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Is your favourite sweater threatening your health?

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

This blog is the first in a series which exposes the toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing of cheap, fast fashion. The regulation of textile manufacturing is limited and currently there is no requirement on retailers to publish a full list of the chemicals used in the manufacturing process. This means that we, as consumers, will often be unaware of the harmful chemicals that are being absorbed by our skin everyday. Supported by scientific research, this series exposes shocking secrets in the fashion industry and hopes to equip you with alternative options to help you live a healthier life.

We all have that favourite jumper or sweater in our wardrobe that we love to wear. It's comfortable, flattering with a pair of jeans or a skirt, holds cherished memories because a loved one bought it for you, or perhaps it’s your favourite jumper that you pull out once a year in December to celebrate the festive season!


What if you were told that this jumper could be attacking your body every time you wear it? What if you were told that your jumper was made using chemicals that have been linked to cancer? [i] And that these chemicals can remain carcinogenic (cancer-causing) long after the jumper has found a home in your wardrobe? Would you still wear it?


Our skin is the body’s largest organ. It protects us from water loss, harmful microorganisms, irritants, and injuries, acting as a vital barrier against exposure to environmental contaminants. But, when we smother it in nasty toxic chemicals every day, our long-term health is compromised.


Approximately 8,000 chemicals are used in the textile production process and these chemicals not only pose a health risk to the people that work with them, but many of these chemicals end up deposited as waste in our environment and some clothes remain toxic long after the garment has found a home in your wardrobe.[ii]



A dye factory in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, 2012 (Lu Guang/Greenpeace)

Harmful Chemicals Uncovered


In 2015, Stockholm University uncovered the presence of several chemical groups in a test of 60 garments[iii] and in 2018, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (BCP) finally published a list of the main chemicals used in the manufacturing of low-cost clothing from processing to dyeing. These include trichloroethane (TCE) and nonylthenol ethoxylates (NPEs) – both deemed potentially harmful to humans and currently restricted in the EU. [iv]


Long-lasting chemicals can penetrate the skin when worn for long periods of time.[vi] Phthalates, commonly used in fabric printing, are known endocrine disruptors, which means they can disrupt hormone levels and are linked to breast cancer, developmental issues, and decreased fertility.[vii] NPEs are known to disrupt hormones, affect reproductive functions and studies have identified NPEs in human breast milk and blood.[v]


Lead is often used for dyeing brightly coloured fabrics. Lead poisoning is known to affect mental and physical health, and seriously affect development in children[viii]. In 2006, there was a public outcry in the USA when lead was found in baby bibs being sold in Babies R Us and Walmart.


“There are different ways toxic chemicals enter our bodies, whether in the air we breathe or through the water we drink. Children tend to put things in their mouths. So if there are chemicals in their clothing or blankets, they have an additional risk of exposure to toxins.” - Dr Greet Schoeters, University of Antwerp


Furthermore, new engineered fabrics have become highly sought after with seemingly magical properties such as ‘anti-wrinkle’, ‘anti-sweat’ and ‘anti-odour’. However, it’s not magic. Dangerous chemicals are applied in the treatment of the fabric such as formaldehyde[ix], a known carcinogen used to create wrinkle-resistance in clothing.


PFCs are substances used to create water-repellent coatings on clothing and have been found to affect the immune system in children, increase incidence of cancer in adults and compromise female fertility. A study by Greenpeace which involved testing 82 children’s garments purchased from a range of retailers across the globe, including well known high-street and high-end brands, found high levels of NPEs, phthalates, per/poly-fluorinated chemicals (PFCs).[x] The report stated an Adidas swimsuit was found to have incredibly high quantities of PFCs, which was 15 times higher than the concentration in the next highest sample. “Notably high” concentrations of PFCs were also found in three articles of ‘waterproof’ clothing from H&M and Primark.[xi]


Formaldehyde is widely used in the textile industry and helps to minimise the accumulation of bacteria and fungus in clothing folds. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classes formaldehyde as "carcinogenic to humans"[xii] and prolonged exposure to formaldehyde can cause skin irritation, nausea, and worse. In 2008, a large lingerie retailer had lawsuits brought against them for making some women ill due to the high levels of formaldehyde being found on their underwear[xiii]. An article written by Kristopher Fraser references “a study conducted by the General Directorate of the U.S. Government revealed some textiles exceeding the permissible standards for the level of formaldehyde”, in which children’s hats were found to contain more than double the ‘normal’ levels of formaldehyde[xiv].


