Can you wash or otherwise clean conventional fabrics to remove all the toxic residues so that you’d end up with a fabric that’s as safe as an organic fabric? It seems a reasonable question, and sure would be an easy fix if the answer was yes, wouldn’t it? But let’s explore this question, because it’s really interesting.
Let’s start by looking at one common type of fabric: a lightweight, 4 ounce cotton printed quilting fabric. In this case the answer is no (and as you’ll find out, our answers will always be no, but read on to see why).
The toxic chemicals in conventionally produced (versus “organically” produced) cotton fabric that cannot be washed out come from both:
1. the pesticides and herbicides applied to the crops when growing the cotton and
2. from the dyes and printing inks and other chemicals used to turn the fibers into fabric.
Let’s first look at the pesticides used during growing of the fiber.
Conventional cotton cultivation uses copious amounts of chemical inputs. These pesticides are absorbed by the leaves and the roots of the plants. Most pesticides applied to plants have a half life of less than 4 days before degredation.(1) So pesticides can be found in the plants, but over time the chemicals are degraded so the amount to be found in any bale of cotton fiber is highly depending on time of harvest and how recently the crop had been sprayed.
Gas chromatography easily shows that common pesticides used on cotton crops are found in the fibers, such as: Hexachlorobenzene, Aldrin, Dieldrin, DDT and DDT. (2) Look up the toxicity profiles of those chemicals if you want encouragement to keep even tiny amounts of them out of your house. With time, as the cotton fibers degrade, these residual chemicals are released.
We could find no studies which looked at the fibers themselves to see if pesticides could be removed by washing, but we did find a study of laundering pesticide-soiled clothing to see if the pesticide could be removed. Remember, this study (and others like it) was done only on protective clothing worn by workers who are applying the pesticides – so the pesticides are on the outside of the fibers – NOT on the fibers themselves during growth. The study found that, after six washings in a home washing machine, the percent of pesticide remaining in a textile substrate (cotton) ranged from 1% to 42%. (3)
If you’re trying to avoid pesticides which are applied to cotton crops, you’d do better to avoid cottonseed oil than the fiber (if processed conventionally) because we eat more of the cotton crop than we wear. Most of the damage done by the use of pesticides is to our environment – our groundwater and soils.
Before we go further, let’s do away with the notion that organic cotton, woven conventionally, is safe to use. Not so. There are so many chemicals used during the processing phase of fabric production, including detergents, brighteners, bleaches, softeners, and many others that the final fabric is a chemical smorgasbord, and is by weight at least 10% synthetic chemicals (4), many of which have been proven to cause harm to humans.
The chemicals used in conventionally processed organic cotton fabrics make the concerns about pesticides used in growing the crop pale in comparison: If we use the new lower chemical inputs that GMO cotton has introduced, it’s now possible to produce 1 lb. of conventionally grown cotton, using just 2.85 oz of chemical pesticides – that’s down from over 4.5 oz used during the 1990’s – a 58% decrease. So to produce enough cotton fiber to make 25 lbs of cloth, it would require just 4.45 lbs of chemical pesticides, fertilizers and insecticides. Processing that fiber into cloth, however, requires between 2.5 – 25 lbs. of chemicals. If we take the midpoint, that’s 12.5 lbs of processing chemicals – almost three times what it took to produce the fiber!
There are over 2,000 different kinds of chemicals regularly used in textile production, many of them so toxic that they’re outlawed in other products. And this toxic bath is used on both organic fibers as well as non-organic fibers – the fibers are just the first step in the weaving and finishing of a fabric. (Make sure you buy organic fibers that are also organically processed or you do not have an organic fabric. An organic fabric is one that is third party certified to the Global Organic Textile Standard. ) Fabrics – even those made with organic fibers like organic cotton IF they are conventionally produced and not produced according to GOTS – contain chemicals such as formaldehyde, azo dyes, dioxin, and heavy metals. Some of the chemicals are there as residues from the production, others are added to give certain characteristics to the fabrics such as color, softness, crispness, wrinkle resistance, etc. And these chemicals are designed to do a job, and do it well. They are designed to NOT wash out. The dyes, for instance, are called “fiber reactive” dyes because they chemically bind with the fiber molecules in order to remain color fast. The chemical components of your fabric dye is there as long as the color is there. Many dyes contain a whole host of toxic chemicals. The heavy metals are common components of fabric dyes. They are part of the dye and part of the fabric fiber as long as the color remains.
And these chemicals are found in the fabrics we live with. Studies have shown that the chemicals are available to our bodies: dioxins (such as the 75 polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs) and 135 polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs)) were found in new clothing in concentrations ranging from low pg/g to high 300 ng/g in several studies. (5)
How do these chemicals get into our bodies from the textiles? Your skin is the largest organ of your body, and it’s highly permeable. So skin absorption is one route; another is through inhalation of the chemicals (if they are the type that evaporate – and if they do evaporate, each chemical has a different rate of evaporation, from minutes or hours to weeks or years) and a third route: Think of microscopic particles of fabric that abrade each time we use a towel, sit on a sofa, put on our clothes. These microscopic particles fly into the air and then we breathe them in or ingest them. Or they fall into the dust of our homes, where people and pets, especially crawling children and pets, continue to breathe or ingest them.
In the United States, often the standards for exposure to these toxins is limited to workplace standards (based on limits in water or air) or they’re product specific: the FDA sets a maximum limit of cadmium in bottled water to be 0.005 mg/L for example. So that leaves lots of avenues for continued contamination!
The bad news is that existing legislation on chemicals fails to prohibit the use of hazardous chemicals in consumer products -–and the textile industry, in particular, has no organized voice to advocate for change. It’s a complex, highly fragmented industry, and it’s up to consumers to demand companies change their policies. In the United States we’re waking up to the dangers of industrial chemicals, but rather than banning a certain chemical in ALL products, the United States is taking a piece meal approach: for example, certain azo dyes (like Red 2G) are prohibited in foods – but only in foods, not fabrics. But just because the product is not meant to be eaten doesn’t mean we’re not absorbing that Red 2G. Phthalates are outlawed in California and Washington state in children’s toys – but not in their clothing or bedding. A Greenpeace study of a Walt Disney PVC Winne the Pooh raincoat found that it contained an astounding 320,000 mg/kg of total phthalates in the coat – or 32% of the weight of the raincoat! (6)
Concerns continue to mount about the safety of textiles and apparel products used by U.S. consumers. As reports of potential health threats continue to come to light, “we are quite concerned about potentially toxic materials that U.S. consumers are exposed to everyday in textiles and apparel available in this country,” said David Brookstein, Sc.D., dean of the School of Engineering and Textile and director of Philadelphia University’s Institute for Textile and Apparel Product Safety (ITAPS).
The good news is that there are fabrics that have been produced without resorting to these hazardous chemicals. Look for GOTS! Demand safe fabrics!
(1) “Degradation of Pesiticides on Plant Surfaces amd It’s prediction – a case study of tea leaves”, Zongmao, C and Haibin, W., Tea Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Zhejiang, China. http://www.springerlink.com/content/vg5w5467743r5p41/
(2) “Extraction of Residual Chlorinated Pesticides from Cotton Matrix, El-Nagar, Schantz et.al, Journal of Textile and Apparel, Technology and management, Vol 4, Issue 2, Fall 2004
(3) Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 1992 (23, 85-90)
(4) Laucasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609.
(5) “Dioxins and Dioxin-Like Persistent Organic Pollutants in Textiles” Krizanec, B and Le marechal, Al, Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, Smetanova 17, SI-2000, Maribor, Slovenia, 2006; hrcak.srce.hr/file/6721