Thursday, February 7, 2013

Toxic Chemicals in New Clothes

Have you ever noticed a "chemical" smell coming from clothes (or bedding or other fabrics) you just purchased? New clothing is treated with a variety of chemicals. Some of these pose a danger to our health directly, while others are environmental toxins.

Some of the substances that are used in the manufacturing process include the following:


Clothing is often treated with formaldehyde, a toxin and known human carcinogen, to prevent mildew while it is being transported from factory to store. In addition, as noted in this 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), garments made of cotton and other natural fibers are often treated with resins containing formaldehyde in order to provide wrinkle resistance.

For those with an acute sensitivity, skin exposure to these resins can result in allergic contact dermatitis, a form of eczema that can affect the immune system and produce very painful skin reactions.

In addition, formaldehyde-containing resins in stored or closeted clothes may chemically degrade and off gas free formaldehyde. Breathing formaldehyde can result in nasal and eye irritation, neurological effects and changes in lung function. Children exposed to this toxin may develop asthma or asthma-like symptoms.

It's impossible to know for sure if an item has been treated with or contains formaldehyde, because clothing labels do not identify such items. However, some of these garments, or bedding, are marketed with phrases such as "wrinkle-free," "wrinkle resistant," "noniron," "no iron," or "easy care."

Various sources, including medical articles, recommend washing clothes before wearing to reduce exposure to formaldehyde. Researchers, including contributors to the GAO report, said their findings caused them to wash no-iron clothes "at least twice" before wearing them.

However, the report notes that while washing clothing before wearing it often reduces formaldehyde levels, it is not always successful. The effects of laundering on formaldehyde levels depends on the type of resin used as well as other factors. In fact, some studies report that while formaldehyde levels decline initially after washing, levels may start increasing after multiple washes.


Some dyes found in imported clothing, including azo, disperse or benzidine dyes, are highly allergenic and possible carcinogens. Disperse dyes easily rub off onto the skin and can cause severe skin reactions in those who have a sensitivity to these chemicals.

Benzidine dyes are so toxic that many countries have enacted stringent regulations that limit their use. There are no such laws or regulations in effect in the U.S. While these dyes are no longer manufactured here, there is no prohibition on their use in imported clothing.

However, the EPA recognizes that dyes such as benzidine-based azo dyes can metabolize into compounds that are known to be human carcinogens, and have the potential to leach from textiles that are in contact with skin. The agency is "concerned" about the risk of exposure, including the exposure of children, to products containing these dyes. Therefore, it has taken preliminary steps to review and evaluate the use of some of these dyes in imported clothing.


New clothing may be treated with a variety of substances intended to provide certain properties to the fabric.

Antimicrobial Pesticides

For example, clothing marketed as anti-odor or antimicrobial may be treated with the pesticides Triclosan or nanosilver.

Triclosan, as I posted here, is harmful both to our health and the environment.

Nanosilver, extremely tiny particles of silver, is being used in a wide variety of consumer products, including clothing, baby blankets and pillowcases. It has never been thoroughly tested for its effects on human health. However, because of their size, nanoparticles of silver are easily inhaled, absorbed by the skin or ingested. There is evidence that these particles can cross the blood-brain barrier.

Nanosilver, like Triclosan, may also have adverse impacts on the environment. Both of these pesticides are released into the water when items are laundered. A 2010 study found that nanosilver is toxic to aquatic organisms.

Some scientists believe that the use of antimicrobial textiles may lead to dangerous bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, leading to serious public health consequences.

Stain- and Water-Resistant Finishes

Clothing, including rain gear and outerwear, that is marketed as stain-resistant, water-resistant or waterproof is often made with chemicals called PFCs; one common PFC found in clothing is PFOA. PFCs, including PFOA, are suspected health and environmental toxins. They are also likely carcinogens. The CDC found PFCs in the blood of nearly all Americans it tested.

Widespread concern about the use of these toxic compounds led to recent announcements by two of the world's largest clothing retailers, H&M and Zara, that they would eliminate the use of PFCs in their products.

Finally, most of the clothing sold in the U.S. is now imported, much of it from Asia. Clothing and textiles are treated with a variety of preservatives, pesticides and fungicides to prevent infestations as they are transported here from halfway around the world.


