Indulgent yet responsible fabrics

Lead and fabrics

O Ecotextiles (and Two Sisters Ecotextiles)

We published a post about lead in fabrics about a year ago, but I thought it was important enough to remind you of the dangers of lead in fabrics, because we’re starting to see claims of “heavy metal free” dyestuffs used in fabrics.  What does that mean?

Lead is considered one of those “heavy metals’ , along with mercury, cadmium, copper and others – all highly toxic to humans.  “Heavy metal” is defined as any metallic element that has a relatively high density and is toxic or poisonous at low concentrations.

Heavy metals are natural components of the Earth’s crust. They cannot be degraded or destroyed.  Interestingly, small amounts of these elements are common in our environment and diet and are actually necessary for good health. Lead can even be found in natural fibers, such as cotton, flax and hemp, which can absorb it from the environment.
It’s when our bodies have to deal with large amounts of these heavy metals that we get into trouble.   Heavy metal poisoning could result, for instance, from drinking-water contamination (e.g. lead pipes), high ambient air concentrations near emission sources,  intake via the food chain or through skin absorption – and in the case of  crawling children, from inhaling carpet particles or other abraded textiles in dust.  For some heavy metals, toxic levels can be just above the background concentrations naturally found in nature. Therefore, it is important for us to inform ourselves about the heavy metals and to take protective measures against excessive exposure.  Lead accounts for most of the cases of pediatric heavy metal poisoning, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

Lead is a neurotoxin – it affects the human brain and cognitive development, as well as the reproductive system. Some of the kinds of neurological damage caused by lead are not reversible.  Specifically, it affects reading and reasoning abilities in children, and is also linked to hearing loss, speech delay, balance difficulties and violent tendencies. (1)

A hundred years ago we were wearing lead right on our skin. I found this article funny and disturbing at the same time:

“Miss P. Belle Kessinger of Pennsylvania State College pulled a rat out of a warm, leaded-silk sack, noted that it had died of lead poisoning, and proceeded to Manhattan. There last week she told the American Home Economics Association that leaded silk garments seem to her potentially poisonous. Her report alarmed silk manufacturers who during the past decade have sold more than 100,000,000 yards of leaded silk without a single report of anyone’s being poisoned by their goods. Miss Kessinger’s report also embarrassed Professor Lawrence Turner Fairhall, Harvard chemist, who only two years ago said: ‘No absorption of lead occurs even under extreme conditions as a result of wearing this material in direct contact with the skin’. ”

This was published in Time magazine,  in 1934.  (Read the full article here. )

According to Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, “There are kids who are disruptive, then there are ‘lead’ kids – very disruptive, very low levels of concentration.” 
Children with a lead concentration of less than 10 micrograms ( µ) per deciliter (dl = one tenth of a liter) of blood scored an average of 11.1 points lower than the mean on the Stanford-Binet IQ test. (2)   Consistent and reproducible behavioral effects have been seen with blood levels as low as 7 µ/dl (micrograms of lead per tenth liter of blood), which is below the Federal standard of 10 µ/dl.   The image depicts what happens to human beings at the various levels of lead in blood.  Scientists are generally in agreement that there is no “safe” level of blood lead.  Lead is a uniquely cumulative poison:  the daily intake of lead is not as important a determinant of ultimate harm as is the duration of exposure and the total lead ingested over time.

Lead is widely  used in consumer products, from dyestuffs made with lead (leading to lead poisoning in seamstresses at the turn of the century, who were in the habit of biting off their threads) (3), to lead in gasoline, which is widely credited for reduced IQ scores for all children born in industrialized countries between 1960 and 1980 (when lead in gasoline was banned).  Read more about this here.

