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Are the very clothes you wear harming you?

July 6, 2007

We have all heard of chemicals contaminating our air, water and our food…but how many of us know that chemicals in the clothes we wear can also harm us? I didn’t know about this until some weeks ago.

While I was aware that all textiles contain chemicals, what I didn’t know was that some chemicals come off on the skin even after washing! Some of these chemicals are carcinogenic and others can cause skin allergies and irritation in human beings.

Some of the most hazardous chemicals commonly used in the textile sector are: lead, nickel, chromium IV, phthalates and formaldehyde. While these are a danger to workers who work with these chemicals, this post is not about that. It is about the harm that chemical laden clothes can cause ordinary, unsuspecting consumers. And I am not referring to cheap street clothes here, but good brands.

Formaldehyde, a finish used for textiles, is used to treat various types of fabrics to prevent wrinkling and for easy maintenance of the fabric and it is one of the harmful chemicals. Cheap street clothes don’t use this finish (they may contain other hazardous chemicals). Formaldehyde can come off on the skin, even after washing! Everyone may not suffer from ill effects, but about 20 percent of the population is susceptible. And ofcourse, children are the most vulnerable. Formaldehyde can cause problems ranging from skin irritation and respiratory problems to headaches, nausea, and even insomnia. Some studies suspect this chemical of being carcinogenic.

Harmful dyes on clothes also contain highly “carcinogenic benzidines”, some of which could be absorbed by human skin.

There are also the fluorinated environmental toxins (found in all-weather jackets) which come from the waterproofing agents which are used to treat all-weather clothing. These toxins are said to harm fertility and interfere with the hormone functions of mammals.

So what is being done about all this? Well, not surprisingly, the countries in the EU are already far ahead of everybody else. They have an action plan in place. All clothing and textiles (including childrens’ toys) which come into contact with human skin have strict guidelines that have to be followed during the manufacturing process. Countries like the Netherlands, Norway, Finland, German and France all have regulated the quantity of the formaldehyde that is used in textiles.

But this high level of awareness seems to exist only in Europe. Consumers in Europe are fairly well educated on the dangers of chemicals in textiles, both as a risk to workers and to consumers, but here in India one has not read anything about it. In Europe, not only is information given out in the media, famous designers like Carmen March, Antonio Pernas and fashion brands like Mango have created awareness of this issue by designing and producing clothes without the use of toxic chemicals. These designers have promised to phase out dangerous chemicals from their own clothing lines!

I tried to find something about the dangers of using chemicals in clothes in India but could not get anything much. I got this 2005 paper which said (about the chemical dyes used in the textile industry) that “their chemical nature and biological hazards are not known.” However at the same time the paper said that the dyes used are carcinogenic…but this has been discussed in connection only with the safety of workers. There is no information or discussion about the hazards that unsuspecting consumers may face. And some other articles I found discussed how the making of dyes affects the environment.

I am not an expert on these things, but the questions that came to my mind are:

1) Does the government have in its possession the vast amounts of research done on this subject by other countries? And if so, what are they planning to do about it? Do they think that the EU is over-reacting (that is presently what authorities in the US think, but others feel this is bowing down to ‘lobbies.’)

2) Are vegetable dyes safe? Or do today’s vegetable dyes contain chemicals and are these chemicals harmful? What worries me is that street clothes which are often coloured with vegetable dyes run easily and the colour comes off on the skin…is this safe? After all, we do know that these colours are not allowed to be used in food…and human skin can be very absorbent.

I feel that the world is rushing ahead with development at a fast pace without considering the ill-effects on humanity and the environment. Whether its global warming, cancer causing chemicals in food and water, air pollution, ill-effects of certain medications or the harmful effects of noise – we humans seem to react when the damage is done. This is going to happen with our daily wear too. How long do we have to wait before a high level of awareness has been created on this issue? In any case, what choices will be offered to consumers? Even if there was a choice, I am sure these clothes would be far too expensive for an average person to buy. Today in India most people cannot afford to buy organic food, or even juice without white refined sugar! Even whole wheat bread is 25 -30 percent more expensive than white bread (which is made from maida). Its like we are being discouraged to take care of our bodies.

(Photographs copyrighted to me)

Related Reading: The chemical cocktail we consume everyday
The unhealthy instant noodles
Food can cause mood changes
Harmful toxins in food packaging

More reading: Pesticides poisoning India
Clotheslines are an eco-friendly way to dry clothes
Where have all our sparrows gone?
Shocking pollution during the Ganesh Festival
Hoarding epidemic in India!
Traffic polution can be controlled

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2007 11:03 am

    Here is the link you wanted (apology for shamless selfpromotion :)
    http://notestomyself.wordpress.com/2007/07/05/use-greasemonkey-for-better-browsing/

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  1. What you didn’t know: | Ididit Designs

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