The purpose of clothing, whether made of textiles or leather, is to protect us from factors like sun, low temperatures, wind and dampness. But clothing can also make you sick. Articles that are too tight can compress blood vessels, nerves or organs. Tightly bound corsets often made women faint and warnings about the effects on varicose veins of tight jeans pulled on in the bathtub were numerous. Today we tend to have other problems: chemicals in our clothing that make us sick.
Hazardous substances in textiles
Words like formaldehyde, phthalate, nonylphenol or heavy metals figure prominently in the press. You don’t need a degree in chemistry or allergens to know that these are not desirable substances in clothing. But their manufacture includes many processes based on chemical substances. Sometimes they give the fibre a better structure, make clothing sturdier or are used to tan leathers or to dye textiles and skins. These chemical substances perform a necessary function but, to prevent damage to both man and nature, their use must be strictly controlled and limits of hazardous substances must be clearly defined.
In Germany and Europe, consumers are on the whole well protected by legally defined safeguards against hazardous substances. These include a product security ordinance, the hazardous substance ordinance and the European chemical law REACH. Federal agencies such as the federal environmental agency (UBA) or the federal institute for risk management continually conduct tests of and studies for hazardous substances and issue recommendations based on these results to the German federal government and the EU. Unfortunately, not all hazardous substances are forbidden or limited by law. We cannot be sure that textile products originating outside Europe endanger the environment with their production or that they do not make us sick. This is where seals issued by associations and activist groups come in which require testing for hazardous substances in the finished product. Outside of sustainable textile production there are thousands of dangerous dyes and helping agents which enter into the global environment in huge amounts either due to bad or inexistent wastewater management, irresponsible work methods or in washing finished articles.
Pesticides, our old friends
At the very beginning of the textile chain, pesticides are used in the cultivation of fibre plants and include a multitude of dubious chemicals. They have come under criticism by environmental advocates for years. For no less than thirty years, the Pesticide-Action-Network (PAN) has articulated the danger to man and environment that an intensive use of pesticides in agriculture presents. It advocates legal limits on a global scale.
Among all types of fibre cultivation, the most pesticides are used on cotton fields. No other fibre plant is so intensely chemically treated. Although cotton grows on only 3% of worldwide agricultural surfaces, over 10% of all globally used pesticides are applied for its cultivation, and this in addition to fertilizers and exfoliants.
But other fibre plants are also chemically treated. The consequences of extensive chemical treatment in fibre cultivation include salinisation of the soil, loss of soil fertility, contamination of underground aquifers and reduced biological diversity. In addition to ecological risks, there are social consequences as well. Many of the products used are neurotoxins, resulting in serious poisoning among persons who apply them without adequate protection. This affects regions of low literacy disproportionately. However, even in California, a highly sophisticated area, hundreds of poisoning cases are registered every year that are considered related to pesticide use. Some pesticides can also be found in finished garments, provoking problems among allergy-prone consumers.
A few substances, including for example Endosulfan, have been classified as highly toxic by WHO and are rarely used anymore. Only the EU Organic ordinance offers adequate legal protection, specifying as it does that no synthetic pest management or fertilizing substances are allowed in organic farming. As a result, fibres from certified organic farming (kbA) or certified animal husbandry (kbT) can be assumed to be virtually free of pesticides. In subsequent processing, pesticides (fungicides and moth-proofing) are only used for shipping and warehousing finished goods, fabrics or yarns.
Quality seals that ban the use of pesticides in agriculture and manufacturing and define limits for finished products are GOTS, Naturtextil BEST, Naturland, ÖkoTex, STeP or Toxproof.
Heavy metals — the dosage does it
Heavy metals only exist in traces in the biosphere. Many are essential for plants, animals and people … but in very small doses.
There are over 80 heavy metals in total but only a few are relevant for the textile industry. These include antimony, arsenic, lead, chrome, iron, cobalt, copper, nickel, mercury, selenium, zinc and tin. Antimony, for example is used in generating polyester fibres. Many heavy metals are components for dyes and pigments (these include chromium, cobalt and copper) where they produce bright colours. Chromium salts are used in large quantities to tan leather. Nickel is found in the metal surfaces of accessories such as buttons, zippers and clasps.