Lead is used in the textile industry in a variety of ways and under a variety of names:

  • Lead acetate                     dyeing of textiles
  • Lead chloride                   preparation of lead salts
  • Lead molybdate             pigments used in dyestuffs
  • Lead nitrate                     mordant in dyeing; oxidizer in dyeing(4)

Fabrics sold in the United States, which are used to make our clothing, bedding and many other products which come into intimate contact with our bodies, are totally unregulated – except in terms of required labeling of percentage of fiber content and country of manufacture.  There are NO laws which pertain to the chemicals used as dyestuffs, in processing, in printing,  or as finishes applied to textiles, except those that come under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, which is woefully inadequate in terms of addressing the chemicals used by industry.   With regard to lead, products cannot contain more than 100 ppm – despite many studies that show there is no safe level for lead. In fact, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) has announced that the 32 year old TSCA needs a complete overhaul (5), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  was quick to agree! (6).  Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA,  said on September 29, 2009 that the EPA lacks the tools it needs to protect people and the environment from dangerous chemicals.

Fabrics are treated with a wide range of substances that have been proven not to be good for us.  That’s why we feel it’s important to buy third party certified FABRICS, not just certified organic fibers (which do nothing to guarantee the dyestuffs or finish chemicals used in the fabric) such as GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) or Oeko Tex, both of which prohibit the use of lead in textile processing.

The United States has new legislation which lowers the amount of lead allowed in children’s products – and only children’s products.   (This ignores the question of  how lead  in products used by pregnant  women may affect their fetus.  Research shows that as the brains of fetuses develop, lead exposure from the mother’s blood can result in significant learning disabilities.)  The new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) had requirements to limit lead content in children’s products (to be phased in over three years) so that by August 14, 2011, lead content must be 100 ppm (parts per million) or less.

However there was an outcry from manufacturers of children’s bedding and clothing, who argued that the testing for lead in their products did not make sense, because:

  • it placed an unproductive burden on them, and
  • it required their already safe products to undergo costly or unnecessary testing.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission voted to exempt textiles from the lead testing and certification requirements of the CPSIA, despite the fact that lead accounts for most of the cases of pediatric heavy metal poisoning, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

So let me repeat here: the daily intake of lead is not as important a determinant of ultimate harm as is the duration of exposure and the total lead ingested over time.

Children are uniquely susceptible to lead exposure over time, and  neural damage occurring during the period from 1 to 3 years of age is not likely to be reversible.  It’s also important to be aware that lead available from tested products would not be the only source of exposure in a child’s environment.  Although substantial and very successful efforts have been made in the past twenty years to reduce environmental lead, children are still exposed to lead in products other than toys or fabrics. Even though it was eliminated from most gasoline in the United States starting in the 1970s, lead continues to be used in aviation and other specialty fuels. And from all those years of leaded gasoline, the stuff that came out of cars as fuel exhaust still pollutes soil along our roadways, becoming readily airborne and easily inhaled.   All lead exposure is cumulative – so it’s important to eliminate any source that’s within our power to do so.

(1) “ ‘Safe’ levels of lead still harm IQ”, Associated Press, 2001

(2) Ibid.

(3) Thompson, William Gilmsn, The Occupational Diseases, 1914, Cornell University Library, p. 215

[4] “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/

(4) http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp13-c5.pdf

(5) http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/News/2009/January/29010901.asp

(6) http://www.bdlaw.com/news-730.html

19 thoughts on “Lead and fabrics

  1. Shaun says:

    Hi, do you know if there is any way to get lead out of fabric? For instance, does it come out with repeated washings, or is it more stubborn? I just bought a load of silk and am wondering if I can somehow reduce the probability of exposure before anyone ever touches it. (normally I only use recycled fabric for sewing projects but I was taken in with these amazing dupione silk colors…sigh)

    1. oecotextiles says:

      Hi Shaun: It’s a common misconception to think that process chemicals can be washed out. It’s often suggested that washing the fabric will get rid of the toxic chemicals used during processing, like formaldehyde and lead. But think about it: these chemicals are used to provide certain characteristics, like wrinkle resistance (in the use of formaldehyde) or color (in the use of lead), so why would a manufacturer put in a wrinkle resistant finish or color that washes out? If that were the case, your permanent press shirts and sheets would suddenly (after a washing or two) need to be ironed. Do you find that to be the case? Lead is most often used as a component in the dye chemicals, and if it washed out then your fabrics would lose color. And especially with fiber reactive dyes, those dye chemicals are designed to bond with the fibers so as to NOT wash or wear out.
      Manufacturers work long and hard to make sure these chemicals do NOT wash out. Studies have shown that formaldehyde, for example, does not wash out.
      An additional issue with silk is that it is sold by the weight – so there is a process called weighting silk, in which chemicals are added to give weight to the finished fabric. Lead used to be the chemical of choice for that process, and is still used occasionally. We did a blog post on silk in June of last year, https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/silk/. Finally, I have to point out that recycled fabrics go through the same processing and use the same dyestuffs, finishes, etc. as non-recycled polyesters. The only difference is the type of fiber used. I wish I had better news for you!

