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Gases from Fabric

By: Helena Stratford - Updated: 12 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
Fabric China Chemicals Flame Children

A little retail therapy is a great way to cheer ourselves up. But next time you pop to the shops to pick up a new outfit, think twice before you buy. Many of the chemicals used in the fabric finishing process could be damaging your health as well as you wallet.

Dressed To Kill

Many clothes are treated with a variety of chemicals designed to make them stain resistant, easier to iron, wrinkle-free, or smooth and shiny. Some clothes are also sprayed with powerful disinfectants before being sold.

However, while the fabrics may be more ‘convenient’ for us, they can also release a cocktail of harmful toxins into the air, ready to be inhaled or absorbed into our blood stream.


Formaldehyde and urea formaldehyde resins are used in the manufacture of clothes to help stiffen fabric or keep a shape in a garment (for instance to maintain the crease in trousers), to help make it stain-resistant and also to prevent mildew.

However, formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and extended exposure can cause skin rashes and could lead to cancer. Attention was brought to the issue of potentially lethal clothes in 2007, when garments imported from China were found to contain 900 times the safe limit of formaldehyde in both adult and children’s clothes.

Flame Retardants

Flame retardants are used to protect children’s bedclothes by law, as well as to pre-treat beds, mattresses, sofas, toys, and other soft furnishings.

There are 70 different compounds used for flame-proofing, but the most common are hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s).

However, they are suspected to be very harmful to human health after scientists have found them to disrupt the hormonal and neurological functions of animals as well as causing damage to the liver and kidneys. In fact, their harmful effects are deemed dangerous enough for the World Health Organisation to recommend using safer alternatives to these chemicals wherever possible.

A particular problem with brominated flame retardants is that the chemicals do not bind properly with the fabric molecules and therefore ‘off-gassing’ can occur for the entire lifetime of the article of furniture or clothing, with PBDE’s ‘escaping’ into the air or being trapped in household dust and thus easily being ingested by us over many years.

Organotins, Phthalates And Nonylphenol

All three of the above chemicals, which have nerve and hormone-damaging effects, as well as damaging liver and kidneys, have been found in clothing - most notably in bed-wear designed and promoted especially for children. In 2004, Greenpeace tested for, and found these toxic chemicals in the motifs on Bob the Builder pyjamas at Mothercare and Buzz Lightyear, Tigger and Piglet pyjamas sold by Disney.

Organotins are also used in the foam that stuffs cushions and has been found to cause sterility in mussels and marine snails and rats to miscarry.

Read Labels And Buy Organic

So next time you go shopping, remember to read the labels. Anything which says ‘easy iron’ or ‘wrinkle free’ should ring alarm bells. Try to resist buying kids clothes with transfer motifs unless you are sure they are chemical-clean and where possible, opt for organic natural fibres.

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