  • Wash all new clothing before wearing.  At least once; I wash my daughter's things at least twice. This is an imperfect solution, as washing will not remove all potentially harmful substances from clothing, but it is important to remove as much as possible. This page has some tips on how to remove the "chemical" smell from new clothes.
  • Shop for organic clothes or clothes certified to be free of toxic substances. Products, such as apparel and bedding, certified under the Oeko-Tex 100 Standard are tested for over 100 harmful substances; the standard bans many chemicals and limits others. Many Hanna Andersson products are either organic or Oeko-Tex certified. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is an even stricter standard that governs environmental and social criteria throughout the supply chain. The online retailer Gaiam sells only textiles, including clothing and bedding, from suppliers that are GOTS certified. Finally, this page has some good information and resources for eco-friendly children's clothing.
  • Shop consignment and resale shops. This issue is one of the reasons why I am a big fan of these stores, especially for kids' clothing. My thinking is that used clothing will have gone through multiple washings, removing a good amount of any finishes and dyes. Some caveats apply. Make sure the store looks (and smells!) clean and that the clothes are in good condition. Also be aware that some thrift stores may spray clothes with disinfectants or other chemicals to get rid of funky odors. Avoid any store or any clothes that smell "chemically" or bad.
  • Avoid clothing with chemical "functional" finishes. These include items made of fabric labeled as stain-resistant, waterproof and water-resistant, antimicrobial, anti-odor, wrinkle-resistant or wrinkle-free. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

More on Chloramine in Our Water

Steve Johnson from Flickr
As I posted back in October, since last year Pennsylvania American Water has been using chloramine, a compound of chlorine and ammonia, to disinfect the water it supplies to those of us living in southern Allegheny County and in Washington County. The use of chloramine raises a number of concerns, including the creation of dangerous disinfection by-products in our drinking water and the possibility of pipe corrosion, leading to elevated lead levels in our water.

A Pennsylvania grassroots organization, The Chloramine Information Center, has set up a useful website. They have collected a lot of valuable information and links to studies about chloramine.


There are water filters certified to reduce, but not remove, chloramine in drinking water. These filters are certified under NSF standard 42. However, no filters are certified to reduce or remove chloramine's potentially harmful disinfection by-products.

Further, the NSF does not certify any shower filters for chloramine removal or reduction. Interestingly, chloramine can be removed from water for bathing by dissolving Vitamin C in the bathwater. According to this website, 1000 mg. of Vitamin C in tablet or powder form will neutralize the chloramine in a medium-sized bathtub.


The EPA acknowledges that chloramine can make water more corrosive, which can lead to pipe corrosion and an increase in the release of lead into water. Indeed, in a number of water districts, blood lead levels in children increased following a switch from chlorine to chloramine.

Plumbing installed before 1930 is most likely to contain lead. So, lead-contaminated water is a concern in homes built before that time. However, the use of lead solder with copper pipes in homes built after 1930 was widespread. According to the EPA, lead solder is considered the major cause of lead contamination of household water in the U.S.

Newer homes can also be at risk. A federal prohibition on lead in plumbing materials went into effect in 1986, but even "lead-free" fixtures, fittings, pipes and other materials can still contain up to 8 percent lead (this percentage will be reduced to 0.25 percent under a federal law to take effect in 2014). Lead solder can still contain 0.2 percent lead. Brass fixtures and fittings can leach significant amounts of lead into water.

 Testing for Lead

If you are concerned about lead in your drinking water for any reason, the only way to determine if your water contains harmful levels is to have it tested. Testing must be done by a qualified laboratory.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection certifies water testing labs. You can find a list of state-accredited labs on their website (scroll down to "Search Environmental Laboratories," there is a link for a PDF listing of accredited labs). There is also a search feature and when I ran a search for labs accredited to test for lead in drinking water the only commercial lab in Allegheny County that came up was  Microbac Labs in Warrendale.
 Minimizing Lead Exposure

If you are concerned about lead in your water, you can take these steps to minimize your exposure:
  1. Do not consume water that has been in contact with your home's plumbing for more than six hours.  Before using water for cooking or drinking, "flush" the cold water pipes by running the water until it is as cold as it will get, from 1 to 2 minutes.
  2. Consume water from the cold-water tap only, never from the hot-water tap.  Hot water dissolves more lead more quickly than cold water.
Treating Water to Reduce Lead

A variety of water treatment options can reduce lead in drinking water. These options include reverse osmosis and distillation units, as well as certain types of carbon filters. To search for NSF-certified drinking water treatment units, go to this page and check "Lead Reduction" under the type of system in which you are interested. For example, this is a list of water filters certified to reduce lead under NSF standard 53.

There are many factors to consider in choosing a water treatment unit, including effectiveness, initial cost, cost of replacement filters, quantity of treated water produced, installation requirements, and maintenance requirements.

It is also critical to follow the manufacturer's instructions for replacing filters and maintaining the unit. No doing so could result in higher levels of contaminants being released into your water.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Recycling Your Christmas Tree

Sadly, it is time to start thinking about how best to dispose of our Christmas trees. Don't put your tree out with the regular trash, where it will simply end up in a landfill.

In Mt. Lebanon, you can put your tree out at the curbside for pick up the next two Saturdays, January 5 and 12; trees will be recycled into wood chips. You can also drop off your tree at the Public Works facility during this period.

