The Chemicals in Your Clothes

How were your clothes coloured? Many large clothing companies use synthetic dyes to colour their garments, which are often treated with toxic chemicals.

While being processed and manufactured, thousands of chemicals are used to treat the clothes, which affect factory workers, the environment and anybody wearing the clothes.

Image from Ecouterre

Chemicals used in the dying process

Aniline, dioxin, formaldehyde and heavy metals are some of the 8,000 chemicals found in synthetic dyes. Aniline is “used extensively in the production,” which releases a toxic vapour and is highly flammable. Other chemicals are known to cause cancer, including “azo dyes” which the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warns against

Azo dyes create colours like red and yellow and are strongly connected to skin cancer. Cancer is the main risk for people exposed to synthetic dyes.

Factory workers put at risk

Working with dye puts people in clothing factories at a higher risk of cancer, brain disease and lung disease, as they are directly exposed to the raw dye. Factories are also at risk of fire because of the toxic chemicals, endangering workers on another level.

In Pakistan for example, a clothing factory fire killed over 200 people. The reason it was able to spread  so quickly was because of the build-up of chemical dye throughout the building. Another fire in Scotland was caused by the dyes themselves and a fire at a factory in Rhode Island caused chemical spillage in a nearby river.

Environmental impacts

Polluted water caused by liquid waste from the industry kills and infects sea life and affects drinking water for people who depend on the affected waterways, which also increases their chance of cancer. Many people who depend on waterways for water also depend on them for fish, which makes it harder to eat when they’re tainted with chemicals.

The banks of the Pearl River in China were reported to be “lined with trash and mounds of scrap denim” in 2010 due to the denim factories nearby (the city produces hundreds of millions of jeans each year). The river has also turned an unnatural blue due to dyes being washed into it. Other rivers around the world have also turned various shades due to waste from textile factories.

Average people are affected too

Although finished garments are “chemically stable”, making them safe to wear, skin can still absorb finished chemicals. Some people are more sensitive to chemicals then others, which cause rashes, nausea, headaches, fatigue, itching and more.

According to Meera Nair on Suite 101, few allergies have been reported from dyes but “babies are more susceptible to rashes” (dye-free diapers are recommended over dyed diapers).

Avoiding toxic dyes

Gloria Gilbère, an environmental medicine doctor, warns “most governments restrict formaldehyde levels in clothing”, but apparently not the U.S. The label to look out for are ones that say “Made in China.”

Alternatively, the best way to avoid toxic dyes is to wear clothes made with non-toxic, natural dyes. These clothes are best found at stores that sell environmentally-friendly garments (ask the owner about the type of dye used). 

You can also make your own food-based dye.

by Kayla Isomura