‘Forever chemicals’ found in clothing could be making us sick

Jul 12, 2023, 5:00 AM | Updated: 2:24 pm

After my daughter purchased clothes to re-energize her summer wardrobe from an overseas website — with the delivery taking approximately six weeks — the clothes arrived smelling like gasoline. Before she could try on any of the clothes, everything needed to be washed.

After the wash cycle was complete, I found the clothes half-disintegrated and shredded. My daughter was devastated. She spent her hard-earned allowance on swimsuits, shorts, graphic tees, and ripped jeans. All of it, gone. Harsh chemicals and dyes likely caused a reaction damaging the clothes. Multiple reports point out “fast fashion” companies “rely on rapid production and clothing that is not expected to last.”

Those same clothes could be making us ill.

The dangers in our own clothes

“I didn’t know that fashion can be toxic. As you know, apparel and accessories don’t come with a complete ingredient list,” investigative journalist Alden Wicker told KIRO Newsradio. “They just say what the material is. But there are all sorts of finishes that are put on and chemicals that are used to process the clothing and accessories and they have horrendous reactions. It often starts with asthma or breathing problems, coughs, and then there were rashes that got so bad, they bled. Some experienced extreme fatigue, racing heart, brain fog. Sometimes a few of them ended up in the ER. Some of them lost all of their hair.

“And then eventually, years later, some of them I talked to developed autoimmune diseases,” Wicker continued. “And one of them I talked to actually developed skin cancer. It was just horrifying to me. The more I looked into it, the more I realized, these same chemicals are on regular clothing as well. It’s just harder for us to make the connection if our clothing is making us sick.”

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Wicker, a sustainable fashion writer and fashion chemicals expert, wrote a book on this subject called “To Dye For.” From her studies, Wicker concluded all the chemicals that we use on clothes are from fossil fuels as dye is one of the first chemical products invented by chemists. According to Wicker, a majority of the largest chemical companies and pharmaceutical companies today got their start as dye manufacturers.

“Fashion doesn’t come with an ingredient list,” Wicker said. “If it did, it would have 50 different ingredients on it. And most of them we wouldn’t be able to pronounce and with some of them, we’d be like, ‘wow, this is formaldehyde. I know this is toxic.'”

Forever chemicals seeping through

Toxic-Free Future, a Washington-based agency that conducts research and advocacy to establish stronger health protections against chemicals, claims dyes aren’t the only thing in our clothes.

“We do original scientific research. With regard to PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated substances — chemicals that are resistant to grease, oil, water, and heat), we’ve tested women’s breast milk around the Puget Sound region and actually found PFAS unfortunately in every single sample that was tested,” Cheri Peele, the senior project manager with Toxic-Free Future, told KIRO Newsradio.

More on PFAS: UW spearheads research to eliminate hazardous ‘forever chemicals’

Peele said about 50 women were tested for the study. Toxic Free Future is demanding full ingredient transparency for customers unaware they are buying products with PFAS.

“You can’t shop your way out of this problem,” Peele said. “It’s impossible and people shouldn’t have to do that. That’s why we need regulation. We need corporate commitments, where we move away from chemicals of high concern and we move towards chemicals that are safer. Safer chemicals should be as important as the product because it should not be left to the consumer to become a chemical expert.”

Last week, a CBS news report confirmed forever chemicals were found in 45% of the United States’ drinking water.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), human health effects from exposure to low environmental levels of PFAS remain uncertain. Studies of laboratory animals given large amounts of PFAS indicate that some PFAS may affect growth and development.

“In addition, these animal studies indicate PFAS may affect reproduction, thyroid function, the immune system, and injure the liver,” CDC wrote in its PFAS fact sheet.

What types of food packaging are banned?

Washington is one of the few states cracking down on manufacturers to produce safer materials. Below is the list of bans on food packaging that had PFAS intentionally added.

The following types of food packaging were banned in February:

  • Wraps
  • Plates
  • Food boats
  • Pizza boxes

The following types of food packaging will be banned in May 2024:

  • Bags and sleeves
  • Bowls
  • Flat service ware, including items like plates and trays
  • Open-top containers, including items like french fry cartons and food cups
  • Closed containers, including items like clamshells

According to Washington’s Department of Ecology, as of May 2024, products intentionally made with PFAS will be banned.

Follow Micki Gamez on Twitter or email her here.

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‘Forever chemicals’ found in clothing could be making us sick