Most of us don’t think too hard about how our couch, bed, curtains, and bedding are made. We take these products for granted, even though household textiles can be a major source of toxic chemicals in the home.
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In 2014, a groundbreaking Swedish study revealed that common household textiles expose us to more than 2,400 chemicals, more than 240 of which pose a possible risk to human health (R). Common chemicals in household textiles can have significant effects on our health and the health of other family members, but what are these chemicals and what do we know about them?
In this article, I’ll start by detailing how researchers categorize chemicals used in textile production and why these categories matter. After that, I’ll offer an overview of some of the potential problems associated with these chemicals and how you can best avoid toxic chemicals in household textiles.
The main types of chemicals in household textiles
There are three main types of chemicals in household textiles:
- Functional (or effect) chemical substances
- Auxiliary chemical substances
- Chemical substances not intentionally added
Researchers and regulators use these categories to describe chemicals commonly found in textiles. Regulators also use these categories to quantify and manage exposure to potentially problematic chemicals.
Organizations that offer certification programs for eco-friendly, non-toxic textiles also sometimes use these categories.
None of the categories of chemicals are inherently bad. And not all chemicals are bad. After all, water is a chemical. Knowing why a chemical is present in a product can help us understand its impact on health and the environment, though.
Functional (effect) chemical substances
Functional (effect) chemicals are added during the manufacture or household textiles to give the final product specific properties. This means they need to be present at a high enough concentration to be useful for a good portion of the life of the product.
Examples of functional chemicals include:
- Antibacterial agents
- Anti-shrinking agents
- Oil, soil, and water repellants
- Flame retardants
- Phthalates (to make plastics more flexible).
Because household textiles tend to contain higher levels of functional chemicals than any other kind of chemical, these are often the chemicals that affect human health and the environment the most.
Examples of functional chemicals and their health effects
Dyestuffs are a good example of functional chemicals and one of the key hazards in household textiles. These dyes can be carcinogenic, toxic and/or persistent and may cause contact dermatitis in some people (R, R, R).
Phthalates, used to make PVC flexible, are also linked to health effects including reproductive toxicity (R). Worryingly, only a handful of phthalates are regulated in the U.S. This means that companies can market their products as ‘phthalate-safe’ even if they’re not totally free of phthalates.
Textiles are also widely treated with triclosan (a biocide), nonylphenol ethoxylates (surfactants), and anti-wrinkling formaldehyde releasing compounds and resins, such as dimethylol dihydroxy ethylene urea (DMD-HEU). When washed, these chemicals can degrade over time, releasing other kinds of chemicals that can cause contact allergies and which are themselves classified as carcinogenic to humans (R). These chemicals can also prove toxic to aquatic life, especially to algae and fish (R, R).
Exposure to functional chemicals
These kinds of chemicals are typically intended to stay embedded in or on the textile, rather than easily leaching out. However, with ongoing exposure to sun, air, water, the sweat on our skin, and to detergents or other cleaning agents, they may be more easily released from the textile. And in landfill, even the pH and other conditions can affect how quickly chemicals like perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) leach out into waterways and soil (R).
In general, older textiles pose more of a risk for exposing us to functional chemicals because the gradual breakdown of the product means these chemicals are more easily separated. That said, some very old textiles may have already leached away most of the chemicals.
In summary, it’s hard to tell without testing how much exposure you might be getting from textiles made with functional chemicals. This is why it’s best to choose products made without hazardous functional chemicals in the first place.
Auxiliary chemical substances (process chemicals)
Auxiliary chemical substances (process chemicals) help manufacturers during the creation of household textiles but don’t lend any specific properties to a final product. This means that they’re not meant to remain in the final product and don’t serve any purpose if they do.
Examples of auxiliary chemicals in textiles include:
- Organic solvents
- Acids and bases
- Biocides as preservatives during storage and transport of goods.
Because these chemicals do not need to remain in the final product, they are mostly washed away in waste water or become airborne pollutants during manufacture. This can mean that auxiliary chemicals have a greater impact on the environment and pose a greater risk to textile workers than most functional chemicals.
Alkylphenol ethoxylates are one example of process chemicals. These support the dyeing process for textiles and have been found in waste water from laundering (R).
Traces of these auxiliary chemicals are often present in new household textiles. This includes products such as:
- Bed sheets
- Shower curtains
- Bath mats
- Tea towels
- Dish cloths
- Cushion covers and couch covers.
Because of the ubiquity of residual chemicals in household textiles, it’s a good idea to wash new textiles at least once before use, where possible. This even includes couch covers and the covers of other larger pieces of furniture.
Chemical substances not intentionally added
The third category of chemicals are those not intentionally added. This means contaminants and degradation products present in the final textile even though the manufacturer didn’t deliberately add them.
This class of chemicals has no function in the final product. Typically, that means the chemicals are only present at low concentrations, compared to higher levels of functional chemicals.
Examples of chemicals not intentionally added but frequently present in household textiles include:
- Formaldehyde (which may also be added intentionally, see above)
- Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)
- Arylamines derived from certain azo dyestuffs and pigments
- Dioxins (from chlorine bleach)
- Toxic metals (e.g. heavy metals) due to impurities from the raw material
- Textile dermatitis
- Reproductive problems
- Developmental issues in infants and children
- Cognitive dysfunction
- Heart disease
- Respiratory difficulties such as asthma
- Endocrine (hormonal) issues
These chemicals can also damage the wider ecosystem. For instance, such chemicals may affect the health and reproductive capacity of aquatic lifeforms such as fish, coral reefs, algae, and larger sea creatures such as whales (R, R).
