How Safe Is That Fabric

17 Aug

[REPRINTED FROM WEARABLES AUGUST 2011 , page 37. LINKS ADDED TO TEXT]

You have likely considered the safety of garments in terms of flammability, insulation or reflectivity. However, have you thought about whether or not the fabric used to create the garment has traces of harmful chemicals, such as lead, formaldehyde or phthalates?

“There are various U.S. regulations from the EPA, USDA, FDA and OSHA agencies placing criteria that limit exposure of workers and the public to harmful chemicals, some of which apply to textile production and use. Textile products can be subject to a huge number of regulations depending on end use,” says Dr. Sam Moore of the Hohenstein Institute, a founding entity of the International Oeko-Tex Association.

He advises buyers to seek fibers that are produced sustainably and textile products that are certifi ed not to contain harmful chemicals through the Oeko-Tex Standard 100, an evaluation process used by companies worldwide since 1992. “The strength of the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 is the scrutiny of the chemical inputs, the quality criteria of the standard and the analytical verification of the residues on the fabric,” Moore says. “Oeko-Tex-certified fabrics and garments meet REACH criteria in the EU, plus a variety of other EU-centric regulatory requirements and CPSIA regulations in the USA.”

So which fabrics are more likely to pose such a safety concern? There’s no clearcut answer to the question of whether a natural fiber (such as cotton) or a synthetic fiber (such as polyester) is better or worse. Moore explains that issues such as a fiber’s life cycle make it diffi cult to determine. For example, with cotton, “the fiber reflects the nature of the land and the environment in which it is grown, so there can be unintended variances due to lack of control of the environment.” With polyesters, made from PET (and in particular, recycled PET), there are also life cycle issues.

The items that adorn a garment can be a source of concern as well, particularly for lead contamination. “My experience shows that most of the lead in textile products comes from the accessories – buttons, metal trims, etc.,”

Moore says. “One of the good design features of the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 is that each component of a garment can be certified by its producer. This ensures the supply chain is using safe components and, therefore, creating safe final products.”

You may find, too, that the specialty performance coatings applied to fabrics can impact levels of toxicity. “Phthalates in textiles come from coatings and printing processes such as plastisol screen printing,” Moore explains. “However, for general textile fabrics, the risk of phthalates is quite low.”

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