Few shopping decisions are of no consequence these days. The foods you buy certainly have an enormous impact on your health and the environment, but so do the clothes you buy, wear and wash.
According to clothing designer Eileen Fisher, who was honored for her environmental work at the 2015 Riverkeeper’s Annual Fishermen’s Ball,1,2 “The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world … second only to oil.”
Keeping your clothes clean also has a dirty downside. Many laundry detergents contain toxic chemicals that contribute to water pollution and can pose a hazard to people with chemical sensitivities.
Dry cleaning is also notorious for the toxic chemicals involved, which can off-gas for days afterward. Microfibers are also released from your clothes during washing, contributing to declining water quality and destruction of wildlife.
The Price for Disposable ‘Fast Fashion’ Is Steep
As reported by Ecowatch:3
“Fashion is a complicated business involving long and varied supply chains of production, raw material, textile manufacture, clothing construction, shipping, retail, use and ultimately disposal of the garment.
While Fisher’s assessment that fashion is the second largest polluter is likely impossible to know, what is certain is that the fashion carbon footprint is tremendous …
A general assessment must take into account not only obvious pollutants — the pesticides used in cotton farming, the toxic dyes used in manufacturing and the great amount of waste discarded clothing creates — but also the extravagant amount of natural resources used in extraction, farming, harvesting, processing, manufacturing and shipping.
While cotton, especially organic cotton, might seem like a smart choice, it can still take more than 5,000 gallons of water to manufacture just a T-shirt and a pair of jeans.
Synthetic, man-made fibers, while not as water-intensive, often have issues with manufacturing pollution and sustainability. And across all textiles, the manufacturing and dyeing of fabrics is chemically intensive.”
Environmental Impacts of Cheap Clothing
Inexpensive clothing has become so common today, it’s not unusual for people to have closets overflowing with clothes they never wear, or to throw away clothes worn only once or twice.
But the low price tag is deceptive. Upon further scrutiny, each item of clothing exacts a significant toll on the environment, and on human health across the globe.
In some areas, cotton has led to severe ecological devastation. Ecowatch mentions Uzbekistan, the sixth leading producer of cotton, where irrigation for cotton plantations have led to the depletion of water in the Aral Sea and the subsequent failure of fisheries in the area.
In a mere 50 years, the water level in the Aral Sea has diminished to where it is now less than 10 percent of its former level. Fertilizers and pesticides pollute what little water remains, and the dry, exposed lakebeds have created “a public health crisis,” as winds carry and spread the contaminated sand far and wide.
Organic cotton, which is more sustainable, accounts for a mere 1 percent of the cotton grown across the globe. Great benefits could come from expanding the organic cotton industry.
However, while free of pesticides and many other harmful chemicals, organic cotton still requires a lot of water, and organic cotton fabrics may still be dyed with potentially hazardous chemicals.
Each year, an estimated half a trillion gallons of fresh water is also used in the process of dyeing textiles, putting added strain on declining fresh water supplies.
Add to that the carbon footprint associated with shipping — from field to various manufacturing facilities where the fabrics and final items are made, onward to retail stores across the globe — and the end result is still far from ideal.
The entire supply chain needs to be cleaned up, but organic cotton is still a big step in the right direction, considering the serious harm being done by pesticides.
Toxic Garment Dyes Wreak Havoc
Textile dyeing facilities tend to be located in developing countries where regulations are lax and labor costs are low. Untreated or minimally treated wastewater is typically discharged into nearby rivers, from where it spreads into seas and oceans, traveling across the globe with the currents.
An estimated 40 percent of textile chemicals are discharged by China.4 According to Ecowatch, Indonesia is also struggling with the chemical fallout of the garment industry. The Citarum River is now one of the most heavily polluted rivers in the world, thanks to the congregation of hundreds of textile factories along its shorelines.
Tests by Greenpeace reveal the river water contains alarming amounts of lead, mercury, arsenic, nonylphenol (an endocrine-disrupting chemical) and many other toxic chemicals — all of which are dumped by textile manufacturers straight into the river without even the most basic of chemical filtration or treatments.
The final clothing items also contain nonylphenol, and it can take several washes before it’s all washed out. This means the chemical is also entering your local sewer system.
Nonylphenol is considered so hazardous that many European Union (EU) members have banned its use in the garment industry. It’s not even allowed in imported textile goods. The U.S. has no such restrictions, however.
