What Toxins Are Lurking In Your Clothes?

What Toxins Are Lurking In Your Clothes?

Did you know there are actually thousands of chemicals that can go into clothing manufacturing?

Martin Poole/Thinkstock

Quick, what’s used in manufacturing your clothing? You probably guessed things like denim, cotton, and silk. Maybe elastic, or thread. There are actually thousands of chemicals that can go into clothing manufacturing, ingredients like nonylphenols, used in commercial detergents; nanosilver, which stops bacteria from causing odor in gym clothes; and phthlalates, for decorative printing. “Exposure to these chemicals increases the risk of allergic dermatitis, but more severe health effects 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,” writes Giovanna Luongo, Ph.D. in analytical chemistry at Stockholm University.

Luongo, along with other researchers at Stockholm University, conducted a study to find out if this soup of chemicals remained in clothing after the manufacturing process was over, and clothes hounds, the news is not good. They tested 60 garments from Swedish and international clothing chains and found that thousands of chemicals were still on the clothes, with about 100 of them easily identified. The highest concentrations of two of these, quinolines and aromatic amines, were found in polyester. Cotton contained high concentrations of benzothiazoles; even clothes made from organic cotton were not free from this chemical. Some of the substances the researchers found weren’t even on the manufacturers’ lists, so they are probably residues or chemicals added during the transport of the clothing. Super.

The researchers then washed the clothes and measured the levels of the chemicals—some had been removed, which is good news for human skin but bad news for the aquatic environment, as the chemicals are being released into the wastewater. Other chemicals stubbornly stayed put, making them a risk for long-term exposure.

Next, the researchers say, they must determine whether these textile chemicals can go into our skin, and what that means to our health. “This is something that has to be dealt with,” they write in their report. “Clothes are worn day and night during our entire life.”

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!

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