Are Your Clothes Making You Sick?

Washing your clothes is not as harmless as you might imagine. Detergents carry toxins and your clothes lose microfibers when washed, polluting the water supply. Your clothes may also harbor flame retardant chemicals, even if you carefully purchase “green” furniture.

Just as purchasing organic foods is integral to your overall health and wellness, so is purchasing organic fabrics. The benefits of organic clothing relate to that which is ABSENT from the fabric — toxic chemicals and pesticides.

Lightweight, synthetic polyester fabrics, while popular because they are fast-drying, also retain more odor-causing bacteria than organic cotton material.1 In a study using 26 volunteers, researchers found the odor-causing bacteria under your arms is different than those populating your polyester t-shirt.

The microbes on the polyester are difficult to remove and cause you to smell before you even start your workout. Most manufactured clothing has also been sprayed with flame retardant chemicals. While they may wash out of your clothes, this adds toxins into the water supply.

Your Clothes May Poison Food Supply

How flame retardant chemicals and phthalates are found in the environment has puzzled scientists as the manufacturers have not reported spillages. Turns out these hormone disruptors and potential carcinogens appear to be making their way into the waterways through your washing machine.

In a recent study from the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), researchers were able to directly link plastics and man-made fibers to the pollution in fish you may have eaten last night.

The researchers sampled fish from markets in Indonesia and California, finding the difference was not in the amount of pollutants, but in the type between both countries.

Lead author of the study, Chelsea Rochman, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow at UC Davis School of Medicine, was quoted in EcoWatch, saying:2

“It’s interesting that there isn’t a big difference in the amount of debris in the fish from each location, but in the type — plastic or fiber. We think the type of debris in the fish is driven by differences in local waste management.”

Each washing of a synthetic fleece jacket releases 1.7 grams of microfiber. The older the jacket, the more microfibers are released.3 Up to 40 percent of these microfibers leave the wastewater treatment plant and end up in the surrounding lakes, rivers and ocean.

Current studies have found microfibers are more prevalent than microbeads, and are particularly dangerous, as the fibers are small enough to easily be eaten by fish and other wildlife, accumulating in the gut and concentrating in the bodies of other animals higher up the food chain.

Fibers are found in both marine and freshwater fish. When Abigail Barrows, chief investigator for Global Microplastics Initiative, sampled over 2,000 marine and fresh water fish, 90 percent had microfiber debris in their bodies.

Patagonia Took a First Step

Ecologist Mark Browne, Ph.D., post-doctoral fellow at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, published a study during which he sampled sediment from 15 beaches around the world.4 He found high concentrations of acrylic and polyester fibers close to waste water treatment plants.

He reached out to large manufacturers to help fund further study, but only one company, Eileen Fisher, a clothing company that promotes sustainable manufacturing of clothes, offered to help.

In 2015, more research into the effects of microfibers in the environment was published and Jill Dumain, Patagonia’s director of environmental strategy, was paying attention. They commissioned a study to determine if products from Patagonia were contributing to the problem.

The new study found that during laundering, one fleece jacket may release as many as 250,000 microfibers. Based on an estimate from sales of the jackets, 100,000 jackets washed in one year would result in the equivalent of 11,900 plastic grocery bags released into the environment, from just one company.5

Washing machines also play a role in releasing microfibers into the wastewater. Scientists are calling for appliance companies to investigate the effectiveness of adding filters to catch the microfibers.6

Research found that top loading machines released 5.3 times more microfibers than front loading models.7 Swedish statistician Hans Rosling estimates the problem will only grow as the number of washing machines put into use continues to climb.

In 2010, 2 billion people used washing machines, and 9 billion worldwide are expected to use them by 2050.8

Flame Retardants and Plasticizers Move From the Air to Your Clothes

Flame retardants are used in furniture, electronics, polyurethane foam, cables, clothing and building insulation. This group of chemicals does 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.9

In recent years, flame retardant chemicals have come under fire as studies show they do not work well and are extremely toxic, posing a severe health hazard to fire fighters.

When the tobacco industry was pressured into making cigarettes safer to protect against house fires, tobacco manufacturers paired with chemical companies to convince officials that dousing furniture in chemicals was a better choice than altering the cigarettes.10

The ruse worked, but firefighter, health, science and consumer groups are now pushing for a ban on flame retardants, as studies show they pose serious health risks even when not lit.

Exposure to these chemicals at a critical point in development may damage your reproductive system, and cause deficits in learning, memory, motor skills and behavior. Some have also been identified as carcinogenic.11

Now, a pilot study has found cotton and polyester fabrics pick up not only flame retardant chemicals but also plasticizers, such as phthalates, from indoor air.12Phthalates 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.

Phthalates have carcinogenic effects and affect reproduction and development.13When clothing carrying the chemicals is washed, the chemicals enter wastewater and are released into the environment.14

What’s the Problem With These Chemicals?

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have been used as flame retardant chemicals for the past 25 years. Unfortunately, they don’t work as promised and actually produce more toxic smoke than untreated objects. Once in your home, they become a part of the dust and air you breathe.

