Toxic Fashion

Care for your clothes, like the good friends they are – Joan Crawford

What are Azo Dyes?

Azo dyes are synthetic and not found naturally in the environment. The risk in the use of azo dyes arises mainly from the breakdown products that can be created in vivo by reductive cleavage of the azo group into aromatic amines.

Due to the toxicity, carcinogenicity and potential mutagenicity of thus formed aromatic amines, the use of certain azo dyes as textile and leather colorants, and the exposure of consumers using the textile and leather colored with azo compounds causes a serious health concern.

In March 2014, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) recalled two styles of children’s jeans from Rivers Australia, one style of kids’ jeans and one style of denim shorts from Just Jeans, and a pillow case from Pillow Talk, which may have contained potentially harmful azo dyes.

Independent Senator for South Australia Nick Xenophon has called on the ACCC to block imports of dangerous chemicals in clothing following the recall. The senator also called for an urgent audit of garment and bedding imports, saying, “It’s astonishing that there appear to be no laws or rules in place to restrict the importation of products containing azo dyes.”

The two main routes of consumer exposure are the skin absorption of the azo compounds from the dyed clothes worn, and potential oral ingestion, mainly referring to the sucking of textiles by babies and young children. The manufacturing workers can also be exposed via the inhalation route. Think of microscopic particles of fabric that abrade each time we use a towel, sit on a sofa, put on our clothes.  These microscopic particles fly into the air and then we breathe them in or ingest them.  Or they fall into the dust of our homes, where people and pets, especially crawling children and pets, continue to breathe or ingest them.

The current European Union legislation (called EU REACH – Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals) now requires all TCF brands and retailers selling into the EU market to manage more than 300,000 harmful substances in their products. This program also sets maximum limits for TCF products that come into contact with human skin.

In the United States, often the standards for exposure to these toxins is limited to workplace standards (based on limits in water or air) or they’re product specific: the FDA sets a maximum limit of cadmium in bottled water to be 0.005 mg/L for example.  That leaves lots of avenues for continued contamination.

The textile industry is a complex and highly fragmented industry and it’s up to consumers to demand companies change their policies.  In the United States, we’re waking up to the dangers of industrial chemicals, but rather than banning a certain chemical in all products, the United States is taking a piece meal approach:  for example, certain azo dyes (like Red 2G) are prohibited in foods – but only in foods, not fabrics.  But just because the product is not meant to be eaten doesn’t mean we’re not absorbing that Red 2G.  Phthalates are outlawed in California and Washington state in children’s toys – but not in their clothing or bedding.

Concerns continue to mount about the safety of textiles and apparel products used by U.S. consumers.  As reports of potential health threats continue to come to light, “we are quite concerned about potentially toxic materials that U.S. consumers are exposed to everyday in textiles and apparel available in this country,” said David Brookstein, Sc.D., dean of the School of Engineering and Textile and director of Philadelphia University’s Institute for Textile and Apparel Product Safety (ITAPS).

Intense industrial development has been accompanied by the production of wastewaters of very complex content, which pose a serious hazard to the environment, put at risk sustainable development, and call for new treatment technologies that would more effectively address the issue. One challenge in terms of science and technology is how to biodegrade xenobiotics such as azo dyes, which practically do not degrade under natural environmental conditions. These compounds tend to bioaccumulate in the environment, and have allergenic, carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic properties for humans.

Textile and clothing industry uses massive variety of dyes, generally fall into a few major categories of dye types.

  • Conventional Dyes – synthetic, chemical-based dyes used in most conventional clothing today.
  • Low-Impact Dyes – synthetic, chemical-based dyes designed to give the same color palette as conventional dyes without the use of certain chemical and metal compounds.
  • Natural Dyes – dyes made from herbs, fruits, teas, clays or other natural materials. These have limited color options and not commonly used.

Many organic clothing manufacturers use low-impact dyes, which can also be referred to as azo-free or fiber-reactive dyes. This is a category of synthetic, chemical-based dyes that are substantially better for skin and for the environment than conventional dyes.

  • They have higher absorption rates into the clothing (greater than 70%), which means less chemical and grey water runoff into the environment.
  • They don’t include azo-dyes, a family of dye groups that contain toxic compounds ranging from chlorine bleach to known carcinogens such as aryl amines.
  • They don’t contain heavy metals.

Still, while low-impact dyes are better for the environment than conventional dyes, they aren’t specifically good for the environment. Many people with multiple chemical sensitivities have reactions to low-impact dyes albeit less severe than to conventional dyes.

Going one small step further, some textiles are Oeko-Tek or Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) certified. These certifications don’t focus solely on the dye, but are end-to-end process and final textile safety certifications. The dyes used in the final fabric must be at least as good as low-impact dyes and are specifically tested for skin-safety. GOTS in particular is becoming more and more widely used here in the USA.

To save your skin from toxic chemicals, look for fabrics that have been produced without resorting to these hazardous chemicals.  Look for GOTS  symbol on clothes packaging you buy. 

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibers, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain. GOTS aim is to define world-wide recognized requirements that ensure organic status of textiles, from harvesting of the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labeling in order to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer.
Textile processors and manufacturers are enabled to export their organic fabrics and garments with one certification accepted in all major markets.

Wear safe, wear organic!

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