Why Wrinkle-Free Doesn’t Mean Chemical-Free
(Note: This article first appeared in the February 2014 issue of Natural Awakenings San Antonio.)
Toxins that can be harmful to your health are everywhere. They’re in our air, our water and also lurking in places you might not suspect. For example, did you know there are toxins in your wrinkle-free fabrics? They are actually treated with a resin that releases formaldehyde to reduce wrinkles.
Formaldehyde is a primary ingredient in embalming fluid. Many of us were introduced to formaldehyde in science class during the traditional frog dissection. Once you’ve smelled formaldehyde, you don’t forget it. In high school, I had to clean up a formaldehyde spill in the biology lab. I couldn’t be in the room for more than five minutes at a time – it was that bad.
Defenders of formaldehyde often limit the discussion to whether it causes allergic reactions. They often fail to mention that OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) lists formaldehyde’s status as “known to be a human carcinogen.” OSHA looks at formaldehyde exposure in factories; it does not examine or regulate consumer exposure. Formaldehyde is a gas at room temperature. So if the resin in wrinkle-free fabrics is releasing formaldehyde, we’re also breathing it in.
The U.S. does not regulate formaldehyde levels in clothing, nor does it require labeling of clothing or products that have been treated with the chemical. The most stringent regulatory limits come from a Japanese measurement test. Standards for products intended for children younger than 3 are 20 parts per million; for use in clothing that contacts the skin, the standard is 75 parts per million, and for products that do not contact the skin, the standard is 300 parts per million.
Lots of goods and products contain formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is also used in building materials such as plywood, and it is used in clothing, draperies, sheets, pillowcases and upholstered furniture. It is also used in many personal care products. Other sources include cigarette smoke, fungicides, germicides, disinfectants, pressed-wood products, glues, adhesives, automobile emissions, and some insulation.
Formaldehyde can cause serious health issues for workers in factories that use the chemical. For most of us, we may not notice issues other than dermatitis from skin exposure. When we talk about exposure, it’s important to look at the entire picture because what goes on our skin gets into our bodies. Our risk from one shirt or jacket may be small, but cumulative risk is something that needs more study.
While we can’t totally avoid exposure to formaldehyde, we can reduce our exposure by selecting our clothing, bedding and furnishings carefully.
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What do you think? Does knowing that you may be breathing formaldehyde change how you’ll purchase clothes?