Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Are new clothes toxic? 4 tips to avoid chemical residue

New clothes are coated with a variety of chemicals to keep them looking crisp.

Late August is likely one of the busiest clothes shopping times of the year. It’s a tradition in many households to get a pile of new back-to-school clothes and even people who aren’t heading to school get in the shopping mode as we approach a new season.
Before you dress your kids, and yourself, in your brand new, never-been-washed clothes, you might like to toss everything in the wash first. And then put them through the wash again. And then again.
Here’s why...

New clothes are treated with several chemicals to keep them looking crisp and to keep them from being damaged during shipping.

Fabrics are treated with dyes and preservatives and washed with harsh detergents. As your new clothes rub on your skin these chemicals get absorbed into your body. And that new-clothes smell – you’re inhaling the chemicals.

We all know that almost all of the clothes in stores today are produced in faraway places that have few regulations concerning chemical use and very little oversight to police regulations. The result is that clothing is arriving in North American having been treated with substances that are banned in Canada and the U.S. or containing chemical residues far exceeding allowable limits (what Health Canada considers safe).

Just what chemicals are getting rubbed over your body?

Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, is commonly used to treat new clothing and to keep it from getting mildew during shipping.

Are you a fan of wrinkle-free clothes, those shirts and pants that keep that just-pressed look without any ironing?

They’re coated with perfluorinated chemicals  (PFCs, the chemicals in Teflon) another known carcinogen. These chemicals accumulate in the body, and are also known to cause reproductive problems and allergic reactions. This isn’t just abstract science -- my brother-in-law has spent the past seven months dealing with a severe allergic reaction to wrinkle-free clothing and is only now recovering.   
Another group of chemicals called nonylphenol ethoxylates  (NPE’s) are commonly used as detergents in the textile industry and they breakdown into hormone disruptors, again being absorbed into our skin.

Dark dyes are another toxic concern.

To limit your exposure to these chemicals:

  1. Steer clear of synthetic fabrics (rayone, polyester, acrylic, acetate).
  2. Avoid permanent-press clothing.
  3. Wash all new clothing at least three times, using eco-friendly detergents.
  4. Buy clothing that has been made in Canada or the U.S., where regulation of the textile and apparel industries is stronger than in Asia.

Some good news:

The clothing giant H&M has pledged to phase it out PFCs this year. Also, H&M along with several like-minded companies (Nike, Adidas, GAP, Walmart) has teamed up with some major environmental organizations to found the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. The coalition has introduced an internal, industry-wide index for measuring product sustainability, which encompasses chemical use in the clothing industry.
The idea is that companies will use this learning to set targets to clean up their supply chains but as of yet, no milestones have been shared publicly.

So for now, wash, wash, wash, all of those chemicals (unfortunately) into our waterways.

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