There *are* monsters in the closet – in their clothes!

Greenpeace little monsters

One of the most popular posts on Down to Earth Mother has been Why you should always wash new clothes. You, dear readers, were all “WTF? What do you mean there are traces of formaldehyde on my baby’s cute new onesie?

Sorry to say, folks, it doesn’t stop there. Greenpeace has just released the latest report from its Detox Campaign, which challenges the fashion industry to eliminate hazardous chemicals from its supply chain once and for all.

In the 2013 report, A Little Story About Monsters in Your Closet, tested children’s clothing items from a range of leading brands for a particularly nasty chemicals including nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs); certain, phthalates, organotins, per/poly-fluorinated chemicals (PFCs) and antimony.

Almost all the clothing contained one or more of these chemicals, which are considered toxic to humans and the environment.

Toxic chemicals = toxic clothing

What are these “little monsters” and why should we be concerned? Let’s take a closer look at the chemicals detected in clothing bought from 25 countries and made in 12 textile-producing regions.

Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs)
NPEs are synthetic chemicals commonly used as surfactants. Once released into the environment, they degrade and become even nastier compounds (nonylphenols or NPs), which disrupt hormones. NPs accumulate and are persistent, meaning they don’t go away, but gather together to cause more damage, like drunks on a Sydney street at night. The presence of NPEs  in the clothing means they are used in the manufacturing process, unless sophisticated waste-water management practices are in place, have probably been released into the waterways during manufacture. Choice. NFPs were found in 50 of the 82 products analysed.

I’ve written about phthalates before, but as a reminder, these are hormone-disrupting chemicals used to soften plastic and make fragrances last longer. DEHP is a particularly nasty phthalate known to be toxic to mammals’ reproductive systems, causing infertility in females and interfering with sexual organ development in males.
You know those kids’ t-shirts with a plasticy picture on the front? This is the place you’re likely to find phthalates. In fact, Greenpeace found them in 33 of the 35 items of clothing that had plasticy bits. Two of the items, (one intended for a baby) had levels of phthalates that would be deemed unsuitable by law if the item were a children’s toy. Textiles do not yet have standards about the levels of phthalates they may contain.

Per/poly-fluorinated chemicals (PFCs)
These chemicals are used in non-stick pans and by the textile industry for their ability to repel water and oil. Ionic PFCs such as PFOS and PFOA are hormone disrupting chemicals, impacting the reproductive and immune systems and have been shown to be potentially carcinogenic (cancer-causing) in animal tests. FPCs were found in a toddler’s coat, shoes and swimwear. “Concentration of the ionic PFC PFOA by area in one adidas swimsuit was far higher than the limit of 1 μg/m²set by Norway from 2014 and even by adidas in its own Restricted Substances List”.

Used as fungicides and biocides in footwear, socks, sports clothes and other sweaty clothing, and as stabilisers in plastisol prints, organotins are known to be toxic at low levels to a range of creatures, including mammals, impacting development, and the nervous and immune systems. Again adidas products exceeded the levels set by its Restricted Substances List. Organotins were found in three items with plastic prints and three out of five items of footwear.

This chemical is about as fun as it sounds. Antimony is similar to arsenic, and is equally toxic. The most toxic form, trivalent antimony, can cause skin and respiratory tract irritation and interfere with the immune system. Antimony was detected in all 36 articles tested, all of which contained polyester or polyester-blend fibres.

Toxic clothing is not just about kids’ health

I know, no-one wants to know that it’s not just all about them, but the issue of these chemicals and their use in the textiles industry is wider than us here in the developed world. The use of these chemicals impacts the workers making the clothes and the environment around the factories. Many of the chemicals are bioaccumulative and hang about for a long, long time, and the nature of waterways means their effects are spread far and wide. The effects on wildlife can be extreme – fish changing sex and that kind of thing – all of which impacts the security of our eco-system.


The reason Greenpeace has focused on kids’ clothing this time round is undoubtedly to generate a stronger reaction, but also because kids are extremely vulnerable to toxic chemicals. Much more so than us old people. There are several reasons kids are more vulnerable to the chemicals in toxic clothing:

  • children take in more food, air and water compared to their body weight, which means the potential for higher absorption through the gut;
  • more skin surface area to body weight, meaning higher potential absorption through the skin;
  • under-developed blood-brain barrier;
  • their little bodies can’t break down, or metabolise, the chemicals as efficiently as ours;
  • the fact they suck, lick and chew everything and put their fingers in their mouths.

What can you do?

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 1.04.23 pm

Greenpeace has called on governments and the fashion industry to stop paying lip-service to this issue and ban these chemicals outright. You can take action to show your support for the Detox Campaign here. In the meantime, keep washing those new clothes or, better still, source second-hand clothing less likely to contain traces of toxic chemicals. Avoid synthetic clothing and clothes that contain soft plastic, such as prints on the front, and look for organic, ethically produced clothing. Yeah, it costs more, but it’s the cost of peace of mind.

 Does the issue of toxic clothing concern you?



    • (dt)em says

      Oh Bec, I don’t intend to scare, but inform! It totally freaks me out, too. But you’ve just gotta do what you can to minimise the risk. really, it’s the best we can do xx

    • (dt)em says

      Tricia, I have been wondering about these items too… I’m not sure how to go about buying ethical, eco-friendly socks and jocks, but there must be a way. I refuse to go to a discount department store!

  1. Verity says

    Thank you for all the information Jo. I wish this was brought to the attention of new parents more frequently! Since drastically reducing the level of toxins coming into our home via cleaning products, new clothes etc I’ve now noticed that the smell of new products is completely overpowering and unpleasant, whereas it wouldn’t have bothered me as much before. It’s amazing how your senses adjust!
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    • (dt)em says

      It’s incredible, isn’t it? I used to LOVE the smell of the cleaning aisle when I was a kid, not it makes me want to run into the bushes screaming!

  2. Sara Hoeg-Staun says

    This is shocking. I had read something about these chemicals on new clothes years ago but can’t believe there are no laws on textiles! Also Verity isn’t it so strange about being sensitive to chemical smells. I had someone use a spray chemical when fixing something at my house the other day and I couldn’t stand it! Had to open up all the windows. I don’t know how people still can clean with bleach etc. Geeat post Jo!

    • (dt)em says

      Thanks Sara, it is shocking, isn’t it? It’s easy to assume there are laws that protect us from things like this, but it’s always worth asking questions and finding out more.

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