  2. Lisa Velez says:

    I recently purchased a purse that had a sticker on it’s label, stating that “This product may contain lead a chemical known to the State of California to cause reproductive harm.” The purse was made in China as well. Do I need to worry about this product harming me or my family?

    1. oecotextiles says:

      Hi Lisa: I think you have to worry more about the lead used in the manufacturing of the purse that was probably dumped into our environment without treatment – so it’s probably circulating in the groundwater of the planet. It becomes part of the environmental burden that we must bear. The best way to protect your family is not to buy products that contain lead in the first place, because every time you buy it you’re sending a message to the factory to produce more just like it. So even though the lead in the purse may not pose a risk, that factory continues to contribute to our lead pollution.

  3. manoj bhargava says:

    what is the side effcte of lead for humen body in textile

    1. We did a post on that on October, 27, 2010, https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/lead-and-fabrics/ Hope that helps.

  4. Mercedes says:

    I bougth a hair bow for my daughter in downtown LA. Would lead be found in the fabric? Would it harm her if I put it on her head or is lead only harmful when ingested? Please Let me know….Thanks in advance.

    1. Lead in fabrics is transmitted into the body usually because microscopic pieces of fabric (which contain the lead) abrade and are then breathed in; they can also be absorbed into the skin when skin and fabric come in contact. I think that a hair bow, which may very well contain lead (or mercury or any of the other heavy metals) doesn’t pose much of a threat since there is small chance of abrasion and hair protects her scalp from coming in contact with the fabric.

  5. Geevee says:

    While I do believe that we need to find ways to restrict harmful chemicals and possibly find alternative soutions, to protect the environment and general health, I do find it alarming that the exaggeration of some of these issues are very disproportional to the facts. For instance formaldehyde…it is a volatile chemical…no doubt it is used in the textile industry a great deal…but looking for this chemical in end products is an example chasing a ghost. That is not to say that formaldehyde should not be restricted but the approach should be well thought out and not be driven by some suing large companies and settling. It is easy to quote research indicating that when rats are fed enormous quantities of formaldehyde they developed cancer. But it has to be put in perspective. I do not know of any citation that a human developed cancer because they wore durable press finished clothing,

    1. Well, this hit a nerve! We actually did a blog post in reply, because we in no way feel we should back down. Please see our post: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2014/06/18/do-we-exaggerate-the-dangers-of-conventional-fabrics/.

  6. My post only pertains to lead because we sell children’s products made from fabric and I came across your site. My research indicates that fabrics you would find at Joann’s all use synthetic dyes (basically made from oil) and not from metallic compounds.

    We certainly support natural fibers free of obnoxious additions like formaldehyde. But in general I don’t think lead is a concern in ordinary fabrics.

    Folks should be very concerned about flame retardants, which are present in many, many products, many in use today are known cancer causers, and many in use today have simply not been tested.

    1. Hi Nathen: Unfortunately lead is used as a component in dyestuffs as well as a stabilizer in PVC production. In 2003, Greenpeace bought textile articles produced by Disney in 19 different countries. They tested for lead, among other chemicals – and every textile was found to have lead residues, ranging from 0.14 mg/kg to 2,600 mg/kg in a Canadian Princess T- shirt. But as we now know, any exposure to lead is bad. The new CPSIA law mandated that children’s products (i.e., children 12 years and under) cannot have more than 100 ppm of lead – despite studies which show that there is no safe level of lead exposure. But there was an outcry from manufacturers of children’s bedding and clothing, who argued that the testing for lead in their products did not make sense, because, it placed an unproductive burden on them, and it required their already safe products to undergo costly or unnecessary testing. So the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted to exempt textiles from the lead testing and certification requirements of the CPSIA. I agree with you that folks should also be concerned about flame retardants and formaldehyde – as well as the many other chemicals used in textile processing which remain in the fabrics (like APEOs and NPEOs specifically).

