The foods you choose to buy have an enormous impact on our health and the environment, but so do the clothes you buy, wear and wash. Eileen Fisher, a clothing designer who was honored for her environmental work at the 2015 Riverkeeper’s Annual Fishermen’s Ball, stated the clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world and second only to oil. There is a dirty downside to keeping your clothes clean. Many of the laundry detergents that we purchase contain toxic chemicals that contribute to water pollution and pose a hazard to people with chemical sensitivities. Dry cleaning your clothing is also notorious for the toxic chemicals involved and can off-gas for days after. Microfibers are also released from your clothes during washing, contributing to declining water quality and destruction of wildlife.
Our price for “fast fashion” is steep. Closets are overflowing with clothes we never even wear, as the price tag is low today. Each and every item has a significant toll on the environment and on human health across the globe. Cotton has led to severe ecological devastation. Depletion of water in the Aral Sea and the subsequent failure of fisheries in the area are partly attributed to cotton. Organic cotton is more sustainable and accounts for a mere 1% of the cotton grown across the globe, but still requires a lot of water and contains dye with potentially hazardous chemicals. Every year half a trillion gallons of fresh water is used in the process of dyeing textile, putting added strain on declining fresh water supplies.
Toxic garment dyes wreak havoc in our seas and oceans, traveling across the globe with the currents. Textile chemicals discharged by China are estimated at 40%. Final clothing items contain nonylphenol and may take several washes before it’s all washed out, therefore the chemical is also entering the local sewer system.
Most laundry detergent contains harmful chemicals and the garment itself may contribute to the problem of toxic pollution by releasing chemicals and fibers such as:
- Flame-retardant chemicals
A direct link between plastics and man-made fibers to the pollution in fish has been made in a study from the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). These fibers are easily consumed by fish and other wildlife, while accumulating in the gut, and concentrating in the bodies of other animals higher up the food chain.
The toxic impact of laundry detergents to pollute rivers and lakes, contribute to algae overgrowth and fish die-offs. Surfactant and phosphates used to soften the water and suspend dirt, are among the most destructive pollutants. Even biodegradable detergents can be problematic when used in massive quantities by hundreds of millions of people.
Mother Earth News reported sodium nitrilotriacetate (NTA) and organic polyelectrolytes could be used as substitutes for phosphates. They are believed to be biodegradable and would pose far less of a risk to the environment. Enzyme “pre-soak” stain removers may be the worst, as they contain 2/3’s phosphate.
Fabric softeners are loaded with harmful chemicals as well, according to the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia. They contain quaternary ammonium compounds, or “quats”, and imidazolidinyl, both of which are known to release formaldehyde. This chemical can cause joint pain, depression, headaches, chronic pain and other symptoms. It can also damage your DNA and may lead to cancer.
Using the dryer sheets give off toxic vapors that are released into your house, thereby compromising your indoor air quality and into the neighborhood. Opt for organic cotton, opt for unscented and nontoxic alternatives, try DIY recipe for fabric softeners, dry clothes naturally on drying racks and skip the dryer sheets.
Dr Fredda Branyon
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