Each year, Americans buy an astounding 22 billion items of clothing, and only 2 percent of these items are made in the U.S. Transportation alone, since each item has been shipped numerous times from country to country by the time it ends up in a retail store, creates an enormous amount of air pollution.
The Dirty Side of Clean Clothes
Once you’ve purchased a piece of clothing, you come to the next area of concern: washing the item. Not only do most laundry detergents contain harmful chemicals, but the garment itself may be contributing to the problem of toxic pollution by releasing chemicals and fibers.
•Flame-retardant chemicals are found in many garments, for example. Virtually any garment promising to be stain or water resistant also contains hazardous chemicals.
Worn against bare skin, such items could be a source of toxic exposure, but even in the best case scenario, these items contribute to water pollution when washed. Flame retardants do not break down into safer chemicals in the environment.
They may travel great distances from the point of origin, accumulate in people and animals in the food chain and have long-term toxic effects.5
Exposure to these chemicals at a critical point in development may damage your reproductive system, and cause deficits in learning,6 memory, motor skills and behavior. Some have also been identified as carcinogenic.7
•Phthalates are another chemical hazard. While not typically associated with clothing, a recent pilot study found that cotton and polyester fabrics pick up both flame-retardant chemicals and plasticizers such as phthalates from indoor air.8
Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastics more pliable. They leach out from the plastics as the product ages, and are toxic to you and the environment.9
Phthalates have carcinogenic effects and affect reproduction10 and development.11 When clothing carrying the chemicals is washed, the chemicals enter wastewater and are released into the environment.12
•Microfibers are another common water contaminant that originate in our laundry rooms. Each washing of a synthetic fleece jacket releases 1.7 grams of microfibers. The older the jacket, the more microfibers are released.13 Tests reveal acrylic fibers release the most microparticles.14
Up to 40 percent of these microfibers leave the wastewater treatment plant and end up in the surrounding lakes, rivers and oceans. To address the problem, scientists are now calling for appliance companies to investigate the effectiveness of adding filters to catch the microfibers.15
A recent study from the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) directly linked plastics and man-made fibers to the pollution in fish.16 Microfibers, which are more prevalent than microbeads (found in face scrubs and similar items), are particularly dangerous as the fibers are easily consumed by fish and other wildlife, accumulating in the gut and concentrating in the bodies of other animals higher up the food chain.
Textile fibers are found in both marine and freshwater fish. When Abigail Barrows, chief investigator for Global Microplastics Initiative, sampled over 2,000 marine and freshwater fish, 90 percent had microfiber debris in their bodies. High concentrations of acrylic and polyester fibers are also found in beach sediment near waste water treatment plants.17
Making matters worse, these microscopic plastic fibers soak up toxins like a sponge, concentrating PCBs, pesticides and oil in ever higher amounts as you move up the food chain.
Different types of machines may release different amounts of fibers and chemicals from your clothes, poisoning wastewater runoff and clogging the water supply with hormone disrupting chemicals and plastics. Research found that top loading machines released about 530 percent more microfibers than front loading models.18
The Toxic Impact of Laundry Detergents
Laundry detergents also pollute rivers and lakes, contributing to algae overgrowth and fish die-offs. Surfactants and phosphates (the latter of which is used to soften the water and suspend dirt) are among the most destructive pollutants.
According to a previous report by Mother Earth News,19 sodium nitrilotriacetate (NTA, an organic nitrogen compound), and organic polyelectrolytes could be used as substitutes for phosphates. Both are believed to be biodegradable, and overall would pose far less of a risk to the environment. Enzyme “pre-soak” stain removers may be among the worst, as they contain about two-thirds phosphate.
Still, even biodegradable detergents can be problematic when used in massive quantities by hundreds of millions of people. As noted by water treatment solution company Lenntech:20
“Detergents can have poisonous effects in all types of aquatic life if they are present in sufficient quantities, and this includes the biodegradable detergents. All detergents destroy the external mucus layers that protect the fish from bacteria and parasites; plus they can cause severe damage to the gills.
Most fish will die when detergent concentrations approach 15 parts per million [ppm]. Detergent concentrations as low as 5 ppm will kill fish eggs. Surfactant detergents are implicated in decreasing the breeding ability of aquatic organisms.
