A lady who is experiencing increasing chemical sensitivities called the store yesterday to order some sweaters and warmer clothing that was dye-free. The two major areas of concern and problems for people with chemical sensitivities purchasing clothing are the dyes and garment finishing. Garment finishes for wrinkle-free, stain resistant, flame retardant, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-static, odor-resistant, permanent-press, non-shrink, softening agents, and the other easy care treatments that are applied to new clothing can be especially harmful for people with chemical sensitivities … which is basically all of us – it is just the degree of sensitivity that varies.
Conventional clothing dyes and garment finishes can cause a wide variety of health problems for chemically sensitive people ranging from skin rashes, headache, trouble concentrating, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, dizziness, difficulty breathing, irregular heart beat, and seizures. Symptoms in children include red cheeks and ears, dark circles under the eyes, hyperactivity, and behavior or learning problems.
It is often the dye fixative which is used to bond the dye color to the fabric that causes the most problems. Unfortunately, heavy metals have often been used in dye fixatives and also in dyes. Toxic chemicals sometimes found in the dyeing process include:
- Dioxin – a carcinogen and possible hormone disrupter;
- Toxic heavy metals such as chrome, copper, and zinc – known carcinogens;
- Formaldehyde – a suspected carcinogen;
- Azo dyes group III A1 and A2 – which give off carcinogenic amines;
Because clothing comes into prolonged contact with your skin, toxic chemicals are absorbed through your skin, especially when your body is warm and skin pores have opened to permit perspiration. Once absorbed by humans, heavy metals tend to accumulate in the liver, kidney, bones, heart and brain. The effects on health can be significant when high levels of accumulation are reached. The effect is particularly serious in children due to effects on growth and their relatively low body mass.
Toxic chemicals from dyes also create severe environmental havoc. Large amounts of water are used to flush conventional synthetic dyes from garments and then this waste water must be treated to remove the heavy metals and other toxic chemicals before it can be returned to water systems, sewers and rivers. At least that is what should happen.
Most garments are produced in developing countries where pollution controls are often lax or nonexistent. Discharges from huge numbers of the textile producers go straight into rivers where the river water might be bright green one day and yellow the next. Developing countries are also lacking in standards and enforcement concerning the use of toxic chemicals in dyes and garment finishes.
So, what are you going to do if you are concerned about the pureness of your clothing? There is a sliding scale of choices:
- Undyed, natural color clothing is the healthiest alternative. This includes color-grown cottons and natural color wools and alpaca. Color-grown cottons have a limited number of colors. Shades of blue, green, brown and purple are the most common color-grown cottons.
- Dirt dyes. The minerals and irons in earth have been used for eons to color fabric. The were probably first invented by Stone Age kids playing outside. New techniques, such as those applied by companies like Earth Creations, are improving the colorfast and variety.
- Low-impact fiber-reactive dyes. Fiber-reactive dyes are a synthetic dye that chemically bonds directly to the clothing fiber molecules. They were first used commercially in 1956. The fixation or absorption rate of low-impact dyes is at least 70%, creating less waste water runoff and therefore a lower impact on the environment. Recent advances have created fiber-reactive dyes with colors that are brighter and richer, and they provide excellent colorfast properties. They contain no heavy metals or other known toxic substances, and they meet all European Union criteria for being an eco-friendly pigment. But, the actual dyes in almost all low-impact fiber-reactive dyes are still made from synthetic petrochemicals.
- Natural dyes. "Contrary to popular opinion, natural dyes are often neither safer nor more ecologically sound than synthetic dyes. They are less permanent, more difficult to apply, wash out more easily, and often involve the use of highly toxic mordants. However, not all mordants are equally toxic, and the idea of natural dyestuffs is aesthetically pleasing." according to Paula Burch, PhD. Mordants help make the dye colorfast by chemically bonding the dye to the fabric. Dr. Burch reports that "Some natural dyes, such as the hematein derived from logwood, are themselves significantly poisonous. Of course, the color possibilities are far more limited than synthetic dyes."
Low-impact, fiber-reactive dyes have become the dye of choice for many organic clothing manufacturers who want a diverse palette of vibrant colors. Depending upon the nature and degree of their chemical sensitivities, people with mild chemical sensitivities can often wear organic clothing with fiber-reactive dyes. Undyed, natural color or color-grown fabrics are the best choice for people who react to fiber-reactive dyes or who want only pure fabrics on their skin.