  7. Kim Fitzgerald says:

    I was glad to find this article as the parent of lead poisoned children. I love to sew and am afraid the fabric I purchase could contain lead. I buy most of my fabric from joanns. Is there a way to know that the fabric I’m purchasing is safe? Not only do my children (and any number of other people) touch the fabric but the cutting and sewing definitely creates dust. What should I do in order to assure that my fabric is safe? Does fabric misted as made in the US safer? Should I avoid fabrics made in certain countries? What about Organic fabric? could that still potentially be dyed with lead and other chemical containing dyes? Thank you

    1. Hi Kim: Please look for fabrics that have third party certifications – Oeko Tex 100 or GOTS. A fabric which uses organic cotton as the fiber is a great start, but it could still be processed with dyes containing lead (and other heavy metals) if the fabric is milled conventionally. The third party certification is a great assurance. A fabric made in the US is no safer than any other fabric, nor should certain countries be avoided. Only the mills are certified – India and China, for example, have lots of GOTS certified mills.

  8. Patricia Gardner says:

    I purchased some maternity clothes for my daughter from zulily,manufactured by bellino. On receipt of the clothes was included the CA prop 65 warning about lead and cadmium. I was shocked to think that clothes that can cause reproductive issues would be available especially in maternity wear.I am returning the clothes but am still alarmed. Is used clothing better, like from a thrift store? Thanks for your response.

    1. Used clothing is a tad bit better, however the chemicals used in producing the textiles are there to do a job and they do it well! For example, conventional dyestuffs contain lead, so if the clothing from the thrift store is dyed, then it could very well contain lead. Your only assurance is to purchase third party certified fabrics/clothing, such as Oeko-Tex or GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard). Sadly, I have never seen clothing in the United States that is certified to GOTS.

  9. MJ says:

    (It seems I am VERY late to the game, but I’ll still ask a question just in case I can still get an answer haha) So, I recently bought clothing online. When it arrived, I found a p65 warning for lead and cadmium, probably due to the dyes. However, they didn’t say anything about this on the website or anywhere in the product description. I’m not sure if they’re required to disclose it, but I would’ve appreciated recieving the warning before purchasing the product. The warning freaked me out so I went online to see how dangerous it was, because surely companies wouldn’t sell a product if it posed such a danger, right? Unfortunately, my internet search did not give a definitive answer. Some people said that it wasn’t as big of a deal as the tag makes it seem, that those warnings are everywhere in CA. some said that it was certainly not something to be taken lightly, and that such products could cause major health issues.
    I suppose my questions would be: How dangerous would wearing this clothing be? Could I still wear it if I wear something under? Like wearing leggings under the pants so that the pants themselves don’t come into contact with my skin. Would this make any difference, or would it still be hazardous to my health? Thank you!

    1. Hi MJ: We have a bit of info on lead in another blog post: https://oecotextiles.blog/2013/04/03/lead-also-in-fabrics/ Or just search for LEAD. You do not want to be subjecting yourself to absorbing any level of lead. The lead in the clothing is bio-available if you ingest it, breathe it in or absorb it. And, if you jostle the clothing, tiny bits abrade and you can ingest them or breathe them in. I’m not sure of the common route of transmission for lead, but it is 100% prohibited in the textile certifications we understand and trust. Perhaps you can return the article? Never, ever buy anything made of fabric which is not MINIMALLY Oeko-Tex 100 certified. GOTS certified is best. Both prohibit residual heavy metals in fabric. Oeko-Tex 100 is pretty easy to find. There is much more to know about Oeko-Tex 100 as it allows plastic, the use of which we absolutely must limit. We’ll try to start blogging again. Fabric is a stunningly important and totally overlooked area

      1. Anonymous says:

        Got it, thank you so much for the quick reply!

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