The chemicals used on many textiles are impacting apparel in concerning ways across the globe. In her book released in June 2023, To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick and How We Can Fight Back, journalist Alden Wicker discusses the hazards certain chemicals pose for human health. In an interview with the author, Dr. Marie O’Mahony focused on the impact on workers—the people making the textiles and apparel, as well as their use in workwear. The views expressed are those of the author.
Q: Congratulations on your insightful book. Many of the issues that you raise are also discussed on your EcoCult blog, so why a book and why now?
A: Oh, it had to be a book. I needed the time and space to really dive deeply into such a complex topic, and to start making links among the history of toxic fashion, the invention of fossil-fuel dyes and finishes, the rise of illnesses and chemical sensitivities. I had a hard time finding independent researchers and research on this topic. But so much testing has been done in the past few years, new research is coming out all the time. I also very much relied on my advance to pay for clothing testing, which is quite expensive, and to travel to India to report on how clothing is dyed and finished.
Q: You use a term in your book that I have not heard before, “the human toxome.” Can you describe what that is?
A: The human toxome is a map of all the industrial chemicals circulating in our body. It’s a play on the term human genome, or the mapping of our genes. It’s aspirational; we have some idea of some of the worst chemicals found in our blood and urine but much more sampling has to be done. According to a 2022 study, when researchers sampled the urine of 171 diverse women across the U.S., they found 103 chemicals, including bactericides, benzophenones, bisphenols (such as BPA), fungicides and herbicides, insecticides, parabens, phthalates and alternative plasticizers, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). We can’t know how many of these came from wearing clothing and accessories with these chemicals, but many of these classes of chemicals are present in and on clothing.
Q: You make the point in your introduction that there is no “over there” in terms of impact on the dyehouse, textile or garment worker. How exposed is the textile industry worker in the U.S. to risk from toxic chemicals?
The U.S. does have stronger workplace protections than developing countries, but not as strong as Europe. There honestly aren’t many textile factories left in the United States. The ones that are here tend to manufacture high-performance textiles for professional gear, which requires layers of chemistry, such as flame retardants and durable water repellent using PFAS. And it’s still legal for these factories to output PFAS into the water.
Q: You visited the Tirupur region of India for your research, how did you find dyehouse and garment workers risk of exposure?
A: It’s very clear that dye house workers, especially in dye houses with poor workplace protections, bear the brunt of toxic exposure. They’re breathing in fumes and dye powder; they might be touching some of the dyes and chemical finishes. But I also found that garment workers, or the women sewing the clothing, also are exposed. I met one named Leelavathi, who had to quit her job sewing synthetic clothing because her skin broke out in rashes. When I met her, her arms had healed, but her legs had not.
Q: Workwear is one of the apparel groups that you highlight, can you outline the flight attendants’ case?
A: Four major airlines in the past decade or so introduced new, high-performance uniforms for the attendants, and each time, a significant portion of attendants started reporting reactions like serious rashes. These symptoms started to spiral. Some attendants reported extreme fatigue, brain fog, a persistent cough, racing heart, and some experienced hair loss. A few were taken off the plane and to the ER. One I spoke to suffered anaphylactic shock when she pulled a sweater over her head.
A Harvard study that tracked Alaska Airline attendants’ health showed that after the introduction of the uniforms, the number of attendants with multiple chemical sensitivity, sore throats, cough, shortness of breath, itchy skin, rashes and hives, itchy eyes, loss of voice, and blurred vision had more-or-less doubled. Three of the airlines eventually swapped out the uniforms.
Q: You said that certain firefighter uniforms were found to contain a pound and a half of PFAS. Can you describe what these are, the impact on human health and how the industry is addressing it?
A: These are per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a class of man-made chemicals invented in the mid- twentieth century that provide water repellency and stain resistance to performance textiles and other consumer products. They’re connected to several types of cancer and birth defects. They’ve also been connected to immune suppression, obesity, and reproductive disorders. The industry has mostly voluntarily phased out long-chain types of PFAS, but short chain types that they switched to are showing the same type of toxicity in more recent research. New York State and California have banned their use in everyday apparel by 2025. Those are big economies, so that should make it safer for people in every state.
Q: Women, you’ve said, are at higher risk. Can you elaborate on this?
