Gabrielle Chariton, a Sydney-based freelance writer, lets you know how to avoid potentially toxic clothing.
In the past couple of years, the ACCC has issued several recalls of clothing found to contain unacceptably high levels of potentially carcinogenic benzidine-based azo dyes.* The bulk of these items were kids’ and adults’ jeans, socks and pillowcases.
The use of benzidine-based azo dyes in textiles is banned in Europe, and they are restricted in the US as suspected carcinogens. The ACCC’s product safety recall notices for the affected clothing stated that ‘whilst this dye is not banned for textile use in Australia, expert authorities classify these azo-colourants as carcinogens. Exposure to these chemicals should be minimised.’ Which is tricky, considering you can’t actually tell if those jeans on the rack at Target have been dipped into a toxic dye just by looking at them.
So while these batches of toxic textiles were removed from the shop floors (and hopefully any wardrobes they found their way into), there are plenty of other chemically-treated and potentially toxic clothes out there. Exposure to these chemicals at approved “safe” levels is considered acceptable, but we’re being exposed to many potentially carcinogenic chemicals every single day – from multiple sources – so just how ‘safe’ is our exposure? It’s also important to note that babies and toddlers, with their developing brains and bodies, are far more susceptible to some of the adverse effects of these chemicals.
Of course, we all want to avoid buying ourselves and our children clothes laced with carcinogens, hormone disruptors and allergens, but when faced with a store full of clothing, how can you tell what’s toxic and what’s not? Knowing how to read between the lines on clothing labels can help.
Try to avoid clothing with the following labels:
- Antibacterial, antimicrobial or odour-resistant – Be wary of any socks (or other clothing) claiming to be antibacterial. This can be achieved by the use of bamboo fabric – which is inherently antibacterial – or they may have been treated with silver nano-particles or a product called Microban. This is an ‘antimicrobial’ agent that may contain triclosan (most manufacturers don’t disclose whether they use it or not), exposure to which has been associated with an increased risk of cancer, depression, hormonal disruption and thyroid problems or allergies.
- Antistatic, wrinkle-free, shrink-free, colour-fast – Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen used to preserve dead bodies, is the textile manufacturer’s best friend. Its excellent preserving properties help stop clothes from wrinkling and becoming mildewed during shipping. It’s also used to fix colours and hold in permanent pleats and the like. Exposure to formaldehyde can cause breathing problems and contact dermatitis.
- Stain-resistant, water-resistant – stain-resistant and water-repellent fabrics may have been treated with perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), the same stuff used to make Teflon. These substances accumulate in the environment, enter our bodies through the food chain, and have been shown to disrupt endocrine activity, reduce immune function, and cause foetal development problems in animals.
- Low fire danger – In Australia, children’s sleepwear sized 00 to 14 must conform to low fire danger requirements. This can be achieved three ways: the fabric is inherently flame-resistant; it has been coated with a flame-retardant chemical; or the garment is designed to be snug-fitting, which hinders ignition and burn rates. What you want to avoid here are the treated fabrics. The most commonly used (ie low-cost and effective) flame-retardant chemicals include polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) or chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants TCEP and TDCPP (‘Tris’), which could cause low immune system activity, increased risk of certain cancers, cognitive problems, thyroid disruption and fertility issues. Many fabrics, including cottons (flannelette or jersey), fleecy knits, polyester and viscose, are made flame-resistant by the application of these (or similar) chemicals.
What else to avoid?
- Dark-coloured synthetics such as polyamide and acetate rayon have often been coloured with disperse dyes, which are known culprits for contact dermatitis.
- Plastic shoes or clothing printed with plasticky logos and pictures. The plastics in these items could contain phthalates. You may remember a recall of school shoes containing phthalates a couple of years ago. These chemicals are linked with hormone disruption and reduced fertility, so avoid buying any sandals, shoes and plastic-embellished clothes that have a strong plasticky smell.
What to buy instead:
- Second-hand clothing: this does get harder as kids get older but common sense dictates that used clothes have been washed so many times that the chemicals contained within the fabric should be starting to reduce or break down.
- Look for GOTS or Oeko-Tex certification on the label: these organisations prohibit the use of certain carcinogenic and allergenic dyes in any clothing or textile item they certify.
- Other natural fibres include hemp, flax (linen), wool, silk, and bamboo. But check the manufacturer’s credentials to ensure the fabric is free of potentially dangerous chemicals.
- All kids’ sleepwear is required by law to be ‘low fire danger’ – and this is primarily to keep our kids safe. If you want to be sure you’re buying sleepwear not doused in chemical flame-retardants, ring the manufacturer and ask them how their products meet the low fire danger requirements. You’re looking for products that conform due to a snug-fitting design, or that are made from fabrics that are inherently flame resistant.
Will the chemicals wash out?
It’s recommended that you wash all new clothes before wearing them. Bear in mind that flame-retardants and chemicals that are designed to alter the properties of a fabric have been applied with the intention of it never coming off. However, anecdotal evidence suggests it may be possible to reduce the chemical load in clothing using the following methods:
- Soak items in vinegar: Soak new clothes, sheets and PJs in a 50-50 solution of vinegar and water before laundering and line-drying. The acid may help to break down formaldehyde (and the associated smell).
- Air out synthetic materials as often as possible on the clothesline to allow the chemicals to dissipate. Avoid storing formaldehyde-treated clothing in plastic storage tubs, as this will keep formaldehyde or other chemicals trapped in the fabric.
- Launder with soap flakes rather than detergent, as the soap breaks down chemicals more effectively.
*What are azo dyes?
Azo dyes are the largest class of synthetic dyes and pigments, used for colouring everything from clothing and leather to cosmetics and food. While not all azo dyes are classed as hazardous, some can release chemical compounds called ‘aromatic amines’, which can be absorbed into the body during prolonged contact with perspiring skin. The ACCC investigations focused on clothing treated with benzidine-based azo dyes, which break down into the aromatic amine benzidine – a substance linked to bladder and pancreatic cancer.