Currently there are around 2.9 million people in the UK living with cancer. Cancer diagnoses are on the rise and it is estimated that by 2030, 4 million people will be living with cancer in the UK[xv]. Many aspects of our lives lead to these statistics, with many different types of cancer being involved, but it makes it difficult for us to protect against it, when reports are published years later with shocking results.

Regulation in the textile industry is limited. There is no requirement to publish a full list of the chemicals used in the manufacturing process. This means that we, as consumers, will often be unaware of the potential risks in what we are wearing. the potential risks in what we are wearing.


Given this information, it might be wise to wash your jumper before wearing it for the first time, but disappointingly, studies show only a “slow decrease of the concentration [of chemicals] in garments when washed, [and] substantial amounts of the compounds will remain in the textiles for a long time, with the possibility of exposure to the skin of potential harmful compounds as a result” This means that chemicals stay in your clothes for a long time after you purchase them.



Shockingly, clothing manufacturers are not required to declare the presence of any of these chemicals on the garment, leaving the consumer none the wiser to the presence of these potentially carcinogenic substances.


We know Fast Food, sugar, alcohol, and processed meats are carcinogenic and we make choices as to how much, or how little, we put into our bodies. Textile manufacturers don’t publicise these carcinogenic facts and whatever we are wearing on our bodies will be absorbed by our skin every day. Is an anti-wrinkle shirt really worth risking your health over?


What can we do as consumers?


After learning about the harmful chemicals in some of our clothes, it could be tempting to do a huge overhaul and throw any potentially harmful garment out. Or alternatively you may be reading this thinking the problem is too huge to change so carry on as normal. We advise doing neither of these options!


Instead, we recommend using 2021 as a clean slate to take steps towards sustainable and ethical fashion.


Before going mad in the January Sales after Christmas, please think carefully about the clothes you are buying and the retailers you are supporting. Do you really need to purchase that dress? Consider saving your money, and buying only what you need. Consider supporting smaller, independent brands who are trying to do things differently and who are transparent about their manufacturing process and ethics. Consider supporting smaller brands who value our planet over false marketing campaigns, who value animal welfare over short-lived fashion trend and who value human lives over profits,


Brands doings things differently


Some brands are trying to do things differently.


New fashion brand Onesta, founded in 2020, wants to change the fashion industry for the better. Sustainability is not just a trend for Onesta - the name itself means honest, and total transparency is the foundation on which the company is built. Having started the company in response to the detrimental effects fast-fashion is having on the world, and our bodies, CEO and founder, Gabriella Diana, hopes for a future where sustainable brands can work together to have a positive change on the fashion industry.


Onesta shows people that knowing where your clothes came from, what they’re made of and who made them is important. Their products are ethically made in Wales from sustainable, innovative fabrics crafted from nature, produced sustainably and ethically without any nasty toxins or pesticides, and a percentage of every sale is donated to three charities.




References


[i] https://www.greenpeace.org/international/publication/6889/toxic-threads-the-big-fashion-stitch-up/ [ii] https://www.commonobjective.co/article/the-issues-chemicals [iii] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/10/151023084508.htm [iv] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2452223617300664 [v] http s://www.epa.gov/assessing-and-managing-chemicals-under-tsca/fact-sheet-nonylphenols-and-nonylphenol-ethoxylates#risks [vi] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/10/151023084508.htm [vii] https://www.bcpp.org/resource/phthalates/ [viii] https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/formaldehyde/formaldehyde-fact-sheet#can-formaldehyde-cause-cancer [ix] https://cen.acs.org/articles/88/i36/Formaldehyde-Clothing.html [x] https://www.greenpeace.to/greenpeace/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/A-Little-Story-About-the-Monsters-In-Your-Closet-Technical-Report.pdf [xi] https://www.greenpeace.org/static/planet4-international-stateless/2014/01/dd071226-a-little-story-about-the-monsters-in-your-closet-technical-report.pdf [xii] https://monographs.iarc.fr/agents-classified-by-the-iarc/ [xiii] https://honolulu.legalexaminer.com/legal/victorias-secret-bras-contaminated-with-formaldehyde-according-to-ohio-womans-lawsuit/ [xiv] https://academic.oup.com/humrep/article/24/5/1200/711357 [xv] https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/track/pdf/10.1186/1476-069X-10-88.pdf

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