Ooh that excitement that comes from a new piece of clothing!
I just want to bring it home, rip of the tag, and wear it… around the house while I await some more exciting plans.
But not so fast! New clothes are often covered in chemicals that can rub off on your skin.
Greenpeace has conducted a number of studies on the subject. Christiane Huxdorff, a Greenpeace chemist, explains:
We found residual levels of laundry detergents, so-called nonylphenol ethoxylates or NPEs, that have a hormonal effect on human beings – they’re plasticizer residues suspected to cause infertility… We also found residues of carcinogenic substances that come from azo pigments.
Azo pigments are synthetic chemicals used to achieve intense coloring. Some, however, can release toxic or carcinogenic substances. For this reason, the use of a number of azo pigments has been restricted by the European Union. This is one of the chief reasons (in addition to the overwhelming financial incentives) clothing and textile manufacturers have moved their production to Asia: environmental laws are much more lenient and these dangerous chemicals can be used.
Formaldehyde and other anti-fungal chemical agents are also applied to clothing to keep any mildew from growing while in transit (should the clothing somehow be exposed to moisture) and to prevent the fabric from wrinkling. While the U.S. doesn’t regulate formaldehyde levels in clothing (no surprise here), the U.S. Government Accountability Office has reported that levels in textiles they tested in the U.S. met those standards set by countries that do regulate, about 75 ppm. That being said, a few items they tested reached as high as 200 ppm. Furthermore, about 9% of the U.S. population is so sensitive to formaldehyde that even low level exposures can cause a rash or skin discomfort. Most importantly, let’s remember that formaldehyde has been classified as a known human carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
So how can we avoid these chemicals?
Washing new clothing is certainly a great first defense and habit to adopt. This can greatly reduce formaldehyde, anti-fungal chemical agents, and azo pigments on the clothing.
But Greenpeace’s Huxdorff says there is no way to completely protect consumers from toxic chemicals in clothing. She suggests buying certified organic clothing or second-hand clothing, which likely have a reduced number of chemical residues since they have already been washed repeatedly.
Paradox: washing chemically-treated clothes releases the chemicals into the water supply where they can pose a health threat.
According to Greenpeace’s Nadia Haiama,
These chemicals are not only impacting on local communities – when they are released into rivers from the polluting factories in production centres like China and Indonesia – they are also escaping from people’s clothes and through their washing machines to also pollute our local waterways.
Once released into the environment, the cocktail of hazardous chemicals found in this study can have seriously adverse effects on wildlife – some have even been known to make male fish take on female characteristics! What’s more they can contaminate our bodies via food, air and water and pose health risks to humans, particularly to our immune, reproductive and hormonal systems.
It is for this reason that I am going to start looking into organic clothing and textiles (sheets, towels, etc.). Because it’s not just about possibly being able to wash the chemicals off new clothing before I wear it — it’s part of a much larger ugly picture that includes environmental injustice, public health concerns, lack of industrial oversight, and corporate greed. And I really don’t want to be a part of this picture any longer.
Sources and further reading
- Greenpeace UK, Toxic chemicals are the little monsters in children’s clothing
- Greenpeace, A Little Story About the Monsters In Your Closet – Report
- Deutsche Welle, Greenpeace finds toxic chemicals in children’s clothing of global fashion brands
- Deutsche Welle, When fashion makes you sick
- Consumer Reports News, Wash and then wear; unwashed clothes may have formaldehyde
- Natural News, Beware of hidden toxin sources in new clothes – Always wash them before wearing
- National Cancer Institute, Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk