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Toxic dyes, lethal logos, cotton drenched in formaldehyde... How your clothes could poison you
As she opened the packet of new T-shirts she had bought from a well-known High Street chain, Merlene Paul hoped that, just for once, she would be able to indulge her former love of clothes.
But within seconds she was overwhelmed by familiar sensations. ‘My throat closed up, my eyes started to sting and a sharp, acrid smell made my nose prickle,’ says the retired 63-year-old. ‘I knew I had to get away from the T-shirts quickly, or I’d have a full-blown reaction.’
The culprit? Formaldehyde. It is most commonly associated with preserving corpses, but, alarmingly, many big clothing chains also use it to give their wares a fresh, unwrinkled appearance and prevent mildew during shipping.
Forced to quit two jobs: Samantha Devlin suffers from 'POTS' (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) which makes her allergic to toxic chemicals
Not that you’d necessarily know. The manufacturers of clothes sold in the UK are not required to disclose the use of the chemical on labels. And despite tests in New Zealand that discovered formaldehyde levels in some Chinese clothes exports up to 900 times higher than the prescribed safety limit, no testing has been done on similar clothes sold in Britain.
Yet formaldehyde, a highly toxic, colourless gas, has been linked to skin irritation and allergic reactions. Even more worryingly, the chemical is classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
And according to Merlene, from Hungerford, Berkshire, it’s ubiquitous: ‘It’s in mattresses, bedding, carpeting, furniture and in most of the clothes that we buy. Department stores smell pungently of it. And washing clothes before you wear them isn’t always enough to get rid of it.’
She first experienced a problem 20 years ago when she was working in the interior design industry, spending hours each day in a workshop where rolls of fabric were being stored.
After three months she started to feel extremely ill. ‘I started off with flu-like symptoms and then I developed bloodshot eyes and my nose started to bleed. I visited the doctor repeatedly but they couldn’t explain it. Then I developed welts on my body.’
Shortly after that, Merlene collapsed at work and was diagnosed with a suspected allergy to a number of chemicals, including formaldehyde. She was unable to move for two weeks and had a painfully slow battle to walk again.
‘I had to give up my career, as furniture and fabric are often infused with formaldehyde,’ she says. ‘I struggled to find jobs that wouldn’t expose me to it. I worked as a receptionist for a dentist for a while, but they used formaldehyde and so I had to quit.
‘People don’t realise how this chemical pervades their lives. And while small amounts in one product might not cause them to react, they should consider what the cumulative effect is when everything, including the clothes on their backs, is pervaded with it.’
But formaldehyde isn’t the only concern. In August last year, Greenpeace published a report, Dirty Laundry 2, revealing it had detected traces of toxic chemicals — specifically nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) — in products made by 14 big-brand clothing manufacturers, including Adidas and H&M.
Samantha, pictured with some of the medicine she uses to treat her allergies, said: ¿I now have most of my clothes donated from friends and family. That way, I know they have been washed multiple times'
NPEs have been commonly used as detergents in the textile industry. Their use is restricted throughout Europe, but since most big brands are produced abroad where no such regulations exist, our clothes can still carry them.
Some experts believe that, even at low levels, these toxins represent a threat to the environment and human health. Again, there is a suggestion they could be linked to certain cancers.
‘It’s when this chemical comes into contact with water that it degrades and become hazardous, says Dominic Thompson from Greenpeace. ‘It’s bio-accumulative which means that it builds up in your body. We don’t fully know what the consequences of that will be.’
Dr Brian Clement, who co-authored the book Killer Clothes, agrees: ‘Over the past 60 years there has been a significant increase in health problems that may be associated with wearing synthetics.’
He says synthetic clothes contain toxins including brominated flame retardants and perfluorinated chemicals which are classified as cancer-causing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Trichloroethylene, another chemical commonly used by manufacturers, is also classified as a carcinogen.
One in three of the UK population suffers from allergies at some point in their life
These toxins have been linked to dermatitis, allergic reactions and can even contribute to infertility, he says.
Another chemical that can cause problems is p-Phenylenediamine (PPD), used in black clothing and to dye leather.
Samantha Devlin, 33, is so allergic to it that she has been forced to quit two jobs. Her problems began when she got a job in a hairdressing salon as a teenager. ‘I was mixing dye all the time and I began to get dermatitis — constantly itchy skin, sometimes with weeping sores. I’d never had any allergies as a child.
‘I had hospital tests and they told me I was allergic to PPD. I stopped working with dye at the salon but the problem didn’t improve. In fact, when I was 19, I ended up in hospital with my fingers swollen like a bunch of bananas.
‘It was then a nurse told me that I should change career. She said that if any PPD got into my bloodstream I could suffer anaphylactic shock and that if I stayed in hairdressing I could be dead by the age of 21.’
Merlene Paul said: 'People don¿t realise how this chemical pervades their lives. And while small amounts in one product might not cause them to react, they should consider what the cumulative effect is'
But her next job, as a croupier, was no better, thanks to the black uniform she had to wear — black dye contains more PPD than any other colour — so she had to leave.
‘It’s been really difficult,’ says Samantha, from Luton, Beds. ‘I now have most of my clothes donated from friends and family. That way, I know they have been washed multiple times and probably won’t cause me problems. I’d love to be able to wear some sexy shoes and a little black dress without thinking about it, but I can’t.’
Yvonne Simon, a 35-year-old fashion choreographer from Southend-on-Sea, suffers similarly. ‘I bought a leather jacket when I was 18. It made my face swell up and turn grey. Around the same time, I bought a cheap denim jacket that gave me a rash on my neck that lasted for weeks.
‘It was then I discovered I’m very sensitive to the dyes in clothes. Later, when I was 26, I was diagnosed with reactive hyperplasia, a condition of the lymph glands which means I swell up when I encounter something I’m allergic to.
‘So I have to be very careful about what I wear. I can’t touch dark clothes in shops without wearing gloves. I stick to light-coloured clothes in natural fabrics like cotton.’
In fact, there’s a whole list of horrors in our clothes.
Elizabeth Salter Green, director of the campaigning body CHEM Trust, warns against phthalates, which are used to make plastic more flexible and resilient.
She says: ‘Phthalates, which are linked with hormone disruption — such as reducing male sperm count — are found in many clothes with plastic logos on. Also, many new shoes and clothes have a strong, plasticky smell which can indicate they are full of phthalates.
‘Perfluorinated chemicals used to make some breathable fabrics are also dangerous — they accumulate in the body and are known to be carcinogenic.
‘And fabric treated with brominated flame retardant, like that very widely used to make children’s sleepwear, is also a worry. It’s been shown in studies with rats to diminish brain capacity.’
Those concerned should seek out one of the burgeoning number of organic fashion brands or consider embracing vintage fashion.
Last night, Adidas and H&M told the Mail they were committed to removing hazardous chemicals from their supply chain by 2020.