By Jasminee Sahoye
Little is known about whether chemicals are in our clothes, spurring researchers at Stockholm University to find out because thousands of chemicals are used in clothes manufacturing.
Several substances related to health risks were identified and not even organic cotton was a guarantee for non-toxic textiles, they found.
In a thesis, 60 garments from Swedish and international clothing chains were tested. An initial analysis found thousands of chemicals in the clothes and about 100 chemicals were preliminary identified. Several substances were not on the producers’ lists and are suspected to be by-products, residues or chemicals added during transport.
“Exposure to these chemicals increases the risk of allergic dermatitis but more severe health effect for humans as well as the environment could possibly be related to these chemicals. Some of them are suspected or proved carcinogens and some have aquatic toxicity,” said Giovanna Luongo, PhD in analytical chemistry, at Stockholm University.
Depending on occurrence, quantity, toxicity and how easily they may penetrate the skin, four groups of substances were chosen for further analysis. The highest concentrations of two of these, quinolines (an extraction from coal tar) and aromatic amines were found in polyester. Cotton contained high concentrations of benzothiazoles, even in clothes made from organic cotton.
The researchers washed the clothes and then measured the levels of chemicals. Some of the substances were washed off, with a risk of ending up in aquatic environments. Others remained to a high degree in the clothes, becoming a potential source of long-term dermal exposure.
“We have only scratched the surface; this is something that has to be dealt with. Clothes are worn day and night during our entire life. We must find out if textile chemicals go into our skin and what it means to our health. It is very difficult to assess and requires considerably more research,” said Conny Östman, professor in analytical chemistry.
A related study at Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan (KTH) Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm concluded that European Union policy falls short of protecting consumers – and the environment – from the hazards of chemicals in textiles, building materials and other everyday products.
Linda Molander, a former PhD student in the discipline of risk and safety at KTH, examined the risk assessment and management behind EU efforts to protect people and the environment from the danger of chemicals in products used daily.
Molander said a substance considered dangerous in one product can be permitted in another, due to wide variations in prohibitions and requirements for different product categories.
For example, certain phthalates, or plasticizers, have been banned in toys because of their endocrine-disrupting properties, though they continue to be permitted in a variety of other products that children are exposed to.
The study also found that EU risk assessment and management fails to take into consideration the full life cycle of consumer products, leaving unaddressed such questions as what happens with the chemicals when consumers wash their clothes or dispose of the products.
“Many of these chemicals wind up in the environment, something which is often incompatible with the EU’s environmental goals,” she said. “More extensive measures should be taken to stop this from happening in the first place, instead of trying to manage the problem after the damage has been done.”
She recommends product regulators pay greater attention to chemicals that are known to pose environmental hazards.
“Overall, the regulations regarding chemicals in consumer products are currently not sufficient to ensure that human health and the environment are protected.”