How big is the problem of chemicals in household textiles?
In the 2014 Swedish study I mentioned earlier, researchers identified 2,400 textile-related substances in commonly available household products (R).
Of those 2,400 chemicals:
- 5% (120) pose a risk to the environment
- 10% (240) pose a risk to human health.
Worryingly, only 10% of these 2,400 chemicals were included in the Swedish environmental monitoring program at the time of the study.
According to this study, a staggering 4.44 tons of hazardous dyes might be released annually into waste water in the EU alone, just from washing cotton and polyamide textiles during manufacturing.
This is the best-case scenario, assuming companies follow good manufacturing practices. If they don’t, the amount of chemicals released could be five times higher or more.
The problem chemicals identified in the Swedish study were all functional chemicals. Of these, azo dyes of direct and acid application type posed considerable risk to the environment. Other (auxiliary) chemicals or impurities and degradation products known to be hazardous to the environment included nonylphenol ethoxylates.
Health effects of common chemicals in household textiles
Some of the potential adverse health effects of the chemicals identified in the Swedish study include (R):
- Increased risk of cancer
- Reproductive and developmental disorders
- Endocrine disruption
- Allergic reactions.
Children and those with respiratory conditions are especially vulnerable to the effects of chemical molecules bound to fiber particles released during normal wear and tear of textiles. Substances which bind loosely to the material include plasticizers, stabilizing agents, and direct dyes are more readily released during use and when washing textiles.
Is cotton a safe fabric for household textiles?
Cotton is the most commonly used fiber in the textile industry, followed by polyester, viscose and polyamide. Conventional cotton is hugely problematic, though, as it uses vast amount of water to grow and process and is one of the largest contributors to pesticide use worldwide.
Counterintuitively, perhaps, cotton and other natural fibers may be the worst offenders for textile pollution. This is because they’re often colored using azo dyes and treated with particularly harsh chemicals to overcome the fact that many dyes and treatments don’t bond as well to natural fibers as they do to synthetics. This also means these chemicals are more likely to transfer to skin or leach into the environment.
Different fibers have different binding affinities for specific chemicals, and other factors such as high humidity, temperature, and exposure to the sun can affect the release of chemicals in textiles.
Other chemicals are also used in the manufacture of cotton and synthetic fiber blends. These chemicals can remain in the final product as contaminants or enter the waste water stream or landfill, where they can damage the health of wildlife and whole ecosystems.
Some hazardous chemicals form in textiles as they degrade. This means the chemicals are rarely identified when new products are tested. Again, avoiding products made with problematic chemicals is always the best approach to minimize exposure.
Vintage clothing and textiles may also have significantly higher levels of problematic contaminants than newer textiles. This is due, in part, to chemical degradation and also because environmental regulations have generally become stricter in recent years.
Environmental pollution from toxic textiles
Troublesome chemicals don’t just magically disappear when you wash new textiles. Indeed, wastewater from washing household textiles is a key source of microplastics in the aquatic ecosystem, with negative effects on fish and other organisms.
Significant amounts of silver, triclosan and triclocarban are also released during normal washing of textiles treated with biocides (R). This means that sports clothing and bed sheets treated with biocides can contribute to increased bacterial resistance.
Stain repellants, including per- or polyfluorinated substances used in household textiles have been seen in increasing concentrations in the arctic region and in the Great Lakes (R). These compounds do not degrade or degrade very slowly, while others transform into persistent substances, such as the PBT-substances perfluorooctane sulfonyl (PFOS) and perfluorooctanate (PFOA).
PFAS have been banned in textiles in the EU since 2008 but are still used elsewhere, including in products imported to the EU and the US. The Biden administration has pledged to take steps to reduce the presence of PFAS in drinking water however, and there is growing awareness of the perils of PFAS.
Reducing exposure to toxic textiles
Every year, larger quantities or more potent auxiliary chemicals and functional chemicals are used in the production of household textiles and furnishings including mattresses, yoga mats, bedding, and carpet tiles.
Choosing greener, non-toxic, eco-friendly versions of these products is the best way to reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals in textiles.
However, we’re not just exposed to the chemicals in household textiles when we’re wearing or touching these products. Fiber molecules and the chemicals bound to fibers make up a significant proportion of household dust.
The most common chemicals found in household dust and thought to pose a risk to health include (R):
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)
- PBDEs (flame retardants).
Air purifiers, good ventilation, and regular vacuuming can all help reduce exposure to these chemicals. Infants and children are also exposed to chemicals when they suck or chew on blankets, clothing, towels, and other textiles.
Many auxiliary chemicals and contaminants are washed away before a textile reaches your home. Some chemicals may linger, however. Washing new household textiles, including couch cushion covers and other larger fiber products, helps reduce the presence of these chemicals in the home.
Better yet, choose products from a reputable eco-friendly company that doesn’t use any problematic chemicals in the first place.
This article by no means offers an exhaustive list of all the chemicals that might be present in household textiles, but I hope it provides a useful starting point and food for thought when buying new products for your home. I look more closely in other articles at the chemicals likely to be present in specific household textiles, including mattresses, nail polish, yoga mats, and more.