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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Can you get cancer from the shirt on your back?

Can you get cancer
from the shirt on your back?

The last time I looked into the dangers of chemicals in clothing was inIssue #169 (and there’s more in Issue #111). Now Greenpeace International has published a new report revealing evidence of high levels of toxic phthalates and cancer-causing amines in a sampling of clothing items purchased from around the world.
Unfortunately, there was little improvement since their previous investigation. Worse, they found the presence of many new types of potentially hazardous industrial chemicals. Keep reading for the latest. . .
Continued below…

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This study was different from the last one, which only looked at NPEs in textiles. NPEs, or nonylphenol ethoxylates, are man-made chemicals that breakdown into NPs, which are known, cancer-causing hormone disruptors.
In the new study, Greenpeace focused on searching out hazardous chemicals within a broad range of fashionable clothing. They scoured not only materials incorporated within the products but also residues that remained from the manufacturing process.
The results aren’t good, as any presence of NPEs, phthalates, or azo dyes, which can release cancer-causing amines, is intolerable—and all were found in the study. Phthalates in particular are well-known for being toxic to the reproductive system.
But at least there are a few things you can do to protect yourself.
Consumer warnings with no backbone
China is a good example of why toxic clothing is such a big problem. Greenpeace recently confirmed that two of the largest Chinese production bases for—of all things—children’s clothing, contains hazardous chemicals loaded with health risks.
Beijing authorities haven’t done a thing to control their toxic residue habit. They don’t have any chemical management regulations to curb the poisons, and we’re getting the brunt of it since most of those clothes are exported to Europe and North America. In fact, China is the world’s largest exporter of clothing, and kid clothes are one of the fastest growing segments. The two production facilities where toxic elements were found are responsible for about 40 percent of production of kid clothes.
China does have a “quality control watchdog,” called the Defective Product Administrative Center of China's General Administration of Quality Supervision (a fancy name for an ineffective department). And though they agree that these kid’s clothes can be dangerous, the only step they’ve taken is to send parents a consumer warning to "buy light-color kids' clothes, without fluorescent brighteners or pigment printing." According to Greenpeace, China is about 20 years behind the European Union in terms of regulating textile chemicals.
To be fair, China isn’t alone in its lack of regulation. Other developing and emerging countries share the same careless attitude and practices, including many located in South and Central America, Asia, and Africa.
Whether or not you buy these polluted clothes directly doesn’t matter. That’s because large quantities of pesticides used in the production of fibers like cotton, along with toxic chemicals used in textile production, get washed into our waterways. This is fatal for fish and sets off a domino effect that could topple our entire ecological system.
We’re dealing with an ecologically-illiterate culture that puts poisons in the waterways and circulates them right back into our homes.
The whole lifecycle of clothing is affected
Keep in mind, chemicals involved in the manufacture of clothing manufacturing aren’t the only problem. You also need to pay attention to everything you put on and in those clothes, from laundry detergent to fabric softener to PFC-laced waterproofing agents. For more information on laundry products, check out Issue #133.
There’s also the issue of skin absorption. Toxic textiles that come into contact with human skin can be absorbed by your body in trace amounts. Over time, these toxins accumulate and can cause cancer.
I take all this seriously, because I have chemical sensitivities. I don’t have to wait three decades to get cancer. This junk makes me sick right here and now, with symptoms ranging from headaches and body pain to skin rashes and sinus problems.
How did we get into this fix? You can point the finger at a number of things. Most of the effects of toxic chemicals are very long range in nature. It may take decades for cancer to show up, and by that time the connection between cause and effect is hard to establish. Our society has simply closed its eyes to these long term consequences.
The bad practices start with companies looking for the cheapest manufacturing options. Add to that lax regulation, and you end up with massive toxic dumps into our waterways.
And it’s not just the factories that are polluting our waterways. We do it too, when we buy these polluted clothes and wash them, unwittingly releasing hazardous chemicals into our domestic waste water systems. (By the way, that’s not something that only happens the first time you wash a new garment. Clothes with plastisol print can release phthalates throughout the life of the clothing item.)
Sadly, wastewater treatment plants don’t deal well with NPEs. This essentially speeds up their breakdown into toxic, hormone-disrupting NPs in our public waterways.
“Bluesign” and other ways to
guard your chemical safety
Because of all this, more people are crying out for comprehensive chemical safety reform across the globe rather than efforts that just single out a harmful chemical here and there. Sure, effective regulation and brand accountability would be nice, but who knows how long that’ll take? At least there are things you can do NOW to impact your own health:
  • Buy second-hand clothing when possible, or repurpose and reuse older items. It’s the current “fast fashion” habit of readily changing out garments from our own closets that’s contributing to the heightened chemical manufacturing process. Plus, older clothes are less likely to be laced with chemicals.
  • Don’t buy from brands that contain known pollutants. Stay informed about the worst offenders (there’s a list in this press release), or look for the bluesign® symbol. Bluesign is a Swiss effort to guarantee chemical safety by singling out products within the textile industry that have minimal environmental impact. The goal is to eliminate toxic substances from the manufacturing process, both to help control environmental waste and to give consumers safer products. To find bluesign-approved products, you can look for the blue label on clothing or check out which brands meet the criteria by visiting the bluesign site.
  • If you buy new clothes, buy those manufactured in the EU or the U.S., and look for organically sourced products.
  • Use natural laundry detergents and fabric softeners that lessen the chemical weight of your clothing.
Even though it’s a monstrous, global problem, remember that taking small steps—like those listed above—can make all the difference in setting you up for a happy, long, healthy life.

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