The label on your tee-shirt may read 100 percent cotton, but many consumers don’t really know what they’re wearing.
In a recent study, researchers at Stockholm University tested the clothing consumers buy and found that not even organic cotton can be guaranteed toxin-free.
The team of researchers examined 60 garments from Swedish and other international clothing chains and uncovered close to one hundred present chemicals, some of which they believe are by-products added during transport as they weren’t on producers’ list of substances.
Giovanna Luongo, PhD in Analytical Chemistry at Stockholm University said, “Exposure to these chemicals increases the risk of allergic dermatitis, but more severe health effect for humans as well as the environment could possibly be related to these chemicals. Some of them are suspected or proved carcinogens and some have aquatic toxicity.”
Clothing labels, the researchers noted, cannot be completely trusted, even if they read “organic.” Luongo found that cotton—even the organic variety—contains a potentially hazardous substance called benzothiazole. But the worst offender appears to be polyester, which often contains higher concentrations of chemicals like quinolines and aromatic amines than other materials.
The study also looked at how many substances exist in clothes post washing, and some chemicals did linger, posing a potential risk to wearers. “Exposure to these chemicals increases the risk of allergic dermatitis,” Luongo said, although it is not yet clear what exposure could mean for the human body in the long run.
Even when the chemicals can be washed away, Luongo continued, there is a threat to our ecosystem.
Textile production, cleaning, and wearing “contributes to environmental pollution” through a number of ways. When clothes are manufactured, chemicals escape the mill, drift into the open air and contaminate waterways. When we do laundry—an activity that we expect helps us to be cleaner—some chemicals are washed out of the garments and subsequently rinsed into the aquatic and soil ecosystem. Of the thousands of chemicals Luongo discovered in the clothes, she said some are suspected or proved carcinogens and some have aquatic toxicity.
Conny Östman, analytical chemistry professor at Stockholm University said Luongo’s thesis is just the beginning.
“We have only scratched the surface, this is something that has to be dealt with,” she said. “Clothes are worn day and night during our entire life. We must find out if textile chemicals go into our skin and what it means to our health. It is very difficult to assess and requires considerably more research.”