PBDEs are classified as persistent organic pollutants by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), meaning they persist in the environment and your body, particularly fatty tissue. This includes your brain, which is 60 percent lipids.15

Scientists from the U.S. and Beijing discovered PBDE-47 was instrumental in interfering with the growth of new neurons that are necessary for learning and memory in adults.16

Perhaps the most condemning evidence against this class of chemicals is the role they may play in autism. When the brains of adults with autism were examined, researchers found persistent organic pollutants in every sample.

Exposure to phthalates can occur when you microwave foods in plastic containers, eat or drink foods that were wrapped or stored in plastic, when children suck or chew on soft plastic or vinyl products, and if you are exposed to medical devices such as IV tubing, blood transfusions and catheters.

Read labels, call the manufacturer and ask your healthcare provider to use phthalate-free products.17 Studies on lab animals indicate phthalates have the following effects:18

  • Early onset puberty
  • Poor male reproductive development
  • Impaired hormone system function
  • Reproductive and genital defects
  • Low testosterone levels and sperm count in adolescent males

Chemicals in Your Clothes May Damage Your Fertility

A number of studies have demonstrated a 50 percent decline in adult male sperm count over the last 50 years.19 Reasons have included poor diet, stressful lifestyle and environmental factors. Recently, researchers found microfibers released from your clothing may bind with chemicals, such as phthalates and flame retardants, in your laundry before released into the sewer system.

Phthalates are easily released from plastics as they are not chemically bound to the product. This is why many soft plastics become hard and brittle over time. The phthalates are deposited into your air, food and liquids. Phthalates affect not only the amount of sperm but also the quality of the genetic material, 20 affecting both fertility and the health of your children.21

Studies have also demonstrated that women with the highest concentrations of phthalates suffer the lowest levels of libido.22  Emily Barrett, Ph.D., who studies prenatal phthalate exposure, was quoted in the Telegraph, saying:23

“Low libido can take its toll on relationships and wellbeing. For a lot of women with loss of libido there is no obvious reason why and it is important to know [how] these chemicals might contribute. The leading source of some phthalates is food. We think that the more processing food goes through, the more likely it is to take these chemicals on.

One of the recommendations that might be made to potentially lower your exposure is to eat less processed food and to pick fresh things without packaging. Organic foods are maybe better because phthalates are sometimes used in pesticides. But you are never going to be able to totally eliminate phthalates from your life unless policy changes.”

How to Reduce Your Exposure to Phthalates

Until policy changes, it may be impossible to eliminate phthalates entirely from your environment. However, you can make a significant impact on your health and that of your children by recognizing the products high in phthalates and reducing or eliminating them from your immediate environment.

Products containing phthalates include the following. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but may serve to help you identify the products in your home most likely to increase your risk.24

Vinyl raincoats and rain boots Household cleaners, glues and paints Steering wheels, vinyl seating and plastic consoles Plastic food wraps and soft plastic food containers
Shower curtains Soft plastic toys Nail polish and hair spray Scented candles
PVC water pipes, vinyl flooring and mini-blinds Plastic school supplies Scented shampoos, soaps, moisturizers and aftershave lotions Sex toys and lubricating oils

How to Reduce Your Exposure to Flame Retardants

Like phthalates, flame retardants are so widely used that it’s difficult to avoid them completely. However, there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure, including the following:

Avoid fire-resistant, stain-resistant and/or water-repellant fabrics. Your best bet is to buy organic fabrics, especially when it comes to clothing.

Avoid upholstered furniture with the TB117 label. If the label states: “This article meets the flammability requirements of California Bureau of Home Furnishings Technical Bulletin 117,” it most likely contains flame retardants.

However, even upholstered furniture that’s unlabeled may contain flame retardants. To find out if your furniture contains flame retardants, you can send a sample to Duke University. For more information and full instructions, please see my previous article, “Firefighters Are Still Fighting Deadly Flame Retardants.”

Furniture products filled with cotton, wool or polyester tend to be safer than chemical-treated foam; some products also state that they are “flame-retardant free.” Organic wool (100 percent) is naturally flame-resistant.

Avoid baby products with foam. Nursing pillows, high chairs, strollers and other products containing polyurethane foam most likely contain flame retardants.

Avoid foam carpet padding. If possible, minimize the use of foam carpet padding, which often contains flame retardants. If removing carpeting, take precautions to avoid exposures. You’ll want to isolate your work area from the rest of your house to avoid spreading it around, and use a HEPA filter vacuum to clean up.

PBDEs are often found in household dust, so clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and/or a wet mop often. Be especially careful with polyurethane foam products manufactured prior to 2005, such as upholstered furniture, mattresses and pillows, as these are most likely to contain PBDEs.

If you have any of these in your home, inspect them carefully and replace ripped covers and/or any foam that appears to be breaking down. Also avoid reupholstering furniture by yourself as the reupholstering process increases your risk of exposure.