I was one of those people who thought that manufacturers were not “allowed” to sell me any product that contained something that might harm me. As I quickly learned, that’s basically not true in the United States – especially with respect to fabrics. The EU is light years ahead of the US with their REACH program, designed to replace the most harmful chemicals with less toxic alternatives, but even that program focuses only on only the most high volume chemicals used in industry.
Let me just remind you why knowing what chemicals are used for processing your fabrics is important:
Because fabrics – all fabrics – are by weight about 25% finishing chemicals (i.e. dyes, finishes, softeners, etc.) And because the textile industry uses over 2000 chemicals routinely, how do we know the mix in the fabrics we’re living with are safe?
Well, you can ask the store where you’re buying the sheets or shirts – but they’ll probably look at you blankly.
You can demand information from the manufacturer. But often they don’t know the answers. To illustrate why this is, let’s take one example. Let’s pretend we’re a mill and we have just woven an organic cotton fabric, and we want to dye it. We can choose from many dyes, but settle on one called “Matisse Derivan” manufactured by Derivan Fabric Dye. Because dyes are made up of many chemicals, and because they’re proprietary, it’s next to impossible to find out what is in the particular dye you’re buying. So you might think the MSDS sheet would give us the information.
MSDS sheets are sometimes used to substantiate the “safety” of a chemical product by requiring the listing of chemical components by CAS number, which is a unique numeric identifier of a chemical substance which links to a wealth of information about that chemical. But the reality is that many of the chemicals used in industry (textile or otherwise) have never been evaluated for toxicity, and therefore in the toxicity evaluation there is no data to refer to. In addition, proprietary components do not need to be listed. So the sheets have inaccurate or missing information. According to a 2008 study, between 30 – 100% of products analyzed contained chemicals not declared on an MSDS.(1)
The MSDS sheet for Matisse Derivan (click here to see the sheet) for example, lists these substances in the composition of the dye:
SUBSTNACE CAS NUMBER
- Pigments Various
- water-based acrylic co-polymer Proprietary
- surfactants, dispersants, etc. Various
- ammonia 1336-21-6
In looking at an MSDS sheet, you might also find that any hazard classification or risk phase has “not been established” and “the toxicological properties of this product have not been thoroughly investigated”, or the hazard classification might be identified as “non hazardous” according to various codes, such as the TSCA. These codes are woefully inadequate as is now known (click here for more information) so to say that a chemical is non hazardous according to a code that dismisses all chemicals for which there is no data – well, you can see the problem.
There is also a lack of enforceable quality criteria, probably one of the reasons the sheets are of such poor quality.
Because testing has been done to establish wastewater criteria, some studies have shown what types of chemicals are found in textile wastewater from dyes, such as one which found benzidine, vinyl-p-base and 4-aminoazobenzene – all quite toxic.(2)
Once you get the information on the dyestuff used you’re one chemical component down – and maybe 20 to go, because in most fabrics these functional areas also require chemical treatments:
Textile auxiliaries (such as complexing, wetting, sequestering, dispering agents; emulsifiers), textile chemicals (dyes, dye-protective, fixing, leveling agents; pH regulators, carriers, UV absorbers); finishes (stain, odor, wrinkle resistance).
And finally, even if you were able to find out which particular chemicals are used in a product, it’s possible that you won’t know what you’re looking at. For example, most everyone knows to avoid formaldehyde, but manufactures can legally use over 30 different trade names for formaldehyde, such as:
• Methyl Aldehyde
• Methylene Oxide
• Methylene Glycol
(2) Rehorek, A and Plum, A; Characterization of sulfonated azo dyes and aromatic amines by pyrolysis gas chromatography/mass spectrometry; Analitical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, Aug 2007; 388(8): 1653-62.