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Toxic Chemicals Are On Many Of the Clothes We Wear

It turns out that the fabric used to make clothing is doused with all sorts of chemicals. Synthetic fabrics, fabrics dyed with azo dyes, and all fabrics treated to be stain repellant, anti-mold, anti-odor, wrinkle free, easy care, water resistant, flame retardant are the worst. Alden Wicker's book To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick - And How We Can Fight Back discusses this topic in depth.

To give fabric performance qualities, lots of toxic chemicals have to be used, including endocrine disruptors and PFAS. There is no regulation of all the chemicals used on fabrics, which means we are exposed to them when we wear clothing. And yes, people are getting sick from the fabrics, especially if they have to wear them as part of their job. For example, flight attendants and firefighters.

The book is both fascinating and horrifying. I started it one morning and found myself neglecting everything else that day - just reading and reading till I was done that evening. Interesting stories (especially what flight attendants went through with new toxic uniforms), very thorough, things you can do to protect yourself, and lots of references at the end if you want to pursue the topic further.

What you can do: Try to wear natural fabrics (cotton, linen, hemp, wool). Avoid clothes that are stain repellent, anti-mold, anti-odor, wrinkle resistant, and flame retardant. Look for Oeko-Tex and GOTS organic certification, if possible - even though only a limited number of the many toxic chemicals are tested for.

NPR interviewed the author. Some excerpts from NPR: Is 'Toxic Fashion' making us sick? A look  at the chemicals lurking in our clothes

In 2018, Delta airlines unveiled new uniforms made of a synthetic-blend fabric. Soon after, flight attendants began to get sick. Alden Wicker explains how toxic chemicals get in clothes in To Dye For.

WICKER: Some of the reactions they were having were really horrendous. So it usually started with things like rashes and breathing problems, swollen eyes, brain fog, and then it would start progressing to more serious effects, like losing their hair. Some of them had their bathtubs or their bras or even their pearl earrings stained with this special purple dye. So it got worse as it went along. But a lot of them, it took them many, many months to make that connection.

MOSLEY: Right. I was thinking, how did they know that it was the uniforms making them sick?

WICKER: Well, it was pretty clear that something had changed after the introduction of the uniforms. They started getting sick, and then, you know, these flight attendants, they spend a lot of time together in the galleys at the back of the planes or in crash pads in these cities. And they would talk to each other and say, oh, you know, my period's gotten pretty wacky. Oh, well, my hair is falling out. Some of the airline attendants would tell me that they would start getting these reactions, and then the other airline attendants would be like, have you thought about the uniforms?

But, you know, these airlines tended to say, oh, no, it's not that. We've had the uniforms tested. We're not going to share the exact results with you, but we're confident that they're safe, and whatever's in them is not causing these reactions. So I was told recently by a Delta flight attendant on a flight that I was on that it really took her a long time to make that connection 'cause she believed the company. And then when she finally got a look-alike uniform that she just bought off the rack at a store, her breathing problems went away.

MOSLEY: What was in the clothing?

WICKER: So all sorts of things. There were the disperse dyes which are used to dye, specifically, polyester clothing. And a lot of these new uniforms, as they were switched out - not only at Delta, but three other major airlines - were being switched from these more traditional wool suiting to synthetic blends. And so they would have to add disperse dyes, which are known skin sensitizers, and then they would also have to add fire-retardant chemistry because wool is naturally fire-retardant, but polyester is not. It'll go up in flames if you hold it too close to a flame for a while.

And then they also had easy-care technology, so they had stain repellency, which is almost always provided by perfluorinated chemistry, PFAS. And that's - those are known toxic chemicals. They're called forever chemicals because they're so persistent, and they've been linked to, you know, reproductive toxicity, thyroid issues, birth defects, all sorts of things. And then also anti-wrinkle finishes, antifungal finishes - basically anything they could do to make these uniforms so resistant to any sort of wear and tear that they would hardly even need to wash them.

MOSLEY: So those anti-wrinkle finishes and the finishes to prevent mildew and mold and things like that, we're talking about formaldehyde and Teflon were used as chemical finishing as well, right?

WICKER: Yes. So Teflon is the brand name for water and stain repellent finishes, and that's PFAS, which you might know has been in the news lately because it's been found in the water of half of all Americans. And part of the reason why it's in the water of so many Americans is because there are still manufacturers in the United States of textiles for clothing, performance clothing, uniforms and furniture that use this stain-repellent chemistry, and then they put it in the water. And there's nothing illegal about that.

WICKER: Synthetic fabrics do tend to be riskier when it comes to some of these hazardous chemicals or some of these finishes that can cause reactions. But cotton and other natural fibers can also be coated in performance chemicals or be contaminated with some of these pesticides, fungicides or just other contaminants that can be in the chemical substances themselves that are used in the factories. So it's not a hard and fast rule, no. But I do recommend, and this is both from my research and the lived experiences of people who have sensitive skin or chronic illness, that people do try to wear natural fibers whenever possible as one way to decrease their exposure.

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