The Allegheny County Parks Department also has a Christmas Tree Recycling Program, which runs through January 19 this year at all 9 county parks. Trees will be mulched and used in the parks. See here for drop off locations.

Check with your local municipality for other tree recycling programs.

Remember to make sure that your tree is not in a bag and that it does not have any decorations, lights or any other material on it.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Paying Attention to Food Additives

The New York Times ran an article last week about a teenager who started an online petition asking PepsiCo to remove an ingredient called brominated vegetable oil from its sodas and sports drinks.

Even if you avoid these types of drinks, the article is an eye-opening account of the almost total lack of oversight of food additives in the U.S. Since 1997, the vast majority of new food additives, including flavorings, dyes, and preservatives, never received a safety determination from the government. What's more, since 1958 at least 1,000 new ingredients have entered the food supply without the knowledge of the government officials responsible for ensuring food safety. Manufacturers are not required to submit even basic information to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before including a new additive in their products.

How is this possible? For the past 15 years, the FDA has ceded its responsibilities to the food manufacturers themselves. If a a company can get a hand-picked "expert," that is, one of its own employees or contractors, to say that an ingredient is safe, the company doesn't even have to alert the FDA that it is putting the ingredient into food.

This almost complete lack of regulation stands in sharp contrast to most of the rest of the developed world. It is so troubling that many ingredients that have been banned from the food supply in other countries remain in products sold in the U.S. Food manufacturers, instead of removing a banned ingredient from all versions of a product, will manufacture two versions: one free of the banned chemical for sale in the rest of the world and one containing the banned chemical for sale in the U.S.

Why? Because in those instances, it is cheaper to use the potentially harmful additive, rather than a safe alternative.

      Brominated Vegetable Oil

The case of brominated vegetable oil (BVO) in sodas and sports drink is a good example of the major food companies' tactics. This ingredient is added to drinks to keep the flavoring ingredients from separating. BVO contains bromine, the element found in brominated flame retardants, and it is patented as a flame retardant for plastics. Only limited studies of BVO have been conducted in humans and animals. However, it has been found to build up in fatty tissue, raising concerns because overexposure to bromine causes a host of neurological and reproductive effects.

The European Union has long banned the use of BVO in food. Sodas sold in the EU market use alternative, natural ingredients to achieve the same stabilizing effect. Why don't companies replace BVO in drinks sold in the U.S.? The companies say that switching would be too costly.

      Artificial Food Dyes

Petroleum-derived food dyes are added to a myriad of products, many of them designed to appeal to children--products such as macaroni and cheese, candies and fruit snacks. Some of these dyes are known carcinogens. British studies have linked consumption of artificial dyes to hyperactivity in kids.

European Union regulations require a warning label on food containing artificial dyes; the warning must state that the food "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." These regulations have prompted U.S. companies, including Kraft, Coca-Cola and Mars to remove artificial colors from products distributed in other countries, but not from their products sold in the U.S.

Earlier this year, Nestle completed the process of removing all artificial colors, flavors and preservatives from all of its candies sold in the U.K. In that market, Nestle uses concentrates of fruits, vegetables and edible plants to provide colors to it products. At the same time that the company was announcing these changes, it announced that it had no plans to make similar changes in its products sold in the U.S.

Avoiding Harmful Food Additives

  • I've linked to the Center for Science in the Public Interest's guide to food additives before. It is a useful guide with safety ratings for a large number of additives.
  • Read labels. (Also be careful with children's medications; many contain artificial colors and preservatives).
  • Choose organic products whenever possible, by law they may not contain artificial dyes and preservatives.
  • Avoid brightly colored candies and other foods. Eat chocolate!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Jackie's Thoughts

Karen does such an incredible job with this blog and I am always grateful for every one of her posts.  I had a thought today that I just wanted to share in light of what we all have been dealing with this weekend.  Everyday many children in our schools say these words out loud: "One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all".  For our children we must be "one", we must be "indivisible" we much teach "liberty" and we must seek "justice for all".  Under the watchful eye of our God we must recognize when we are called to act.  I have no idea what we are to do but I think every real good change begins with conversation and ends with compromise.  As we all mourn, my prayer  is that we live what we claim and truly become "one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all"!

Monday, December 3, 2012

How Green is Your Christmas Tree?

From flickr by
Which is more eco-friendly, a real or an artificial Christmas tree? Environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club and National Resources Defense Council all agree: natural is best, both for the environment and for your family's health. 

Nevertheless, sales of artificial trees continue to climb; they are expected to hit 13.4 million trees this year, for a record $1.07 billion in sales. In the U.S., twice as many homes will put up fake trees as will display real ones.

