Textile Weaves Toxicity


Changing a whole industry is complicated. Buying a better product isn’t” – Unknown

I wrote about textile processing in my article “Wear clothes not chemicals”. Here is some information about stages of textile production.

A) Fiber Production

All textiles are made up of fibers that are arranged in different ways to create the desired strength, durability, appearance and texture. The fibers can be of countless origins, but can be grouped into four main categories

  • Natural Fibers
  • Animal Fibers
  • Manmade fibers
  • Synthetic Fibers

See my previous articles for details on all four categories

B) Yarn Production:

When the fiber has been harvested or produced the next step is to spin the fibers into a yarn. It is easy to believe that this step, which is a mechanical one, uses no chemicals. But in order to increase the strength of the fiber, increase fiber cohesion and reduce friction during the spinning process, spinning oils are added.

C) Fabric Production

The core of textile manufacture is fabric production. Fabrics can be created in many different ways, the most common being weaving, knitting or through production of non-woven fabrics. To prevent the yarn from breaking during these processes, it is important to strengthen the yarn and reduce friction. Sizing chemicals and lubricants are therefore added.

D) Pre-treatment

Pre-treatment processes can be carried out with fibers, yarns or fabrics. It enables subsequent processing of the material, which needs to be prepared to accept dyes and functional chemicals. This is done in a multi-step process. Exactly which steps the fabric goes through depends on the type, or blend of fiber, and how it will be treated afterwards. In some cases, pre-treated fabrics are manufactured for later garment dyeing.

E) Dyeing and printing

During dyeing and printing both hazardous chemicals and dyestuffs are used. Dyes used for dyeing, can also be used for printing, but must then undergo the same fixation and washings steps as after the dyeing process.

F) Finishing Treatment

This step of the process is all about adding special technical properties or an aesthetic appeal to the finished fabric. Depending on the properties desired, such as flame retardant, enhanced water resistance, antibacterial treatment, protective coatings or specific fashion treatments, a diverse range of chemicals are used.

Last two steps, dyeing, printing and finishing treatment goes through most of the hazardous chemicals.

The use of natural dyes in textiles has almost disappeared. Today, the world’s dyestuffs industry produces around 500 000 tons of synthetic dye each year. It’s come a long way since William Henry Perkins discovered mauve.

In 1856, 18-year-old Perkin was experimenting in his home laboratory, when he discovered synthetic dyes. He patented first synthetic dyes in August 1856. The discovery of mauve sparked an international race to produce other synthetic dyes from the myriad chemicals in coal tar. Research was directed towards determining the structures of natural dyes that could then be synthesized in the laboratory, and subsequently manufactured on an industrial scale.

The production of synthetic chemical dyestuffs has become big business, but unfortunately the production and use of these synthetic dyes is one of the world’s most polluting industries.  Conventional synthetic dyes present health risks to those working with them and to those who wear them, as well as damaging the environment in a number of ways.

Dyes are compounds that can be dissolved in solvents, usually water.  The process of dyeing cloth uses a great quantity of water – according to the United States Environment Protection Agency, it takes an average of 5 – 35 gallons of water for every pound of finished fabric.  That translates into 125 – 875 gallons of water to dye 25 yards of fabric – enough to cover one sofa.

It is estimated that over 10,000 different dyes and pigments are used industrially and over 7 x 105 tons of synthetic dyes are annually produced worldwide. In the textile industry, up to 200,000 tons of these dyes are lost to effluents every year during the dyeing and finishing operations, due to the inefficiency of the dyeing process. Unfortunately, most of these dyes escape conventional wastewater treatment processes and persist in the environment as a result of their high stability to light, temperature, water, detergents, chemicals, soap and other parameters such as bleach and perspiration

The synthetic origin and complex aromatic structure of these dyes make them more recalcitrant to biodegradation.

The textile industry consumes a substantial amount of water in its manufacturing processes used mainly in the dyeing and finishing operations of the plants. The wastewater from textile plants is classified as the most polluting of all the industrial sectors, considering the volume generated as well as the effluent composition During the dyeing process it has been estimated that the losses of colorants to the environment can reach 10–50%. It is noteworthy that some dyes are highly toxic and mutagenic, and also decrease light penetration and photosynthetic activity, causing oxygen deficiency and limiting downstream beneficial uses such as recreation, drinking water and irrigation.

Textile dyeing process is recognized as one of the most environmentally unfriendly industrial processes,


One of the most pressing issues today is the lack of fresh drinking water, and as one of the most polluting industries, textiles – and especially the dyeing of textiles – is responsible for many instances of pollution making fresh water undrinkable.  In the worst cases, communities have to use polluted water to drink, wash clothes, bathe and irrigate crops and the toxins they’re exposed to can have catastrophic effects.  Even in those instances where water treatment is in place, toxic sludge is a byproduct of the process.  Often sludge is sent to the landfill, but the toxicity of the sludge remains – containing, among others, heavy metals, gypsum, malachite green (identified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a priority chemical for carcinogenicity testing).

The 40,000 to 50,000 tons of synthetic dyestuffs expelled into our rivers are complex chemical formulations containing some things that are very toxic to us, such as heavy metals (like lead, mercury, chromium, zinc, cobalt and copper), benzene and formaldehyde.  Many certifications, such as the new Global Organic Textile Standard and Oeko-Tex, restricts the kinds of chemicals allowed in certified products.  For example, GOTS restricts amine releasing AZO dyes and disperse dyes (must be <30 mg/kg); chromium, cobalt, copper, nickel, mercury, lead, antimony and arsenic are all restricted (rather than prohibited as many people believe).  So the dye formulation means a lot when you’re evaluating the eco credentials of a fabric – but almost never will you be able to find out what dye was used in any particular fabric.

Below are some heavy metals found in toxic dyes, and the harms they cause to human body:


Necessary for insulin activity and an essential trace metal; at toxic levels it causes squamous cell carcinoma of the lung.



Extremely toxic to humans because of its inhibition of various enzyme systems; primary target organ is the kidney; but also causes lung cancer; also causes testicular damage and male sterility. Plants readily absorb cadmium from the soil so it easily enters food chain. Chronic exposure is associated with renal disease.

Sodium chloride (salt):

Not toxic in small doses but the industry uses this in such high volumes it becomes an environmental hazard


Affects the central nervous system; symptoms range from slight drowsiness, fatigue and headaches, to irritation of the respiratory tract, mental confusion and incoordination; higher concentrations can result in unconsciousness and death.  Prolonged contact can cause dermatitis.  Teratogenic, embryo toxic.


Easily absorbed through skin or inhalation of dust which contains residue; affects the immune system alerts genetic systems, damages the nervous system. Particularly damaging to developing embryos. Which are 5 to 10 times more sensitive than adults.


Easily absorbed through skin or inhalation of dust which contains residue. Impacts nervous system. Even low level of lead can reduce IQ, stunt growth and cause behavior problems.


Fatigue, insomnia, osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer, migraine headaches, seizures. Mental disorders include depression, anxiety, mood swings, phobias, panic attacks and attention deficit disorders.



Highly carcinogenic, linked to all types of leukemia but believed to cause the rarer forms (acute myelogenous leukemis (AML) and acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL); effects the bone marrow and decrease of red blood cells, leading to anemia, excessive bleeding and/or immune system dysfunction. Low levels cause rapid heart rate, dizziness, headaches, tremors, confusion.  Easily absorbed by skin.

Care what you wear. Keep reading my blog to learn how to wear healthy.



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