I must to admit to feeling a sense of total panic before the birth of our first child when I could not find organic cot sheets that did not cost the earth. I was going to be responsible for some terrible calamity that might befall her in her sleep! (I admit pregnancy may have meant I had totally lost all sense of proportion).
In the end we made a set from some organic jersey cotton I found, we still have them and currently use them for number 2. As time passed I did find myself considering what the evidence was for organic fabrics being better for kids or indeed non organic being harmful. So of course I was unable to help myself; I did some research.
Turns out there is a lot of very robust science to back up the negative health impacts of conventional cotton farming on farm workers, their children, cotton processing workers, garment makers and on the environment. From pesticide poisoning, inhalation during processing, through to large scale river pollution. The types of chemical involved include heavy metals like lead & nickle, cancer causing Azo dyes, formaldehyde and phthalates. There is a good summary of this evidence here.
What About the Kids who Wear the Clothes?
Well the evidence is not so shabby there either. There are clear causal relationships between specific chemicals used in clothing production and cancer (e.g. Azo dyes), and other chemicals and the disruption of normal hormone activity (e.g. phthalates). Many of these chemicals are now banned in Europe for use in children’s clothing & toys because of this data. In NZ the only banned substance in children’s toys is lead, nothing is banned in kids clothes.
Certainly, there is a school of thought that says a casual relationship between direct exposure in significant amounts to specific chemicals and health outcomes (such as lead & lead poisoning) , is quite different from there being a relationship between wearing conventionally processed and treated clothing and harm. The reality is that there is a bit of a vacuum in the evidence with regard to many of the chemicals used in the clothing industry. Absence of evidence does not make for evidence of absence as we say. We are often faced with situations where evidence of harm is becomes clear only after many years of use (BPA, Cigarettes, Lead Paint to name a few) and only then we act to remove or limit its use.
One chemical I want to discuss in relation this situation especially are phthalates. Phthalates are chemicals that are used and found in kids clothing we all buy and they are absorbed directly through the skin on contact (many other chemicals require actual ingestion by the child). The problem with phthalates is as they act as a disrupter to hormones. It is very unclear what level of exposure is or is not safe, as our bodies can respond to a very small amount of hormone and hormone-like chemicals. In addition to this it is unclear the manner in which these hormone-like chemicals act on our systems, some people may just be more susceptible to the effects of these chemicals (genes, how they make out body systems behave and under what conditions is a tricky old business that is very hard to predict). My view on this (as a scientist) is that limiting exposure to chemicals seems a pretty play it safe approach, and certainly that is how many other scientists see it. Especially when it come to developing bodies (the unborn and young), as this is when vulnerabilities to toxicity are at their peak.
How to Limit Exposure to Clothing Toxins
There are two main ways children are exposed to the chemicals used in clothing. The first is through direct exposure through the clothing they wear. The second is more indirect and via the chemicals that build up in our food chain, in the soil we grow plants in, the plants we feed our animals on, the animals we eat, and the sea we catch our fish from. The old saying that what goes in the oceans, the waterways and the soil, goes in us, is pretty true.
The best way for us to deal this indirect environmental exposure is to ensure that we have a garment production system that does not use these chemicals. From ensuring a testing system that has a precautionary principle (prove it safe first like medicines), regulating against such chemicals use in clothing for children and pregnant women, to providing incentives to manufacturers to find and use safe alternatives, right through to consumers actively supporting alternative systems (like certified organic cotton & wool).
In an unregulated environment reducing direct exposure can be tricky and as I have noted, in New Zealand we have not adopted any regulations on the use of phthalates in children’s products, see here for what is regulated in children’s products in NZ (hint it is not much). So while you could try looking for the various chemicals , types of phthalates in a product, they are unlikely to be listed, so really, right now, it comes down to looking for products that have been independently certified to meet organic standards (eg. GOTS), as these standards take a precautionary principle in terms of toxins like phthalates (and there are a surprising number of them). Landcare in NZ has a good guide to these labels.
As a next best, look for well washed second hand gear, as a lot of these chemicals have been washed out. Though as I have written about on the eco-store blog some chemicals will remain permanently because of the way they bind to fibre at the molecular level.
TIP avoid clothing & underwear with printed on images & pictures. These tend to be where a lot phthalates get used.
Most of us and our children are exposed to a large number of chemicals everyday however, don’t panic and go live in the country (to start with there are heaps of chemicals there too), but do try and limit growing bodies exposure to chemicals where you can through your purchasing choices. In addition we should continue to press for evidence of safety in what goes into children’s products, and support stronger regulation that is weighted on the prove it safe first principle. This way all kids (not just the kids of parents who know and can do something about it) will benefit.