What Are You Wearing?
We’ve all heard the question, “What are you wearing?” Most likely you’ve never answered, “Petroleum, pesticides, perfluorochemicals, and antimony, with cadmium accessories.” Yet in most cases, that would be the honest answer.
Modern clothing is far more complicated than simply considering the designer on the label or the sale price. Stop for a moment and read the tag on the shirt or pants you’re wearing right now. For once, don’t worry about the size. Instead look at the list of fibers that make up the garment. It’s likely that you’ll see a blend of fabrics—for example, 97% rayon and 3%spandex or 65% polyester and 35%cotton. If you take an inventory of your entire closet, you may find a few fabric names or blends you don’t even recognize.
Most of us still tend to think of our clothing from the perspectives of fashion and fit:
• Does it look good?
• Do we look good wearing it?
But there are two other questions we should always ask in regards to our clothing and other fabrics:
• What is it made of?
• What’s it doing to our body?
Ever since humans discovered that fibers could protect the body better than animal skins, fabric has been an important part of our lives. For thousands of years the four staple fabric fibers were flax, wool, cotton, and silk—all products created from natural sources. Natural fibers do have their limitations, though. Cotton and linens wrinkle, silk requires delicate handling, wool shrinks and can be scratchy. So people were understandably enthusiastic when advancements in technology over the last century allowed the clothing industry to trade in natural fabrics—and their limitations—for synthetic fabrics.
These new man-made materials, such as nylon and polyester, provided wrinkle and stain resistance, antimicrobial properties, and flame resistance.
Today, however, we’re discovering that the benefits of synthetic fibers are often outweighed by the health hazards they pose. The development of man-made material has necessitated the invention of thousands of new chemicals, only few of which have undergone even the most basic human health screening.
The chemicals, which now have direct contact with our bodies, can be absorbed through the skin, inhaled as they evaporate from the fabric, or—in the case of infants—sucked on and swallowed as they teethe.
In a way, our clothes have become as highly processed as our food; both have moved from healthy and natural to convenient and toxic.
To understand what potentially toxic chemicals exist in or on our clothes—and, therefore, in our bodies—we need to consider how synthetic clothes are made.
Today virtually all examples of synthetic fiber manufacturing are hazardous to our health. For example, the cancer-causing polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is widely agreed to be the most objectionable of all plastics, and yet we still see it being made softer and more flexible through the addition of toxic plasticizers—typically phthalates, which can wreak havoc on our hormones, as well—for use in our clothing.
In another example, polyester is manufactured from petroleum products through a process that involves the use of a metal called antimony. Extended exposure to antimony can adversely affect the heart, digestive system, eyes, skin and lungs.
Perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, which include the nonstick additive Teflon®, are added to fabrics for durability, stain resistance, and wrinkle resistance. PFCs are extremely persistent in the body because they cannot be metabolized, or broken down. They accumulate in the cells and have been linked to reproductive and developmental toxicity as well as cancers of the liver and bladder. Clothing labeled as “no iron” will typically contain PFCs. Unfortunately, growing numbers of school children and workers are required to wear no-iron uniforms every day.
The increased use of petrochemical plastics and other synthetic fibers in such products as clothing and upholstery has increased the flammability of these products, making it necessary to impose additional chemical treatments to meet fire standards. The most common class of chemicals used to protect against fire are halogenated flame retardants (HFRs), which have been linked to thyroid disruption, reproductive and neurodevelopmental problems, immune suppression, and—in some animal studies—cancer.
In the past, most fabric dyes were derived from natural sources such as plants, animals, or minerals. That era ended a century and a half ago. Today there is much heavier use of metals such as cadmium, cobalt, and antimony in the manufacture of dyes. Coloring is the most complex aspect in fabric production. When the dyes are added—whether before weaving, after the fabric is weaved into bolts, or as part of the final production—helps determine both the effects of dyes on the environment and how they will be released over time from the completed garment, carpeting or other products.
By choosing fabrics made from natural fibers, you’ll avoid at least some of the chemicals we just discussed. As an additional benefit, natural fabrics tend to “breathe” better than synthetic fibers and often wick moisture away from the body.
Whenever possible, stay away from the following fabrics:
• Anything labeled “static resistant,” “wrinkle resistant,” “permanent press”, “no iron,” “stain proof,” or “moth repellant”
Seek out these more natural alternatives:
Keep in mind that not even natural fibers are completely safe or environmentally sustainable. According to one crop production report, the cotton industry is one of the top five users of herbicides in the United States. Although organic cotton can be difficult to find in department stores, for infant clothing and your own wardrobe basics it may be worth your time to track down fabrics that are documented to have been grown and harvested without the use of pesticides.