Indulgent yet responsible fabrics

Breast cancer and acrylic fibers

O Ecotextiles (and Two Sisters Ecotextiles)

Just in case you missed the recent report which was published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine [1], a Canadian study found that women who work with some common synthetic materials could treble their risk of developing breast cancer after menopause.  The data included  women working in textile factories which produce acrylic fabrics   –  those women have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than the normal population, while those working with nylon fibers had double the risk.

I found it interesting that the researchers justified their findings because “synthetic fibers are typically treated with several chemicals, such as flame retardants from the organophosphate family, delustering agents, and dyes, some of which have estrogenic properties and may be carcinogenic.”

These are the same organophosphate flame retardants and dyes that are used across the textile spectrum, and which are found in most textiles that we surround ourselves with each day.

But also let’s look at the fibers themselves.  The key ingredient of acrylic fiber is acrylonitrile, (also called vinyl cyanide). It is a carcinogen (brain, lung and bowel cancers) and a mutagen, targeting the central nervous system.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acrylonitrile enters our bodies through skin absorption, as well as inhalation and ingestion.  So could the acrylic fibers in our acrylic fabrics be a contributing factor to these results?

Acrylic fibers are just not terrific to live with anyway.  Acrylic manufacturing involves highly toxic substances which require careful storage, handling, and disposal. The polymerization process can result in an explosion if not monitored properly. It also produces toxic fumes. Recent legislation requires that the polymerization process be carried out in a closed environment and that the fumes be cleaned, captured, or otherwise neutralized before discharge to the atmosphere.(2)

Acrylic is not easily recycled nor is it readily biodegradable. Some acrylic plastics are highly flammable and must be protected from sources of combustion.

What about nylon?  Well, in a nutshell, the production of nylon includes the precursors benzene (a known human carcinogen) and hydrogen cyanide gas (extremely poisonous); the manufacturing process releases VOCs, nitrogen oxides and ammonia.  And finally there is the addition of those organophosphate flame retardants and dyes.

Of course, there are the usual caveats about the study, and those commenting on it said further studies were needed since chance or undetected bias could have played a role in the findings. In addition, according to Reuters, “the scientists said more detailed studies focusing on certain chemicals were now needed to try to establish what role chemical exposure plays in the development of breast cancer.”  So this is yet another area in which more research needs to be done.  No surprise there.

But in the meantime, did you know that many popular fabrics are made of acrylic fibers?   One of the most popular is Sunbrella outdoor fabrics.     Sunbrella fabrics have been certified by GreenGuard Children and Schools because the chemicals used in acrylic production are bound in the polymer – in other words, they do not evaporate.   So Sunbrella fabrics do not contribute to poor air quality, (you won’t be breathing them in), but there is no guarantee that you won’t absorb them through your skin.  And you would be supporting the production of more acrylic, the production of which is not a pretty thing.

And what about backings on fabrics?  Many are made of acrylic.  Turn those fabric samples over and see if there is a plastic film on the back – it’s often made of acrylic.  Upholsterers like fabrics to be backed because it makes the process much easier and stabilizes the fibers.

So I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll avoid those synthetics for now – at least until we know where we stand.

[1] Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi: 10.1136/oem.2009.049817  (abstract: http://oem.bmj.com/content/67/4/263.abstract)  SEE ALSO:  http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321

(2)  http://www.madehow.com/Volume-2/Acrylic-Plastic.html

12 thoughts on “Breast cancer and acrylic fibers

  1. of course we can always prevent cancer, the key is early diagnosis and early treatment .–

    1. oecotextiles says:

      I guess that’s one way or living a life. I’d much rather not have to worry about missing that early diagnosis, or about undergoing treatment (even if early) because it’s often not very pleasant.

  2. Akiko says:

    “Prevent”-ing cancer and having it early diagnosed or early treatment are on the two different sides of the spectrum. You didn’t “prevent” the cancer if they have found/diagnosed it thus causing you to go through a cancer treatment.

    1. Rachel says:

      I agree with Akiko! prevention means your cells kept their ‘genomic integrity’ sufficiently robust, to avoid growing out of control…
      There are just too many ways our cells are affected by ‘ordinary’ products!
      This site is great, btw! Thanks!

  3. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for this article and for the information. I just recently purchased an outdoor patio set with sunbrella material. There is a warning label on the bottom of each chair that reads, “this item contains a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer.” I am in the process of returning the set, but I’m having a hard time finding alternate outdoor cushions that would be considered safe. Any tips would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Jennifer: I guess existence depends on how you want the fabric to behave. Americans simply want to be able to leave outdoor fabric…outside (what a concept) but they don’t want that fabric to lose color, mildew or otherwise degrade in any way. That is a hard act to follow and one of the reasons Sunbrella is so successful. However, as Sunbrella is made of acrylic, I’d search for a polyester fabric that does not have a soil/stain repellent on it. The safest choice is a GOTS certified natural fiber fabric, but you’d have to baby it a bit (i.e., not let it get wet).

  4. lawolletLee says:

    I find this web site exhausting, as a human race we are doomed!!! So tell me how bad is Sunbrella really, am I breathing in some chemical while sitting on the cushion? When it comes in contact with my skin is that bad and how long does it have to be in contact to do some type of endocrine disruption!!! I am not sitting on the cushion in the nude or sitting for hours. I am all for buying organic food non GMO ect ect , which I find really more of a problem in this country then the fabrics we are sitting on, after all we need to be eating organic as much as possible. We aren’t eating the fabric,n in a perfect world it would be lovely if we all could have all organic fabrics and our homes could all be built Green Eco Friendly, but we aren’t in a perfect world and never will be unfortunately. Sunbrella, Solution Dyed Fabrics are everywhere, and becoming more popular for indoor furniture. Having to now be concerned about what my family is sitting on makes me tired, just one more thing to worry about, I think I will worry more about what we are eating, just my two cents.

    1. Oh, I agree! But unfortunately, some things just come home to roost. And the answers to the questions you pose is: nobody knows, because nobody has done any tests to determine that. There is a label on your Sunbrella that warns that the fabric “contains a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer.” But how long till the chemical results in a tumor is anybody’s guess. I think we should have an alternative, and I think the government should have more regulations regarding which chemicals can be used in industry. But just because Sunbrella fabrics are everywhere doesn’t mean you have to use them. There are better alternatives for when you replace your furniture.

  5. April says:

    I was just reading another article you wrote and I posted something that would fit nicely here. There are many toxic things in our lives (hell, even the computer I am currently typing on and for that instance you as well) But certain things start of toxic and change once they are treated. My examples were Kidney beans and Lima beans. Both are totally toxic and have killed and made people extremely sick when not properly cooked. But once they are cooked they are no longer toxic. So just because it “starts out toxic” doesn’t mean the end result is.

  6. Kristina says:

    I worked with Sunbrella fabric for many years, but stopped when I realized all the chemicals involved, I made harp cases with it. So far so good, I have a real aversion to getting cancer, but my daughter has many disabilities and I wonder if it could be related.

  7. Susan says:

    does anyone know of a fabric I can re-upholster with that cats can’t scratch through that is also safe to use?

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