Indulgent yet responsible fabrics

Why did the manufacturers of children’s bedding and clothing, who urged the Consumer Product Safety Commission to exempt their products from the new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act,   consider their products safe from lead residues?

In many instances the bedding and clothing designed for children are made from naturally grown fibers, often organically grown fibers.   There is a persistent belief in the market that a fabric made with “organic fibers” is an organic FABRIC.   We have been trying to alert people to the reasons why this is erroneous.

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, stabalizers 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.

In fact,  a fabric that is advertised as being made from 100%  cotton is actually made of  73% cotton fibers and 27% “other“, for example:

  • 2% polyacryl
  • 8% dyestuff
  • 14% urea formaldehyde
  • 3% softening agents
  • 0.3% optical brighteners (1)

And unless the fabrics used in these products had been certified by GOTS, Oeko Tex or another third party to be free from the chemicals (like lead) which are known to harm humans, there is no guarantee that those organically grown fibers were processed safely, without any of the chemicals known to harm humans.

The reason it’s so hard to find out exactly what is in your fabrics is that the process chemicals used during weaving are not required to be reported anywhere – it’s only if a particular chemical is deemed hazardous by a regulating body that a Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) is required, to theoretically protect the safety of the workers handling these chemicals.  ( Most chemicals have not had toxicological evaluations, so there are no regulating bodies which might deem them hazardous.) Most companies keep these MSDS sheets private and do not give them out,  although they are supposed to be available to anyone.  I have had chemical companies tell me that only their customers can be privy to their MSDS sheets.  Well, if their customers are the mills which buy the chemicals from them, unless the mill releases the MSDS sheet there is no way the ultimate consumer (and user) of the product can see it.

But even if we were to see the MSDS sheets, it’s quite possible that the sheet wouldn’t tell you much unless you were a chemist, because the list of hazardous materials may include just a common name of a chemical, such as “pigment white #6”.  That sounds innocuous, doesn’t it?

I was able to get a copy of a different  MSDS for a water based ink which is used in textile printing.  The list of ingredients include:

ethyl alcohol
isopropyl alcohol
N-propyl alcohol
acrylic acid polymers
pigment white 19
pigment white 6
pigment red 170

In order to find out anything about “pigment white #6”,  for example, it is necessary to know the CAS number for this chemical.  The CAS registry number is a unique numerical identifier for chemical elements, compounds, polymers, and others.  The intention is to make database searches more convenient, because chemicals often have many different names.  As of September 2009, there were more than 50 million organic and inorganic substances and more than 61 million sequences in the CAS registry. (Another roadblock I’ve found is the company not listing the chemical CAS numbers or the chemical formula because they’re “trade secrets” and the formulas are proprietary.  I found this to be the case in the MSDS sheet published by Mimaki for thier water based ink jet printing ink “Reactive Dye 2 Ink Red”, which they do say is considered a hazardous substance according to OSHA 29 CFR 1910.1200.   Read this MSDS sheet here.)

“Pigment white #6” has a CAS number of 13463-67-7.  In order to find out what the toxicological profile of 13463-67-7 is, one can google the CAS number.  It turns out that Pigment White #6 is Titanium dioxide  – which is shown to cause mild skin irritations in humans, and cancerous tumors of the lungs and thorax in rats; also lymphomas including Hodgkins disease.  Classified as Group 2B (possibly carcinogenic to humans) by International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).  The  MSDS sheet also says:

  • May be harmful if inhaled; may cause respiratory tract irritation
  • May be harmful if absorbed through skin; may cause skin irritation
  • May cause eye irritation
  • May be harmful if swallowed

That is the profile of just ONE of the ingredients in this water based ink.  Let’s look at another: benzisothiazol, CAS 2634-33-5.  The MSDS sheet I found on this chemical lists it as having the same harmful effects as Pigment White #6, above:

  • May be harmful if inhaled; may cause respiratory tract irritation
  • May be harmful if absorbed through skin; may cause skin irritation
  • May cause eye irritation
  • May be harmful if swallowed

It is also noted on the MSDS sheet that it’s very toxic to aquatic organisms.  There is also the alarming  caveat: “To the best of our knowledge, the chemical, physical and toxicological properties have not been thoroughly investigated.”  As we have pointed out in the past, that’s true for MOST of the chemicals used in industry today.

So that leaves just 6 other chemicals to investigate to get a complete picture of the water based ink that may have been used in printing your cute sheet set.  And next you can investigate the types of dyestuffs used to dye the fabric, the bleaches uses (chlorine based?), what kinds of optical brighteners were used in processing.   And are those sheets wrinkle resistant?  Most functional finishes have formaldehyde.

If lead is not a problem in textiles, as children’s clothing manufacturers claim, how do you explain the very high concentration of lead in the sludge produced by  textile mills in Rancaekek, West Java?  A study done there found that the textile sludge was disposed of directly into three rivers, all of which are used to irrigate rice paddies.  A greenhouse study using the polluted soil from this area found high concentrations of lead in the rice. [2] That’s one way lead is being introduced directly into our food chain.

A piece of legislation like the CPSIA is one step in the right direction – but to have textile products exempted because they are “inherently safe” completely dismisses the processing of the fabric.  If consumers were buying the fiber only then I would agree that “organic cotton” is inherently safe.  But industrial mills today use many chemicals, many of which are known to harm us and our environment, which renders that organic fiber a decidedly non-organic fabric.

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

[2] “Pollution of Soil by Agricultural and Industrial Waste”, Centre for Soil and Agroclimate Research and Development, Bogor, Indonesia, 2002.   http://www.agnet.org/library/eb/521/

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