In Europe, legislation exists that prohibits the use of certain chemicals in textile manufacturing. Similar interdictions also exist in the US and Canada for the same reason, because these substances were shown to have negative effects on humans and the environment.
Most common chemicals in clothing manufacturing
Toxic chemicals serve specific purposes in the manufacturing of clothes. One of the most common chemicals applied to clothing is formaldehyde. This compound makes fabrics easier to care for and also keeps odors from developing when fabrics are exposed to moisture during transportation.
Other chemicals include NPEs or nonylphenol ethoxylates, commonly added to paints, indoor pet sprays, but also food wrap, toys, and games. It was a common compound in laundry detergents too before being phased out in recent years on account of toxic effects on humans.
The third most common toxic agents in fabrics are the so-called azo pigments. These include pigment yellow, pigment red and pigment orange used by clothing manufacturers to color textiles and apply intense color to fabrics.
The effect of toxic chemicals contained in clothing
Anything chemical that comes in contact with skin can cause allergic reactions and many times clothing was found to contain toxic resins in various levels.
Because clothing rubs off on skin, the presence of these residual levels of chemical substances presents health risks for everyone, but more so for fashion victims, both people who buy fast-fashion and designer labels a lot.
- Potential health risks include skin discomfort, hormone disruption, eye irritation, birth defects, reproduction damage, and cancer. Azo pigments are now known to have carcinogenic effects.
In addition to the health risks for human beings, toxic chemicals in clothing also affect the environment. When washing the clothing, any toxic residues are released in the water and flushed out into waterways and the environment.
Moreover, the surrounding environment where clothes are made suffers greatly from the release of these chemicals in the rivers and the waterways there.
- To get to grips with the negative effects of the harmful chemicals in fabrics, let’s not forget that NPEs are extremely toxic to the aquatic ecosystem. Many people in countries where brands have moved production depend on fish to make a living. Imagine how the release of these toxic fabric compounds affects their life and that of their family.
On to your clothes and how each of us can make a contribution
Have you noticed that many manufacturers in the industry of clothing produce in countries such as China, Taiwan, Mexico and Sri Lanka, to give just a few examples?
Garment manufacturing in Asia is not only more cost efficient to brands, but it is also a way to avoid restrictions over the use of dangerous chemicals in clothes.
Would you support a brand if you knew for sure they are making a profit at the expense of your health and the well functioning of the planet? If you buy from such manufacturers, you are literally encouraging them to use toxic substances for processing clothes. And you are giving them a free hand to poison you.
The thing about your clothing containing chemicals is that you can remove or at least reduce exposure to them by washing new clothes before wearing. But this doesn’t change the fact that those chemicals get released into the local water supply when you do your laundry.
What each of us can do: ask manufacturers to use safer alternatives and avoid buying clothes from brands that make no efforts to change how they do business, while well aware of their impact on the wellbeing of us all – people and planet.