka Majcen Le Marechal, Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, Smetanova 17, SI-2000 Maribor, Slovenia; January 24, 2006
  • “Potentials for exposure to industrial chemicals suspected of causing developmental neurotoxicity”, Philippe Grandjean, MD, PhD, Adjunct Professor and Marian Perez, MPH, Project Coordinator,
  • “The Chemicals Within” , Anne Underwood, Newsweek, January 26, 2008
  • Williams, Florence, “Toxic Breast Milk”, New York Times Magazine, January 9, 2005

2This data is extracted from a variety of source documents, based on textile production and chemical use, including:

  • Chemical Finishing of Textiles, Schindler and Hauser, Woodhead Publishing
  • Environmental Hazards of the Textile Industry, Hazardous Substances Research Centers, South and Southwest Outreach Program, (US EPA funded consortium) June 2006
  • “Process Analysis of Textile Manufacturing” – Environmental Impacts of Textile Manufacturing, Moustafa S. Moussa, UNESCO – IHE, Delft, The Netherlands
  • Profile of the Textiles Industry, US EPA,

3Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609.

4For example:

  • In 2007, The National Institutes of Health and the University of Washington released the findings of a 14 year study that demonstrates those who work with textiles were significantly more likely to die from an autoimmune disease than people who didn’t. (Nakazawa, Donna Jackson, “Diseases Like Mine are a Growing Hazard”, Washington Post, March 16, 2008)
  • A study by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found a link in textile workers between length of exposure to formaldehyde and leukemia deaths.(Pinkerton, LE, Hein, MJ and Stayner, LT, “Mortality among a cohort of garment workers exposed to formaldehyde: an update”, Occupational Environmental Medicine, 2004 March, 61(3): 193-200
  • Women who work in textile factories with acrylic fibers have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than does the normal population. (Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi: 10.1136/oem.2009.049817       see also: : AND
  • Studies have shown that if children are exposed to lead, either in the womb or in early childhood, their brains are likely to be smaller. Note: lead is a common component in textile dyestuffs. (Bellinger, David C., “Very low lead exposures and children’s neurodevelopment”, Current Opinion in Pediatrics 2008, 20: 172-177