Detergents also add another problem for aquatic life by lowering the surface tension of the water. Organic chemicals such as pesticides and phenols are then much more easily absorbed by the fish. A detergent concentration of only 2 ppm can cause fish to absorb double the amount of chemicals they would normally absorb …”
Fabric Softeners Are Also Loaded With Harmful Chemicals
According to the “Guide to Less Toxic Products”21 by the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia, fabric softeners often contain quaternary ammonium compounds, or “quats,” and imidazolidinyl, both of which are known to release formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde can cause joint pain, depression, headaches, chronic pain and a variety of other symptoms. Studies suggest formaldehyde can damage your DNA and may even lead to cancer. For about 5 percent of people, quats are an extreme sensitizer that can cause a variety of asthma-like symptoms, and even respiratory arrest.22
Fabric softeners also contain carcinogenic coal-tar dyes, ammonia and very strong fragrances. A single fragrance can be made up of literally hundreds of chemicals, none of which have to be disclosed or tested for safety. Most are derived from petroleum products, which means high potential for human toxicity. Fragrances are one of the leading causes of allergic reactions.
Why You’re Best Off Skipping the Dryer Sheets
Next, you probably put your clothes in the dryer, which has its own ramifications for your health and environment. First, dryer exhaust contains carbon monoxide,23 an odorless gas posing well-known health dangers, depending on the concentration in which it’s inhaled. Consider this if your child’s bedroom window is close to your dryer vent.
Scented dryer sheets are commonplace as well, and as your clothing dries, toxic vapors are released into your house, thereby compromising your indoor air quality — and out into the neighborhood.
Anne Steinemann, Ph.D., professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs at the University of Washington, has done a large amount of research into what chemicals are released by laundry products, air fresheners, cleaners, lotions and other fragranced consumer products. In one study,24 in which she evaluated dryer vent emissions from 25 common brands of scented laundry products, she showed that:
•More than 600 VOCs (volatile organic compounds) were emitted, and none of these chemicals were listed on any of the 25 product labels. However, clues to the presence of these VOCs include label listings such as “biodegradable surfactants,” “softeners” or “perfume.”
•Two of the VOCs are considered by the EPA to be carcinogenic (acetaldehyde and benzene) and unsafe at ANY exposure level.
•Seven of the VOCs are classified as “hazardous air pollutants.”
•The highest concentration of emitted VOCs was acetaldehyde, acetone and ethanol.
Alternatives That Make Sense
It is safer, less expensive and kinder to the planet to shift to less toxic laundry products. Seeking out clothing made from organic fabrics made according to sustainable practices also needs to become more the norm than the occasional exception. Yes, such garments are more expensive (right now), but they also tend to last longer with proper care. And at the end of the day, we all need to start paying attention to the larger picture.
In this case, “fast fashion” is taking too great a toll on the environment and, ultimately, human health — including your own — even if you don’t happen to live near a garment or textile factory spewing toxins right into a local water source. Conscious consumerism needs to be high on our agenda as we move forward, because the world is getting more toxic with each passing day.
There’s definitely something to be said for the minimalist trend where you own fewer but higher quality items made in a sustainable way that you can wear for many years to come. Here are some tips and suggestions for cleaning up your laundry and developing a more sustainable wardrobe:
•Opt for organic cotton, organic hemp and/or wool items, ideally colored with nontoxic, natural dyes when possible. While this will not solve all of the environmental problems related to the garment industry, it’s a huge step in the right direction.
•In lieu of toxic detergents, opt for unscented, nontoxic alternatives. Soap nuts, for example, do a fine job of cleaning items that are not heavily soiled. Castille soap or Arm and Hammer Washing Soda are other DIY alternatives.
•Fabric softeners are typically unnecessary, but if you feel you need it, try this DIY recipe from the Kid Feed blog:25
“In a recycled gallon-sized vinegar jug, add 2 cups baking soda and 2 cups distilled white vinegar. When mixture finishes foaming, add 4 cups of hot water and essential oils (optional) to desired strength. (Try using 20 drops each of lavender and lemon.) Shake before each use, and add about 1 cup for large loads in the rinse cycle.”
•Dry your clothes naturally on indoor or outdoor drying racks.
•If using a dryer, skip the dryer sheets. To prevent static cling, use wool dryer balls or a wad of aluminum foil instead, or simply remove your clothes from the dryer before they’re completely dry. The remaining moisture helps prevent static cling. Let your clothes dry fully on a drying rack. Another trick is to launder natural and synthetic fabrics separately, as synthetics cause most of the static problems.
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eatlocalgrown / wisemindhealthybody
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