Harmful Textiles: Toxins Woven into Everyday Materials

chemicals found in textiles

It sometimes feels like we need a PhD in chemistry to be able to understand the contents of the everyday products in our homes. The impact of flame retardants, petrol chemicals, synthetic dyes, amines, pesticides, herbicides, GMO seeds, etc. It is complicated (and scary) stuff. It is really hard as consumers to stay on top of it all.

When I started Dream Child Organics I took a hard look at the toxicity of the chemicals that are added to kids products. There’s more and more info about toxins to avoid in personal care products. But harmful chemicals in textiles are also alarming. Here are some of the toxins that set off alarm bells for me…

Formaldehyde (a classified carcinogen) in fabrics

Inhalation of formaldehyde is associated with cancer in the respiratory tract in humans and laboratory animals. Test on animals show formaldehyde is carcinogenic.

According to my go-to source (The Department of Ecology, State of Washington), formaldehyde is used in the finishing treatment of fabrics used in clothing and other products. It has been detected in a wide range of children’s products including bed linens.

Phthalates (endoctrine disruptor) in toys, polyester fabrics

These may be public enemy #1 these days. The US Department of Health and Human Services, National Toxicology Program concluded there is a clear evidence of developmental and reproductive toxicity.  In animals these chemicals are linked to reduced fertility in females and damage to the male reproductive tract. They are classified as a Category 1 endoctrine disruptor by the European Commission.

The Danish EPA found diputyl phthalate in children’s products including infant clothing.

A US survey found traces of this chemical in 99% of the US population. Source: the Reporting List of Chemicals of High Concern to Children (CHCC), Department of Ecology, State of Washington

harmful chemicals in textiles

Antimony (carcinogen) in polyester, fabric dyes, and plastics

Bet you’ve never heard of antimony. Me neither. Not until I looked further into what goes into polyester (other than petroleum, which you’d think would be bad enough. It’s not, it gets worse).

Antimony trioxide is classified as a carcinogen. Studies on animals show lung tumors after inhalation. This is supported by human data which show “excess of mortality from lung cancer among antimony workers”.

Antimony trioxide is used in the manufacturing of polyester and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics (the ones used for plastic bottles). It is also used as a “synergist to flame retardants in textiles, plastics, paints, etc.”.

It is also used in pigments – i.e., in the dyes that make our fabrics pretty (which means it’s everywhere).

The Danish Environmental Protection Agency detected antimony in their tests of many children’s products including mattress pads and polyester clothing.

In case you aren’t freaked out enough, according the Washington State Department of Health, “biomonitoring in the general US population reported widespread detection in people. Children appear to have higher body burdens than adults”. (Source)

Cobalt (carcinogen) in fabric dyes, toys, clothing, polyester

Some cobalt compounds are classified as carcinogens. Inhalation of cobalt can induce lung and other cancers in rats and mice.  Some studies (not conclusive, but I’ll take it as fair warning) indicate that cobalt may be an agent of lung cancers in humans.

It is a favourite among manufacturers used mainly in blue dyes and other pigments.

According to the Environmental Health News Analysis, it is found in 1,228 individual products in 40 different categories.

For example, plastic building blocks. Baby bibs. Baby changing mats. Polyester clothing.

Traces of cobalt have been found in the urine of nearly all children and adults tested in the US, according to data from the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

From what I’ve read, the evidence in animal studies is alarming. Cancers, testicular atrophy, reduced fertility, damaged sperm. Then there are the metal workers who develop bronchial asthma and lung diseases, including cancer.

Feeling queasy yet? Check back tomorrow for 6 ways you can choose better textiles for your child and family. 

1 Comment

  • Greg says:

    Thanks for bringing to light an important topic that is often overlooked by the media. Consumers are unaware of the toxicity of chemicals used to manufacture many everyday items. One solution may be better more specific labeling so that parents can make more informed buying decisions.