What’s Really Lurking in Your Family’s Clothing?
As someone with a simple, mostly well-worn wardrobe, my innocently soft and ragtag collection of clothes has always been the least of my worries. Crimes against fashion aside, it just didn't give me much to wonder about. But now I'm wondering just what I've been wearing.
A new report from Greenpeace has me questioning everything in my closet. A Little Story About a Fashionable Lie, stitches together a variety of sartorial sins being committed by luxury-brand clothing for kids and unravels high fashion's apparently unearned reputation for quality.
Greenpeace purchased 27 items at the flagship stores of eight top-shelf brands. Tests showed that 12 items contained hormone-disrupting nonylphenol ethoxylates, five had been treated with perfluorinated chemicals, another five were made with phthalates, and three contained antimony, a carcinogenic metalloid with toxicological similarities to arsenic. Altogether, 16 of the 27 products, or 59 percent, had issues. The new findings echo those reported by the organization in January. That previous study tested 82 items of children's clothing from leading mainstream brands and found 76 of them with similar problems.
Clearly, clothing isn't as benign as I thought, and though such admonitions are perhaps wearing a bit thin, the situation suggests that we outfit ourselves with a little precaution when clothes shopping:
- Your best bets are organic natural fiber clothes made of materials like wool and cotton. They're the least likely to wrap you in hazardous materials.
- Clothing made in the U.S. or Europe is a safer bet, though not a guarantee - 10 of the products in the Fashionable Lie study came from Italy. But just 5 out of 70 products in the January project came from Europe and the U.S. (Twelve were of unknown origin.)
- Skip clothing marketed as water-, stain-, or odor-resistant. It likely contains things like perfluorochemicals and untested nanotechnology.
- Same goes for anything made from polyester, whose fibers typically contain residues of the antimony trioxide used during their manufacture.
- By the same token, stay away from sandals, shoes, boots, or raingear made primarily from rubberized plastics or other similar materials. Tests in Hong Kong on this kind of flexible plastic footwear found that more than half of all samples contained phthalates as well as carcinogens called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
- Watch out for plastisol. You may not know the name but you've seen the material - it's the rubber-like stuff used to create raised writing and printed graphics on tee-shirts and other items. Phthalates give plastisol its necessary flexibility.
Washing garments may help with some of these issues. Those nonylphenol ethoxylates, for example, are residues left over from the surfactants manufacturers use to clean their textiles. They're likely to get rinsed out in subsequent washings, but they're highly toxic to aquatic life, which negates that potential solution.
Other clothing toxins like phthalates and fabric treatments are designed to last, which means washing won't iron out those problems. The only real solution is to try to avoid these things to the greatest extent possible. Where clothing is concerned, it's one of the best ways to help your family avoid chemical exposure.
About the Inkslinger
The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds.