You know that if you eat that sugar-filled cookie, it might spike your insulin, and if you put on cosmetics with chemicals in them, they will probably end up in your blood. But have you ever thought twice about putting on your favorite T-shirt, or snuggling into your cotton sheets?
A growing number of parents are demanding organic cotton clothing and diapers for their babies. Many don’t stop with clothing, but have furnished their homes with organic flooring or carpeting, organic mattresses, organic linens, organic window coverings etc. Are they fanatics or do they have scientific evidence to support their lifestyle changes?
Cotton has long been considered by consumers to be the most natural, healthy fabric and they have made it the most popular clothing material. It has been easy to forget that cotton is a crop and as such, it is subject to the same issues as other crops normally considered as food. The last time you drove by a cotton field, did you consider that many of the foods you eat contain a by-product of this very plant?
The cotton plant is comprised of 40% fiber and 60% seed by weight. Once separated in the gin, the fibers go to textile mills, while the seed and various ginning by-products are used for animal feed and human food. For humans this is in the form of cottonseed oil, a very common ingredient in processed foods. The cotton seeds are also used in grain for cattle, which indirectly does enter the food chain in meat and dairy products.
The concerns regarding health stem from the fact that though cotton uses only 2.4% of the world’s
agricultural acreage, its cultivation involves 25% of the world’s pesticide use, more than any other crop. Most of these are insecticides, but fungicide is another fraction of the total. Also, consider that it takes about one-third of a pound of pesticides and fertilizers to grow enough conventional cotton for just one T-shirt.
In many cases, these poisonous chemicals are applied by spraying from the air, which means they can be
carried and spread by the wind and breathed by people living nearby. It probably is no coincidence that Texans near Lubbock have a high cancer rate, while Lubbock happens to be the world’s largest area of cotton cultivation.
The chemicals used in cotton production don’t end with cultivation. As an aid in harvesting, herbicides are used to defoliate the plants, making picking easier. Producing a textile from the plants involves more chemicals in the process of bleaching, sizing, dying, straightening, shrink reduction, stain and odor resistance, fireproofing, mothproofing, and static- and wrinkle-reduction. Some of these chemicals are applied with heat, thus bonding them to the cotton fibers.
Several washings are done throughout the process, but some of the softeners and detergents leave a residue that will not totally be removed from the final product. Chemicals often used for finishing include formaldehyde, caustic soda, sulfuric acid, bromines, urea resins, sulfonamides, halogens, and bromines. Some imported clothes are now impregnated with long-lasting disinfectants which are very hard to remove, and whose smell gives them away.
These and the other chemical residues affect people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. Also, people have developed allergic reactions, such as hives, to formaldehyde through skin contact with solutions on durable-press clothing containing formaldehyde. Allergic Contact Dermatitis develops after repeated allergen exposure to dyes and other chemicals and metals. According to a British allergy website, small amounts of perspiration can separate out allergens through several layers of clothing, and leather shoe dyes can leach through socks.
European researchers found antimony, a fire-retardant chemical used in some crib mattresses, leaches through the mattress; they connected this finding to SIDS deaths. The livers of autopsied infants were also found to contain high amounts of antimony. Europe is moving away from flame retardants and requires them to be proven safe before use. Yet US laws require flame retardants be applied to many kinds of children’s clothing.
One study, which included an 18-month old baby, found high levels of flame retardants in the subjects’ blood. The results were two to three times the levels that are known to cause neurological damage in rats.
Though many people believe that chemicals can leach from clothing into the body through the skin, there is no research to prove this. Sodium Tripolyphosphate, a chemical used in some laundry detergents, is claimed to be easily absorbed through the skin from clothes, but this was never proven.
A chemist will say that it is impossible for chemicals to transfer through the skin from dry clothing.
Chemicals enter the skin through the process of osmosis, which requires a moist medium in order for this to occur. Studies are needed to determine if sweat or urine in wet diapers constitute enough of that medium.
Possibly the mechanism by which the chemicals enter the body is through off-gassing of the chemical which is then breathed in. There have been no real studies proving this either. The baby in the previously-cited study crawled on a carpeted floor. Carpeting usually contains flame retardants.
One thing is clear though: organically produced cotton has few of the issues of conventional cotton. Not only are GMO seeds and chemical pesticides not used, but usually the picking is done by hand. Instead of using chemicals to defoliate for easier harvesting, the organic grower relies mostly on the seasonal freeze to defoliate the plants.
Synthetic fertilizers are not used, in favor of crop rotation, which increases the organic matter in the soil. Weeds are removed and controlled by hand and by hoeing. Pest control is achieved by bringing in natural predators, using beneficial insects and certain trap crops which lure insects away.
The processing of the organic fibers uses different procedures in milling and in the textile
manufacturing. Chemical finishes for shrink resistance, permanent press etc. are not applied or are minimal, and use of natural rather than synthetic dyes are encouraged by co-ops and trade organizations.
Therefore, at this time we cannot say that the non-organic cotton shirts and pajamas you wear and the non-organic sheets you sleep on are toxic. However, we do know that their cultivation is toxic to the field workers. They have a high rate of cancer and death from suicide.
We can state that the by-products of conventional cotton that appear in our food have been subjected to toxins in their production. We can say that their production pollutes rivers and soil and causes other environmental damage.
So you don’t have to throw away all of your conventional cotton clothing just yet, unless it causes an
allergic reaction. However, we all might do well to request that future clothing and linen purchases of cotton be of the organic variety. If the demand increases, more fields will be raised organically, resulting in health benefits for the environment and the workers and residents near the fields, as well as for all of us who consume cottonseed oil in foods.