Chemicals in clothing

While you know about toxins in pesticides, what about the ones in your clothes?
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02.Chemicals of concern

These are some of the substances of very high concern that have been identified by EU REACH:

  • Chrome VI used on leather, new wool. Textiles and leather treated with chromate can cause or exacerbate contact dermatitis.
  • DMF used to prevent mould and moisture in leather goods.
  • Phthalates used in PVC for shoes and rainwear are suspected of being carcinogenic and may disturb the hormone system.
  • Alkphenols used for textile and leather production. Strong disuptors of the human endocrine system and environmentally toxic.
  • Allergy-causing dispersion dyes A colourant, these can cause allergy and rashes.

Harmful chemicals

AZO colourants AZO dyes are often used in the colouring process for textiles and leather products. Recently it has been recognised that some AZO colouring agents may form amines (breakdown products) that may have carcinogenic and mutagenic (an agent changing genetic material) properties.

Chlorine phenols (PCP, TeCP, TriCP) used in the processing of textiles. Contact with PCP (particularly in the form of vapour) can irritate the skin, eyes and mouth. Long-term exposure to low levels can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, blood and nervous system.Exposure to PCP is also associated with carcinogenic, renal and neurological effects.

Formaldehyde is used to “finish” fabric. Exposure to low levels irritates the eyes, nose, throat and can cause allergies affecting the skin and lungs. Higher exposure can cause throat spasms and build up of fluid in the lungs, leading to death. Contact can also cause severe eye and skin burns with permanent damage. It is classified as a potential carcinogen.

DMF in chairs and shoes

Another chemical of concern commonly used in Australia is dimethyl fumarate (DMF), which is used to prevent mould and moisture in leather goods and can be found in all kinds of leather goods – from furniture to school shoes – usually in the form of a small sachet. 

DMF has been found to be an allergic sensitiser at very low concentrations, producing extensive, pronounced eczema that is difficult to treat. In the EU, the use of DMF for consumer products is banned, including imported products. 

DMF gained notoriety overseas during the so-called “poison chair” incident. A Chinese furniture manufacturer produced sofas with DMF sachets inside to inhibit mould while they were in storage or transport. 

In the UK, sofas containing the chemical caused severe injuries to more than 400 people, including 55 small children. By 2010, several retailers were ordered to pay £20m to those who received chemical burns.

Yet in Australia, imported products containing DMF aren’t monitored at all.

To highlight this risk, the product safety group headed up by TFIA recently bought 13 pairs of shoes from a department store in Melbourne and sent them for testing for DMF at the CSIRO. 

Three pairs contained levels far higher than what’s considered acceptable. One of these pairs was a popular brand of children’s school shoes. According to Schimkus, this small sample shows how common the issue is. 

“It’s not like we bought hundreds of pairs of shoes – we went out in one day and bought a small sample and the results speak for themselves.”

“This isn’t an acceptable outcome,” adds Lloyd-Smith. “This testing is a real alarm bell.”

How are these chemicals disposed?

In Australia, almost 100% of textile waste goes into landfill – even if it makes a quick detour via charities there are concerns potentially harmful substances in dumped textiles may leach into the environment. 

“We regularly see examples where local traders buy 500 T-shirts in China [sell 350 shirts] and dump the remaining 150 pieces, simply because it’s cheaper,” says Andrew Mills, managing director of textiles company Charles Parsons.

Emer Diviney, former manager of Ethical Clothing Australia, argues that with the current regulation, Australia is a fertile ground for dumping substandard product at incredibly low prices. However, the ACCC says it has not uncovered any evidence of dumping unsafe TCF products onto our market.

“There is also no injury data that supports the view that TCF articles available in Australia are less safe than in other markets,” says ACCC spokesperson Brent Rebecca.


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