Many heavy metals, even essential ones, can be dangerous for the human organism if they are only slightly higher in concentration or in certain chemical compounds. Some damage organs and the nervous system, others are carcinogenic. Many individuals have an allergic reaction to heavy metals such as chrome or nickel. All heavy metals are persistent (not biodegradable) and can accumulate in the human body. They are usually ingested with foods. Plants that absorb heavy metals from the water tend to accumulate them so that they are subsequently incorporated into the food chain. It is therefore of prime importance that heavy metals not be released into waste water and thus added to surface water.
The use of most heavy metals is strictly regulated in the EU. For some quality seals, these regulations are not sufficient. Their guidelines regulate the use of heavy metals through input limits or bans and/or through residue limits in the finished product that are stricter than those mandated by law. Bluesign, STeP and Ökotex only define residue limits for the finished product. Der Blauer Engel, the EU Ecolabel, GOTS, IVN Naturleder, Naturtextil BEST and Toxproof also, additionally, regulate heavy metal input.
Methanal (formaldehyde) is also a natural substance that is found in small amounts in nature. For example, it is an interstage product in cells of mammals. The blood of mammals always contains 2–3 milligrams of formaldehyde. Human metabolism produces about 50g/day and metabolises them again. We also exhale formaldehyde. Fruits such as apples or grapes as well as wood naturally contain formaldehyde. It has been produced industrially in large quantities for over 100 years and is contained in numerous products.
Textiles are finished with synthetic resins containing formaldehyde to make them more stable. The result is less shrinkage in washing. The fabric becomes wash-and-wear. Conventional articles that claim to be wrinkle-free or no-iron usually contain formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde is absorbed primarily through the air. In high concentrations it can provoke allergies, irritation of skin, respiratory system and eyes as well as diminishing memory, concentration and adversely impacting sleep. The federal agency for risk management (BfR) considers its carcinogenic effect proven when it is absorbed through breathing. In addition, there is probable cause that it can negatively impact the genetic makeup of microorganisms.
The acceptable threshold value for formaldehyde in textiles in Germany is 1500 mg/kg (1500 ppm). However, this is not an upper limit. Rather it is a threshold that requires label designation. According to the ordinance Bedarfsgegenständeverordnung, textile articles with a higher level of formaldehyde must be labeled with a warning statement: “contains formaldehyde. Washing before wearing is advisable”. Imported textiles often omit this warning.
Seals that require a stricter limit for formaldehyde in the finished product are: Blauer Engel, Bluesign, GOTS, IVN Naturleder, Naturtextil BEST, ÖkoTex, STeP and Toxproof. A total ban on the use of formaldehyde is required for der Blaue Engel, GOTS, IVN Naturleder, and Naturtextil BEST.
A.O.X. — adsorbable organic halogen compounds
AOX describes an entire group of substances: halogen organic compounds. This group contains several thousand substances which have one or several halogen atoms, for example fluoride, chlorine, bromine or iodine. The “x” functions as the variable place holder.
Some organic halogen compounds appear naturally and are considered non-critical. However, many of those produced synthetically are among the more dangerous environmentally hazardous substances. Environmental advocates are especially critical of the group of organic chlorine compounds, for example dioxin or chlorine-based pesticides such as DDT and Atrazine. Many organic halogen compounds are persistent, meaning they cannot be quickly degraded to less problematic substances. And many of these are toxic and suspected carcinogens. Their fat solubility renders them more amenable to absorbtion and accumulation in organisms. The AOX content in water is used as an assessment parameter in chemical analysis.
Organic halogen compounds are used for surface finishing of textiles. They can also be byproducts in the manufacture of pest management substances or in cellulose bleaching and are found in detergents, disinfectants and cleansers.
Channeling wastewater containing AOX into treatment plants requires payment of a fine according to the waste water ordinance in Germany. Seals that specify input bans or at least stricter limits for wastewater than legally mandated are: der Blauer Engel, bluesign, GOTS, IVN Naturleder, Naturtextil BEST, STeP.
Alkyl-phenols and their ethoxylates are another chemical group whose most prevalent forms are nonylphenol-ethoxylate (NPE) and octylphenol-ethoxylate. Alkylphenolethoxylates are used in textile manufacturing to wash textiles during dying or as an additive for plastics, industrial cleansers or emulsifiers. They are also found in textile cleansers, glues, seals and solvents and pesticides.
