The Low Down On Green Living
February 19th, 2009
Today we’re joined by green interior designer Frith Barbat, of Barbat Design. She shares some important insights on the effects of textile production on the environment and the impacts of chemicals in textiles on human health. Frith shows us how important it is to “dig under the covers” when it comes to textiles!
Your organic cotton sheets are kind to your skin and your conscience. And the organic process that grew the cotton was kind to the earth. But have you ever wondered what happened at the textile mill? Was the rest of the story organic? It’s a question few ask.
Textile mills process the cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo or wood fibers into yarn that is woven into fabric. There are over a dozen steps along the way that use copious amounts of water and chemicals. Some of the chemicals are benign, but most are not. There are heavy metals and organochlorines used in dyeing, phthalates used in printing, sulfuric acid used in fiber softening, formaldehyde, and PBDE fire-retardants, and others. Some of these have an immediate effect on the health of people and critters near the mill, but as these chemicals spread through waste water and volatile fumes, the larger ecosystem is affected as well. Once the fabric enters your home, the residual chemicals can abrade off, for you to inhale, ingest or absorb through your skin.
Virtually every human organ system is susceptible to damage by one or other of these chemicals - from benign skin irritation all the way up to cancer, leukemia, heart disease, sterility and miscarriage. Chemicals like PBDEs and phthalates are particularly disturbing. PBDEs accumulate in the environment, concentrating up the food chain in fatty tissue, where they mimic natural hormones in our bodies, causing birth defects, miscarriages, cancers, reproductive abnormalities, low numbers of boy babies being born, and low sperm counts - in humans, not just animals. Phthalates are used in printing inks and to soften plastics (often in toys). They are an animal carcinogen, and cause asthma, allergies and liver damage in humans. And scientists now suspect that low doses of phthalates can be toxic to fetuses, especially to the reproductive systems of male embryos. California has banned them in children’s toys, but they continue to be used to print textiles, including clothing and bed sheets.
Ask yourself - if you don’t want your child chewing on a toxic toy, what about sleeping on those cute printed bed sheets all night?
Cleaning up the milling process is hard both monetarily and mentally, but there are mills that have taken up that challenge. Textile production is the leading industrial polluter of water on the planet (second only to agriculture overall). In India alone, 425,000,000 gallons of untreated water is released from textile mills every day. Treating the water requires removing or neutralizing chemicals, restoring the correct pH, and cooling it, adding to the cost of the finished cloth. Standards that are safe and clean for the environment, mill-workers and you, from growing to processing to your home, are important. We can support these efforts by looking for and purchasing textiles that are third-party certified. GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), Cradle to Cradle and SMART are good certifications to look for.
You’re more likely to find these on fabrics bought through a design professional, but don’t forget your purchasing power. Tell retailers what you want - be ahead of the curve!
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