A: Women make up the majority of the population of people with autoimmune disorders, as well as multiple chemical sensitivity. They’re the ones that have to go through interventions should a heterosexual couple need help getting pregnant. They’re usually the caretakers of children who are suffering from severe eczema and allergies. There are also societal pressures to buy more new clothing all the time, so they may be exposed to more chemicals overall.
Q: A number of chemicals crop up repeatedly in your book, Azo dyes are one, can you explain why these are an issue?
Azo dyes make up 70 percent of the 9.9 million tons of industrial dye colorants used globally each year. Exposure to certain arylamines, especially among factory workers, has been linked to cancer. And some azo dyes release carcinogenic arylamines when they come in contact with our skin. Disperse azo dyes are also known to be skin sensitizers for some people, causing serious rashes in people wearing polyester clothing. Some azo dyes are banned by the European Union, and many fashion brands and manufacturers started voluntarily phasing some azo dyes out, but there is no global mechanism to enforce this move, so restricted azo dyes keep showing up in garment tests.
Q: Formaldehyde is not something that people readily expect to see on their garment list of chemicals. Why is it there?
A: Formaldehyde is an ingredient used to put anti-wrinkle and other performance coatings on cotton textiles.
Q: Another is tributyl phosphate (TBP), which is being limited voluntarily by some companies. This would seem to be acknowledgment that there is an issue, so why do you think there is no official limit on its use?
The fashion industry has largely avoided regulations on the use and presence of hazardous chemistry, especially in the U.S., by saying they are voluntarily phasing certain things out. So, some brands have their personal textile limits, but they don’t have to follow them. A lot of brands do nothing at all in this area.
Q: Most chemicals are considered for their toxicity in isolation, yet multiple compounds are commonly used. Why does this matter?
A: It’s well known that chemicals can mix together to produce different hazardous chemicals. And some work synergistically, multiplying their potency. Others work on the same organs or have the same toxic effects. And yet, as you say, if each type of chemical is under the limit, it’s considered safe. Our clothing can have fifty or more different known chemicals on any one piece. And we wear several different pieces at the same time. Then these chemicals can mix in our bodies as well. So, it’s not realistic to assume they are not interacting with one another.
Q: How do you see the EPA’s role in protecting against toxic chemicals in clothing and footwear? Why the delay on the report on long-term exposure to formaldehyde? Any publication date in sight?
A: Well, the American Chemistry Council is suing the EPA for its most recent draft review of formaldehyde. It’s difficult for the EPA to do anything when it comes to regulation of chemicals with even decades of sound research connecting them to cancer. But the EPA doesn’t regulate chemicals in consumer products. That’s overseen by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is severely underfunded and understaffed.
Q: You indicate that the establishment of Zero Discharge for Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) is moving the industry forward significantly. Can you explain what this is, how and where it is making a difference?
ZDHC was set up by a few large brands so they could cooperate on getting hazardous chemistry out of fashion factories. It came up with a restricted substance list, which is continually being revised, and set up a program to test the wastewater coming out of factories to ensure it was free of those hazardous substances. It’s done a lot of good work, but it’s still voluntary, so, it doesn’t cover the whole industry.
Q: The European REACH program operating since 2007 you cite as a success. Why do you see this as succeeding and why do you think there is not a similar program in the United States?
A: The European Union takes a precautionary approach to chemicals. If there’s some evidence that they are hazardous, the European Union will work on banning or restricting them. The United States takes an innocent-until-proven-guilty approach to chemicals, and it can take decades to prove a chemical “guilty.” By that time, it may have done a lot of damage.
Q: You paint a stark picture in the book, but also point to instances where progress is being made. What gives you optimism that change is possible?
The legislation coming out of California, Washington state, Maine and New York makes me hopeful. These are big economies; California would be the fifth largest economy in the world, if it were a country, so, what they decide helps the rest of us.
A lot of times, states have to enact legislation until it’s so chaotic that the industry asks for unifying federal legislation. We’re on our way. Plus, more researchers are getting into this field, so I think this trickle of data will turn into an unignorable tsunami soon. I hope we can start a movement for not just safer clothing, but safer consumer products overall.
Q: Final question. You have the superpower to ban just one chemical what would it be?
A: Can I make it a class of chemicals? PFAS.
Dr. Marie O’Mahony is an industry consultant, author, academic and a frequent contributor to Textile Technology Source. email@example.com
Alden Wicker is a journalist and sustainable-fashion expert. Her pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Vogue and Wired. She won the American Society of Journalists and Authors Award for business reporting.