Should you worry about toxins in your clothes?
I do, obviously -- that's one of the reasons we started NearSea Naturals: because I wanted organic, toxin-free fabrics for clothing my firstborn. But even though I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about possible dangers from conventional fabrics, particularly synthetics, I have to admit that I was surprised and dismayed by much of what I read in a new book. Killer Clothes: How Seemingly Innocent Clothing Choices Endanger Your Health ... And How To Protect Yourself, by Anna Maria Clement and Brian R. Clement, appeared in our mailbox the other day. I think they sent it because NearSea is referenced a couple of times (which we always appreciate), and I found it fascinating reading.
The book covers many different areas within the general framework of a discussion of how and why conventional clothing choices can be dangerous. There's a pretty comprehensive bibliography, which I appreciate because I often want to know more before simply taking what I read as truth. It's good to be able to refer to the original sources. One thing the Clements devote a fair amount of space to is the problem of synthetic fabrics; on the very first page of the introduction, they write:
"Synthetic-fiber clothing is worn with an illusion of safety but hides invisible chemical and other dangers that clothing manufacturers and much of the world's health care industry ignore or attempt to rationalize away."
They discuss how synthetic fabrics have really only been in common use for the past 60 years or so (rayon was introduced in 1924, nylon in 1939, and others following), and describe the various chemicals used in their production and the possible hazards involved. There's a fascinating section that considers a 2001 Polish study that showed that synthetic fibers fatigue your muscles, even when only worn for a few hours. I'd thought that there might be a measurable short-term effect to wearing or using these fibers, though I've long wondered about long-term hazards. Nanoparticles and the use of nanotechnology in fabric is considered, as is fabric care (what's in your detergent? do you use fabric softeners? do you know what's in them?).
This was a telling quote, from page 10:
"The vast majority of clothing items produced in the world today -- constituting a $7 trillion a year industry -- are either manufactured or the fabric fibers are grown, using synthetic chemicals, many of which are toxic to human health. As a further challenge to health and safety, most of the cleaning agents used to wash or dry-clean clothes contain chemicals that can trigger adverse physical symptoms. These effects on health should be particularly worrisome for parents with babies and young children -- who often place clothing in their mouths and then chew and suck on the fabric -- because the natural detoxification systems of children's bodies aren't fully developed enough to quickly or completely eliminate fabric chemicals.
According to The Ecologist magazine, an estimated eight thousand chemicals are employed to transform raw materials into clothes, a process that involves bleaching, dyeing, scouring, sizing, and finishing the fabrics. Synthetic clothing now commonly contains such toxins as formaldehyde, brominated flame retardants, and perfluorinated chemicals like Teflon fibers to give trousers, skirts, and other apparel "noniron" and "nonwrinkle" durability. "
Killer Clothes also includes random bits of only somewhat-related information that I can see being useful at various times. For instance, pages 121 and 122 cover the burn test, one way you can determine whether a fabric is natural, synthetic, or a blend. I knew the basics of this, but I'd never even tried to distinguish between nylon (melts and smells like burning plastic), polyester (burns and melts simultaneously, leaving an ash that adheres to surfaces), and other synthetics. I'd also never considered using either nail polish remover or Fiber-Etch to determine fabric type. (The Clements cite fabrics.net for information about the burn test.)
One section of the book that really concerned me talked about how long many chemicals remain on conventional fabric. I'd always believed that when I didn't have the time to sew something from organic fabric and couldn't afford to purchase a new, organic, item, buying used clothes was fairly safe, that repeated washings would have dissipated many of the nasties. I really didn't want to learn that I was wrong on that front, but that's just what happened. I learned about the difference between free and bound formaldehyde in garments, and how free formaldehyde washes away while bound stays fairly constant through many many washes and ironings. Apparently many school uniforms are made from fabric coated with chemicals to give stain and wrinkle resistance, and these chemicals, released through washings and wearings, can be absorbed by kids. That's a dismal thought!
As disturbing as parts of this book were, though, it's ultimately hopeful; the Clements write:
"...all of us retain the power to minimize risks to our health by taking simple precautions and practicing mindfulness about our clothing choices and the buying options that we still have..."
Killer Clothes is a good way to begin to develop a knowledge base that'll help you make wise clothing choices. And like I said, the fact that they recommend NearSea Naturals is a definite plus!
Caveat: the book really could have used a better copy editor. Also, there are some parts that set off my wacko meter. I ignored them, and focused on the other parts. That didn't bother me, but it may you. So be forewarned. It's somewhat like reading about autism -- my aforementioned firstborn has Asperger's, very likely from being born at 24 weeks' gestation -- and seeing something in an otherwise very good publication that says "fully 93 percent of all children with autism were diagnosed after receiving vaccinations." I'm not even discussing the validity of the idea that vaccinations cause autism here -- simply the fact that yes, the vast majority of babies and children in the US receive some amount of vaccinations, generally starting as infants, and the vast majority of cases of autism are diagnosed once children are at an age to at least be babbling, interacting with parents and the world, etc. So of course that statistic is true, since vaccinations happen early and diagnoses happen later. Correlation does not equal causation! But I digress, which shouldn't surprise anyone.