The vast majority of artificial trees are manufactured in, and shipped here from, China. Their transportation alone creates a huge carbon footprint. Fake trees are made from PVC, a petroleum-derived plastic. PVC is toxic to the environment and to human health throughout its life cycle, from production to disposal. During the production of artificial trees, highly toxic dioxins are released into the environment. Dioxins are potent carcinogens. Further, PVC cannot be recycled; these trees will end up in landfills or being incinerated, again releasing dioxins.

In addition, lead is added to PVC during its production. The PVC in artificial trees degrades under normal conditions, releasing lead dust. According to the EPA, when fake trees are 9 years old, the degradation of the PVC can result in "dangerous lead exposures."

A PVC tree has no place in anybody's home, but certainly not a home with children.

Real trees, on the other hand, help the environment by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere while they are growing. You can also support a local small business by buying a tree from a local tree farm. Pennsylvania is one of the top Christmas tree growing states and there are a number of tree farms in our area. We buy our tree every year from Nutbrown's Christmas Tree Farm in Carnegie. You can cut your own tree, or they will cut one for you. It is a wonderful holiday tradition.

Finally, remember to recycle your tree after the holiday. Many communities, including the City of Pittsburgh and Mt. Lebanon, will pick up your tree and chip it for mulch. I will post information about pick-up dates and drop-off sites as it becomes available.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Why and How to Avoid Triclosan

Truly "green" rubber gloves--no triclosan in these
I had purchased the same brand of rubber dishwashing gloves for years. When I needed a new pair I simply grabbed one at the grocery store, never paying any attention to the packaging. The last time I brought a new pair home, however, these words in small type in the corner of the box caught my eye: "Ultra-Fresh--Antimicrobial protection." 

As a rule, I avoid products marketed as "antimicrobial" or "antibacterial" because many of these contain triclosan. In fact, in turns out that "Ultra-Fresh" is a trade name for a triclosan additive.

What is Triclosan?

Triclosan is an antibacterial chemical found in thousands of consumer products, including soaps, dishwashing liquids, cosmetics, cutting boards, sponges, shoes, and toys. It is a pesticide. This ubiquitous chemical has adverse effects on our health and the environment, while at the same time being largely ineffective at what it is supposed to do. For example, the FDA and many other groups say there is no evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.

Health Effects

Triclosan is so prevalent in consumer products that a study by the Centers for Disease Control detected it in the urine of 75% of Americans aged 6 years and older. Triclosan is absorbed through the skin and the mouth when we use products containing the chemical.

Animal studies have shown that triclosan is an endocrine disruptor that can, among other adverse effects, decrease levels of a thyroid hormone. Thyroid hormones are critical to brain development and function, particularly in children. These studies, according to a 2010 letter by the FDA, "raise valid concerns about the effect of repetitive daily human exposure to these antiseptic ingredients." (A link to a PDF of the letter can be found in this article.)

More recently, a paper published this year found that triclosan impairs muscle function, including cardiac muscle function, in both humans and animals.

Finally, some studies have raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics! Products marketed as protecting us from bacteria may actually be helping to breed drug-resistant bacteria or "superbugs."

Environmental Effects

Most of the vast quantities of consumer products containing triclosan get washed down our drains and end up in our waterways. Triclosan is one of the most frequently detected chemicals, at some of the highest concentrations, in U.S. streams. One reason that this is a cause for concern is that triclosan may react with UV rays to produce low levels of dioxin, a highly toxic substance. Furthermore, triclosan is toxic to various types of algae, making it it a potential disruptor of aquatic ecosystems.

 Triclosan is also discharged into the ocean. A 2009 study found traces of triclosan in the blood of bottlenosed dolphins tested off the coasts of South Carolina and Florida. The triclosan was found in their blood in concentrations known to disrupt the hormones, and growth and development, of other animals. Scientists called the accumulation of triclosan in these wild marine mammals--top level predators in the food chain--a worrisome finding, because it demonstrates that the chemical is building up in the ocean's food web.

Avoiding Triclosan

The bottom line is that the use of triclosan in consumer products is a marketing gimmick that poses a whole host of threats to our health and to the environment, while at the same time providing no real benefit whatsoever. My rubber gloves are a good example of how prevalent this unnecessary chemical is. What possible good could be derived from adding this chemical to rubber gloves?

How to avoid it:
  • Read labels: Antibacterial soaps and body washes, toothpastes and cosmetics are regulated by the FDA. If these products contain triclosan, it will be listed as an ingredient on the label. 
  • Stay away from other products labeled "antibacterial" or "antimicrobial," such as cutting boards, towels, yoga mats, shoes, clothing, towels, bedding and toys. These items may also be labeled with terms such as "fights germs," "protection against mold," "odor-fighting," or other similar claims.
Finally, I was happy to find a safe and eco-friendly alternative to my triclosan-laced rubber gloves. The gloves pictured at the top of this post are made by a company I really like: If You Care. They are made from Fair Trade Forest Stewardship Council certified natural rubber. And I found them at my local Giant Eagle.