Alkyl-phenols are toxic for water organisms and have an effect similar to oestrogens (hormones). Nonylphenols are difficult to degrade and accumulate in the environment. Nonylphenols are similar to female sexual hormones, impairing fertility in fish and similar water animals. They are associated with breast cancer and impaired fertility. Animal testing has proven a carcinogenic effect. Effects on health among humans is insufficiently researched but DNA damaging has been verified.
Nonylphenol, oktylphenol and their ethoxilates have been added to the list of REACH candidates. Nonylphenol is already banned within the European Union for a variety of uses. In contrast, the use of octylphenol within the EU is only banned in Norway and Switzerland. Despite bans, these substances are introduced into the environment through wastewater treatment plants due to washing of imported textiles. Only 80% of NPO, for example, can be removed from clothing in the first wash.
The following seals ban the use of APEO: Bluesign, GOTS, IVN Naturleder, Naturtextil BEST, ÖkoTex, STeP.
Azo dyestuffs are commonly used in the textile industry. An estimated 2/3 of all textile dyes belong to this chemical group. Body fluids found on the skin or in saliva can break down AZO dyes into their initial components, aromatic amines, some of which are classified as carcinogenic. Sweat and rubbing can introduce these hazardous chemicals into the body. Animal testing has proven that certain Azo-dyes can provoke allergic reactions. Others can change the genetic code.
Azo dyestuffs are produced synthetically and generate brilliant colours. They are used to dye cotton, wool, silk, hemp, jute, linen, straw, wood, paper and leather. They are also used for coating fabrics.
The use of those AZO dyes which can be broken down into carcinogenic amines is forbidden in many countries including Germany for day-to-day products such as textiles, jewellery and cosmetics. Here too it is unclear whether imported textiles meet this mandate.
Quality seals which not only ban the use of these substances but also require random testing for residues in the final product are: Blauer Engel, EU-Ecolabel, GOTS, IVN Naturleder, Naturtextil BEST, ÖkoTex, STeP, Toxproof.
Chlorinated phenole form a group of 19 isomers of which tetrachlormethane (TeCP) and pentachlorphenol (PCP) are probably the most common. Chlorophenols are used as biocides, in other words to combat bacteria and moulds, and in pest repellants. Chlorophenols also arise in the human body during the absorption of benzene and other organic chlorine compounds. PCP is especially toxic for water organisms. In higher concentrations it can damage organs in humans.
The production and use of PCP is forbidden within the EU but there continue to be countries where it is still used in significant quantities for textile processing. Last year green peace found alarming concentrations of chlorinated phenols in Chinese water samples collected as part of a detox campaign.
Quality seals which explicitly ban the use of chlorophenols and test for them are: der Blauer Engel, GOTS, IVN Naturleder, Naturtextil BEST, ÖkoTex, STeP, Toxproof.
And that’s not all.…
There are still innumerable other substances commonly used in textile manufacturing which can damage both the environment and our health. Per-fluorinated chemicals make clothing water and dirt repellant, organic tin compounds prevent mould, fluorocarbons, quaternary ammonium compounds…the list goes on and on…
The European hazardous substances ordinance (directive 67/548/EWG) is attached (attachment I). It lists hazardous substances, adding a legal classification and identification for each. Substances not listed are classified and identified as per the guidelines in attachment VI. So-called risk clauses describe hazards identified with properties of certain chemicals or substances, for example “toxic”, “carcinogenic”, “changes genetic code”, etc. For most chemicals there are security data sheets which list these risk clauses.
In Germany and Europe, most seriously dangerous substances are forbidden both as input and as a residue limit in the finished product. Despite this, there are still many substances for which there is no or insufficient information pertaining to the potential effects in general and on humans, animals or environment specifically. REACH has addressed these omissions but only for chemicals produced in or imported to Europe. This is an ongoing process that is not completed. And we have no security regarding harmful substances in imported textiles. This is the gap closed by quality seals which reliably regulate what can be contained in our clothing and what can not. Not all quality seals evaluate all harmful substances and their classification is not the same across all quality seals.
It is not without reason that green peace recommends the Global Organic Textile Standard and Naturtextil BEST (IVN Naturleder has not been evaluated) as the most credible quality seal. Both seals ban or limit individual chemicals but also exclude a priori all substances which have been associated with risk clauses. They require a high level of degradability, a strict limit to oral and aquatic toxicity and biologic accumulation of substances. In addition they set strict standards for wastewater management for certified businesses.