In September 2016, American Airlines rolled out new uniforms for more than 70,000 employees — the first uniform overhaul in 30 years. Soon after, reports started coming in from about 100 pilots and 3,000 flight attendants that the uniforms were making them sick. A variety of symptoms were reported (some occurring only while the personnel were wearing the uniforms), such as rashes, itching, eye swelling and a general feeling of malaise.1

Twin Hill, a unit of Tailored Brands Inc., which supplied the uniforms, has conducted testing, with nothing suspicious showing up that may cause the symptoms, and so far American Airlines has not recalled the uniforms, although they’ve given some employees alternative pieces and allowed them to wear their old uniforms while the matter is sorted out. While this may seem like an unusual story, it’s not unheard of for clothing to make people sick.

In fact, the average piece of clothing not only may be made from potentially allergenic materials (like latex, Lycra or spandex) but also may be contaminated with a variety of chemicals used during the manufacturing process.

The clothing industry is actually one of the most polluting industries on the planet, and the textiles they produce may be laced with irritants and disease-causing chemicals, which is one of the reasons why it’s so important to wash new clothes before wearing them. Even then, however, it may not make the clothing entirely safe.

What Kinds of Chemicals Are in Your Clothes?

Depending on where your new clothes were manufactured, they may contain multiple chemicals of concern. Among them are azo-aniline dyes, which may cause skin reactions ranging from mild to severe. If you’re sensitive, such dyes may leave your skin red, itchy and dry, especially where the fabric rubs on your skin, such as at your waist, neck, armpits and thighs. The irritants can be mostly washed out, but it might take multiple washings to do so.

Formaldehyde resins are also used in clothing to cut down on wrinkling and mildew. Not only is formaldehyde a known carcinogen, but the resins have been linked to eczema and may cause your skin to become flaky or erupt in a rash. Nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE), meanwhile, is a toxic endocrine-disrupting surfactant used to manufacture clothing.

You certainly don’t want to be exposed to NPE if you can help it, but when consumers wash their clothes, NPEs are released into local water supplies where wastewater treatment plants are unable to remove them. When NPEs enter the environment, they break down into nonylphenol (NP), a toxic, endocrine-disrupting chemical that accumulates in sediments and builds up in fish and wildlife. In an interview with “clean-fashion pioneer” Marci Zaroff, Goop outlined some of the common chemicals likely to be found in your clothing:

This is an issue both for the people who wear the clothes as well as the environment. Textile dyeing facilities, for example, 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. 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. Clothing designer Eileen Fisher even called the clothing industry the “second largest polluter in the world … second only to oil.”

Leading Clothing Companies Commit to Using Sustainable Cotton by 2025

Genetically engineered (GE) cotton is widely used in the clothing industry, but while it maintains a natural image, it’s among the dirtiest crops in the world because of heavy use of toxic pesticides. It also takes a heavy toll on local water supplies, as hundreds of liters of water may be necessary to produce enough cotton to make one T-shirt.

Prince Charles is among those who has voiced his support for more sustainable cotton production, noting that cotton production is “all too often associated with the depletion of local water supplies and the widespread, and sometimes indiscriminate, use of harmful pesticides [that] can take a heavy toll on human health.”

Fortunately, earlier this year 13 clothing and textile companies, including Levi Strauss & Co., Eileen Fisher, Nike, Woolworths Holdings and Sainsbury’s, signed the Sustainable Cotton Communiqué, which commits to using 100 percent sustainable cotton by 2025. Worldwide, more than 20 million tons of cotton are produced annually in more than 100 countries. The 13 companies that signed the sustainable cotton initiative account for 300,000 tons of cotton each year.

Microfiber Pollution Is Another Major Problem

In a study commissioned by sustainable apparel maker Patagonia, it was found that a synthetic jacket (such as a fleece) may release up to 2.7 grams (0.09 ounces) of microfibers with each washing (that’s up to 250,000 microfibers). On average, such a garment releases 1.7 grams of microfibers, although older jackets released fibers at twice the rate. While wastewater treatment plants may filter out some of this debris, some (anywhere from 6,500 to 28,000) inevitably sneak through and end up in waterways.

A number of variables affect how much of the debris is released. Jackets washed in top-load washers shed five times more microfibers than those washed in front-loaders, for instance, while in a comparison of acrylic, polyester and a polyester-cotton blend, acrylic was the worst, shedding microfibers up to four times faster than the polyester-cotton blend.

Ironically, the practice of recycling plastic bottles into clothing items, which is done by Patagonia and other outdoor companies as a way to reduce waste, may ultimately end up being environmentally destructive.

It’s unknown what the environmental effects of microfiber pollution may be, but their irregular shape may make them harder for marine life to excrete than other microplastics (like microbeads). It could be that the longer the particles stay inside the fish, the more chemicals may leach into its body.

So the microfibers may be harming marine life via two mechanisms: physical blockage and chemical poisoning. One solution to the microfiber pollution problem would be to install filters in washing machines — similar to lint traps in dryers — that could catch the fibers before they’re released with the wastewater.

However, according to the Mermaids (Mitigation of Microplastics Impact Caused by Textile Washing Processes) project, whose goal is to cut microfiber shedding during washing by 70 percent, the apparel industry has been slow to respond in taking steps to stop microfiber pollution. A Mermaids report suggested special coatings may help to stop the loss of microfibers during washing, and recommended laundry detergents be reformulated to minimize fiber shedding.

Partnering With Care What You Wear

The “Care What You Wear” campaign’s purpose is to educate consumers about why and how to buy clothing that supports organic and regenerative farming, responsible production and fair labor practices — and to “expose today’s fast-fashion industry, which perpetuates ethically and environmentally unsound practices with its ‘buy more, cheaper clothes’ message.” As for the “why,” consider these Care What You Wear facts:

  • It takes 5,000 gallons of water to manufacture one pair of jeans
  • Cotton crops use 24 percent of all insecticides and 11 percent of all pesticides globally
  • 25 percent of the chemicals produced in the world are used in textiles

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