Is your T-shirt toxic?

Photo: istockphoto.com/Jeffrey Smith

Is there a toxic wasteland lurking in your closet? We love our T-shirts but those cheap and cheerful cotton/polyester blends may not be worth the price.

Heavy metals in your closet
Polyester has many hidden costs to your health and the environment. It starts off as ethane -- a gas byproduct from refining petroleum. Flash heating at a high temperature of 800 degrees Celsius, (1,472 Fahrenheit), a process known as cracking, transforms the gas into ethylene. When a heavy metal catalyst such as antimony is added, the ethylene turns into a goo that can be spun into fibers and eventually woven into material. The problem is that antimony is a recognized carcinogen, toxic to the heart, lungs, liver and skin.

Cold and dangerous sweat
According to a U.S. National Occupational Exposure Survey, 3,028 workers in the apparel industry were exposed to dangerous levels of antimony over a period of two years. There are no statistics for those working in overseas sweatshops, where regulations are even more lax. The Danish Environmental Protection Agency found that 10 percent of antimony in polyester (and PET) seeps out when the fabric comes into contact with sweat. This means that wearing a cotton/polyester T-shirt while working out can leave traces of antimony on your skin. No research has yet been completed to determine whether the antimony is then absorbed into the body through the skin, our largest organ.

More bad news
Discharge printing has been in use for around 25 years, but with the advent of digital technology it has gotten much more popular. It prints T-shirts faster than hand screening, with much more vibrant colours. Using the chemical zinc formaldehyde sulfoxylate (ZFP), it's possible to print light colours onto a dark shirt. But formaldehyde is known to cause certain cancers and is toxic to the liver, gall bladder and intestines as well as being an immune suppressant. Although discharged printed T-shirts look great, it's not a good idea to wear them during your work out or to sleep in.

Screen printing may seem like a more benign method but it isn't. The most common ink used in silk-screening is plastisol, a variation of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC is considered one of the most hazardous compounds to ecosystems and human health. It's been banned for use in water pipes and is about to be prohibited in children's toys and clothing.

Colour comes with a price
Chances are that pure white T-shirt was steeped in chlorine to bleach out the natural colour. A known skin irritant also linked to respiratory problems, chlorine is also combined with various toxic substances such as chromium copper to create various colours. You also have to be careful with many so-called natural dyes, which are often mixed with Lheavy metals to prolong their colour. Most chemical dyes leave fabrics filled with PBTs (persistent, bio-accumulative, and/or toxic chemicals).

Learn to spot the natural
While the risk of getting ill from a formaldehyde-printed T-shirt or getting poisoned from jogging in a polyester shirt is very low, it's still best to avoid them whenever possible. Seek out healthier alternatives, like soy, bamboo, hemp and organic cotton T-shirts. Check to see if the dye used was from a natural source or stick to natural colours.

Organic cotton is a must
When choosing 100 percent cotton, it's especially important to buy organic. Cotton is one of the most pesticide-ridden crops. Seven out of the 15 most carcinogenic chemicals known to man are used to grow cotton and the amount makes up 25 percent of the worldwide total use for chemicals. Close to 99 percent of cotton farmers live in the developing world where safety regulations and protective gear are virtually non-existent. By buying organic cotton you are supporting the farmers and helping to protect the environment.