What lies within: The harmful chemicals found in our children’s unsustainable clothes

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Words by Matthew Benjamin, Founder and CEO of Kapes (895 words)

Every parent would be horrified to hear that there are toxic materials in their children’s clothing. And yet that is exactly what is happening. Hazardous chemicals are being used in the production of childrenswear from leading fashion companies. Did you know that 80% of the chemicals in common use, we know almost nothing about? And as documented by Dr. Philip Landrigan, from Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Care, childhood asthma and obesity has tripled, and childhood cancer has risen by 40% in the past 20 years.

Making clothes is one of societies’ oldest crafts, dating back thousands of years. However, the megatrends of industrialisation, consumerism and globalisation have fundamentally changed the industry from artisanal and intimate, to mass produced and unsustainable. Achieving high-volume sales and low costs of production have been key drivers of the industry’s business operations. It has become a finely tuned business model geared around driving mass consumption, as cheaply as possible, and chemicals are one of the key ways for manufacturers and retailers to lower costs.

So, what are these harmful chemicals and who is using them? 

Carter’s, the US’s biggest childrenswear brand, saw Green America launch a campaign in 2019 and publish a report showing Carter’s among the worst actors in the textile industry (as a whole!) on environmental and social practices. However, they are not alone. Shockingly, school uniforms suppliers are also culpable, as uniforms have been found to also contain toxic threads. Whilst many of the visible effects of chemicals in clothing manifest on the skin’s surface in the form of itches and rashes, there are many longer-term health consequences, including cancer. Below are just four of the most worrying side effects of the chemicals found in school uniforms:

Skin rashes and irritations. One of the most common surface-level health problems caused by synthetic chemicals. Atopic dermatitis conditions have tripled globally in the past 50 years and include allergic contact dermatitis and eczema. Key chemicals responsible are Epoxy resins (glueing agents), Formaldehyde, flame retardants, delustrants (e.g. Anatase Titanium Dioxide), UV light absorbers, and Phenylenediamine (I, ii). Typical garment ‘features’ include wrinkle-resistant, easy-care, shrinkage-free, easy-iron, flame-resistant, certain coloured garments due to the dyes used for these colours mainly in clothing produced in Asia (viii).

Respiratory problems. Chemicals in uniform fabrics can be inhaled and lead to respiratory problems and headaches (iv,ii). Asthma and Rhinitis are two of the key conditions linked to chemicals in clothing. The key chemicals responsible are Disperse and Reactive dyes including Cremazole and Azo dyes (ii). Dyes are the largest sub-group of chemicals used in manufacturing. Typical garment ‘features’ include Nylon, Polyester and Acetate fabrics. Disperse and Reactive dyes are the most commonly used dyes to colour garments made of synthetic materials. School uniforms are typically produced using synthetic (chemically-derived) fibres.

Hormonal and developmental problems. Endocrine- disrupting chemicals (EDCs) tamper with the Endocrine System that regulates basic processes such as insulin production, reproduction, metabolism and other developmental processes. Obesity, Diabetes, ADHD, and reproductive issues (such as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, low testosterone and fertility) have all been linked to the same chemicals used in clothing manufacturing (viii). Many of these conditions stem from exposure in childhood and will manifest later in life. Key chemicals responsible include at least 980 separate endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been identified to date, including the Phthalates group, Bisphenol A, and flame retardants such as PDBEs (xviii). Typical garment ‘features’ are waterproof clothing, flame-resistance, fire-safe.

Cancers. The truly worrying one for all parents. A range of chemicals used in clothing manufacture have been identified as carcinogenic (cancer-causing). Long-term exposure to a group of dyes known as the ‘Azo’ dyes – comprising 60-70% of all dyes used in clothing production globally – have been found to be carcinogenic (iii). The chemical reason for this is due to Azo dyes’ sub-chemical structure, which hinges around rings of benzene and naphthalene (ii). Benzene has been declared a ‘major public health concern’ by the World Health Organisation, and numerous studies have linked naphthalene to cancer. Another group of carcinogens are perfluorocarbons (PFCs), which are used as waterproofing agents in kids’ outdoor-wear and are linked to kidney cancer and testicular cancer (viii). Formaldehyde, an anti-wrinkling agent used in school uniforms, has been connected with lung cancer. Key chemicals responsible include Phthalates, particular Azo dyes, flame retardants, PFCs, Formaldehyde. Typical garment ‘features’ are waterproof clothing, stain resistance, certain colours of clothing (due to disperse dyes used) mainly produced in Asia.

These hazardous dyes pose such a serious health risk that they have been banned by governments around the world and are treated with the utmost precaution. In 2014, the Australian government recalled more than 121,000 items from Target’s children’s and women’s wear lines after finding traces of carcinogenic azo dyes in just a minority number of products from a tested sample (xvii). 

While some consumers know about how fashion is negatively affecting workers and our planet, these social and environmental issues must be addressed on a larger scale. We have a responsibility to take action and safeguard the future generation. Let’s use school uniforms as a vehicle for this as they are worn for most of  a child’s life.

Lastly, a frequent question (or excuse) about producing toxin-free clothing is whether it is economically feasible for textile companies to replace hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives. The answer is a resounding yes if retailers are prepared to put people before profit; doing so is essential if we are going to tackle climate change. For example, at Kapes our uniforms are competitively priced and made in their entirety from quality sustainable materials, including GOTs certified organic cotton, GRS certified recycled polyester and regenerated nylon, and using only eco-friendly dyes. In addition, each school uniform is collected when outgrown to give them a new life as a pre-loved item, reducing emissions and reducing costs for parents. It is time to wake up to the truth of what lies within the unsustainable fabrics used to make our children’s clothes.