Wednesday 18 November 2015

The Chemical Cocktails In Your Clothes

A disturbing report by researchers at Stockholm University has revealed that the chemicals used to make our clothes are hanging around for rather longer than we'd prefer.

In fact the research, led by anaytical chemist graduate Giovanna Luongo, (pictured above) found over a hundred identifiable compounds in clothes bought from high street retailers. In a press release, she said:

“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.”
Oof. So let's dig into what Giovanna and her team found. The chemical cocktails they discovered on our clothes can be split into two main types–'quick release' and 'slow release'. Quick release compounds wash off when they go in the machine. All fine and dandy, except that means that these chemicals end up in the water supply. Aquatic toxicity, remember? More worryingly, slow release compounds stay on the clothes, where they can be metabolised by skin bacteria or absorbed by the skin itself.

The chemicals present include quinolines, a suspected carcinogen linked to liver damage, and aromatic amines, found in tobacco smoke and diesel exhaust. Not what you expect to be rubbing up against when you pull on a shirt in the morning.

Just to add to the worry, even the organic cotton samples tested were found to contain benzothiozoles, which have been associated with respiratory problems. Does going eco make a difference? Well, yes, but not in a good way. Giovanna and her team found between 7 and 30 times the concentration of benzothiozoles in garments labelled as green alternatives. That even includes organic cotton.

The problem is, that Giovanna can't put her finger on what this all means. Some of the compounds her team found weren't even on the list of producer's approved substances. They could be byproducts, or accrued during transport. It's simply unclear where they came from.

So, should we be worried? The simple answer: no-one really knows. The last word on this comes from Conny Östman, a professor in analytical chemistry at Stockholm University.

"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.”
Our View–this is just another example of what can happen in a global supply chain that's so complex that proper oversight becomes impossible. Professor Östman is right. We should be prioritising the long-term effects of the chemicals that go into and, in some cases, stay on our clothes.

For more information, check out the Stockholm University press release, which has links to the science.

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