Toxic fibers and fabrics

Humans only wear clothes; therefore the textile manufacturing, different types and effects of clothing and related things are just meant for human beings. Fibers are derived from natural sources like plants and animals or synthesized artificially to be woven into fabrics. These fabrics are used in draperies, bedding, furnishings for houses, automobiles, offices, schools and hospitals. Fabrics are also used for personal applications like designer wear, fashion costumes and in the making of seasonal clothes. Clothing made from natural fibers like silk or cotton is traditional, ecofriendly and not harmful to wear by any means but synthetic or manmade fibers such as polyester, nylon and rayon have been found responsible for several negative effects on health and environment. Chemicals used in the manufacture of synthetic dyes are found to be main culprits. They have been linked to immunity damage, cancer, hormonal dysfunction and behavioral problems. Various types of chemicals are used for dying the textiles and also to manufacture shiny, wrinkle free, fire retardant, non-iron, static resistant, stain resistant and insect repellent clothes. Natural dyes are available but they are costly as compared to synthetic colors and no effective natural process is known to produce wrinkle free or fire retardant textile. Let's know some toxic about synthetic fibers.

Polyester: It is a choice of fiber for making apparel fabrics like Terylene, Dacron, Lycra or vycron. It is popular for its wrinkle and wear/tear resistance, water repellence and speedy drying up properties. It is used in manufacture of diapers, sanitary pads, sportwares, mattresses and waterproof clothing. It is petroleum based polymer and synthesized by polymerization of ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid reaction mixture. Both parent compounds are carcinogenic. Since the monomers are toxic, the toxicity of their polymerization product should not be ignored. Monomeric forms are not completely removed but they are trapped in the fibers during manufacturing process. They find easy entry into the body via moist skin. Polyester emits phytoestrogens which act as endocrine disruptors and also promote skin and certain types of cancers. It has been discovered that cancer cells multiply quickly in polyester test tubes than glass tubes. It is responsible for acute skin rashes, redness, itching, dermatitis, on prolonged contact; it is causative agent of chronic and acute respiratory tract infection. Polyester clothing is associated with reproductive disorders like reduced sperm count; it is also known to generate static electrostatic field and behavioral changes. Polyesters are not only toxic to human but also a serious environmental pollutant. It is hard to recycle and biodegrade. Production is energetically very expensive and significant air pollutants are emitted during its production. Effluent disposal and its toxic effects on soil or aquatic fauna and flora is also an issue of high concern.

Nylon: Nylon textiles are manufactured from petrochemicals and thus are non-ecofriendly. Fabric is heavily treated with caustic soda, sulfuric acid, formaldehyde, to avoid shrinkage; bleaching agents, softener agents like chloroform, limonene, linalool, pentene, benzyacetate and terpineol; all these chemicals in the form of residues are retained by fabric even after complete manufacture. Formaldehyde in fabric is emitted by body heat and causes skin allergies, eye watering and it is also a potent carcinogen. Fabric softener agents cause hyper skin pigmentation, dermatitis and central nervous system dysfunction such as disorientation, dizziness, headache and spine pain. Nylon fabric also emits greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide and harmful volatile organic compounds.

Rayon: Viscose or rayon is derived from cellulose of wood pulp or bamboo. Cellulose is natural starting material but it is processed by chemical treatments involving carbon disulphide, sulfuric acid, chlorine and caustic soda. Carbon disulphide is released into the environment in gaseous form alongwith other 3 hazardous chemicals. Their combined toxic effects are carried on heart, skin and nervous system. Carbon disulphide poisoning is similar to alcohol intoxication causing restlessness, unconsciousness, depression and sometimes death. Carbon disulphide is also emitted from rayon fabric. Ill health effects like nausea, vomiting, headache, chest and muscle pain and insomnia can be observed in people who wear rayon clothing regularly. Other toxicity effects are tissue necrosis, anorexia, polyneuropathy, paralysis, insomnia and Parkinson's disease. Chronic toxic effects on aquatic system, death or low growth of plants, shortened life span and reproductive effects in animals are also associated with toxicity caused by rayon factory effluents.

Health care practitioners, textile manufactures and designers must be aware of potential health hazards created by fibers and fabrics. They can develop safer alternatives for sustainable and healthy clothing material.

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