What you bundle your little bundle of joy in, can make a big difference—for the health of your wee one and the environment. If you're like most, you've not put a lot of thought into what the onesie, pajamas, sleep sack, or socks are made of, so let us help you...
Organic cotton baby clothes, clothing that does not contain toxic flame retardants, and those colored with natural, nontoxic dyes can help keep your environmental impact small, even as your baby gets big. And remember, while each baby is one of a kind, they're also part of a huge baby community. Imagine the green impact if even a fraction of the 4,140,419 babies born in America in 2005 donned eco-friendly threads!
The chemical conventions of conventional cotton
A major detrimental environmental impact of baby clothes lies in the farming of conventional cotton, the world's most pesticide-intensive crop. Cotton takes up only 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland, but accounts for 24 percent of global insecticide sales. In the United States, an estimated one-third pound of agricultural chemicals are used to produce a single cotton T-shirt. The various chemicals used to treat conventional cotton can harm beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms, pollute ground and surface water, and adversely affect the health of humans and wildlife—including fish, birds, and livestock. Additionally, up to 70 percent of genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds are used in conventional cotton farming in the United States.
The farming of cotton is also water-intensive. Approximately 400 gallons of water are required to produce a single cotton T-shirt! That's four times the amount used by the average American in one day for all water needs: preparing food, bathing, washing clothes and dishes, flushing toilets and watering lawns and gardens.
Along with eschewing the use of chemicals and GMOs, organic cotton production nurtures soil health and fosters biologically diverse agriculture. From 2000 to 2001, an estimated 14 million pounds of organic cotton was harvested in 12 countries—about .03 percent of total global cotton production.
Petroleum and pollution from people-made products
The chemicals used to treat synthetic fabrics—including acrylic, polyester, rayon, acetate, triacetate, and nylon—include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and dioxin-producing bleach. These chemicals leach into groundwater, soil, and air, affecting wildlife as well as human health. Some synthetic fibers, like nylon and polyester, inherently pose environmental risks because they are made from petrochemicals. The production of petrochemicals creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that's 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
In 2004, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) became so concerned about the effects of some synthetic fabric treatments on human health and wildlife that they warned parents to avoid children’s clothes containing perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs)—which can be identified by a "no-iron" label.
But it's not just what goes into making a baby garment, it's also what goes on them. Many additions to clothing, like flame resistance and colorful dyes, are less than eco-friendly.
Fiery facts on flame retardants
Most sleepwear made from synthetic materials for babies contains flame retardant chemicals in the actual fabric. Sometimes, these chemicals are applied as a treatment after the garment is created. Fire retardant chemicals used on sleepers and baby pajamas include halogenated hydrocarbons (chlorine and bromine), inorganic flame retardants (antimony oxides), and phosphate-based compounds. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), chlorine causes environmental harm in low amounts, mostly to organisms living in water and soil. Likewise, phosphates are a major source of pollution in lakes and streams. Clothing and fabric that is treated with flame-retardant chemicals also emit formaldehyde gas.
Avoid flame retardant chemicals by choosing cotton fabrics. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) does not require cotton fabrics to be treated with flame resistant chemicals as long as they are snug-fitting. This ruling was made after studies showed that eliminating the airspace—and therefore the oxygen—between the garment and the child's skin significantly diminished a cotton garment's flammability.
Color to dye for
In 2006, the Administration of Industry and Commerce in Guangdong Province in southern China spot checked children's clothes sold in the region to see if the clothes met state safety requirements. The study found aromatic amine—a carcinogen used in some clothing dyes—in 10 percent of the 91 batches of clothes they checked.
The textile industry generates and consumes an estimated 1.3 million tons of dyes and other synthetic coloring agents worth around $23 billion. These dyes are largely petrochemical-based and contain lead, mercury, and cancer-causing heavy metals like chromium VI, arsenic, and cadmium. The EPA believes a number of dyes to be hazardous due to threat of groundwater contamination in the vicinity of manufacturing plants. Although the use of synthetic, petrochemical dyes is prevalent in the garment industry, alternatives do exist and are commonly classified as “low-impact.”
Related health issues
Babies’ immune, hormonal, and nervous systems are not fully developed, so environmental pollutants may affect them more than an adult. Because all of these systems are developing rapidly, babies are more vulnerable to toxic substances than at any other time in a human’s life. Health disorders affecting children—like some childhood cancers and asthma rates—are on the rise, leading many health professionals to encourage parents to limit exposure to toxins in the home.
PFCs in synthetic fabrics are a carcinogen, according to the EPA, as are polycrylonitriles used in acrylic fabric. The chemicals used in synthetic clothing have also been linked to immune system damage, behavioral problems and hormone disruption.
Contact with the chemicals used in textile dyeing can lead to various human health issues. To those with chemical sensitivities, garments containing some dyes can lead to dermatological and respiratory allergies. A smaller number of dyes used in textile manufacturing contain the chemical benzidine and are believed to be carcinogenic.
Although fiber-reactive dyes (an eco-alternative to conventional dyes) are believed to be gentler on the environment, they contain sodium carbonate, a source of asthma and other lung ailments. Studies reviewed by the EPA suggest that repeat exposure to chlorine, which is used in fire retardants, can lead to problems with the immune system, blood, heart, and respiratory system of animals.
- dioxin: Dioxins are extremely persistent chemical compounds that are created inadvertently by human activities like incineration and fuel combustion. Dioxins break down slowly so they persist in the environment for many years. Exposure to dioxins may cause adverse health effects, such as cancer, reproductive and developmental disorders, and skin disease.
- formaldehyde: A flammable reactive gas belonging to the VOC family of chemicals. It is widely used in personal care products, building materials, insulation, and home furnishings. Ingestion of the chemical can cause severe physical reactions, including coma, internal bleeding, and death. The US Department of Health and Human Services considers it a probable human carcinogen.
- genetically modified organism: A GMO is created by merging the genetic make-up of two organisms, resulting in a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Engineering GMOs is a common practice in conventional farming, and studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks such as killing off living, natural organisms and becoming immune to pesticides.
- perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs): A family of chemicals used in many consumer products because they do not break down easily in the environment, making them extremely persistent.
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air. VOCs are emitted by thousands of products, including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, and may cause immediate and long-term health problems. VOCs are also considered a possible carcinogen, and can create ground-level ozone, the main component of smog.
- The Green Guide - Earth- and Human-Friendly Baby Clothes
- Sustainable Cotton Project
- TreeHugger - How To Green Your Baby
- WWF - Cotton Farming
- Organic Consumers Association - Clothes for a Change: Background Info
- Organic Exchange - About Organic Cotton brochure
- US Geological Survey - Water Facts
- National Wildlife Magazine - Water Pressure
- Organic Exchange - Organic Cotton Fiber Report: Executive Summary, Spring 2006
- SixWise.com - The 6+ Synthetic Fabrics You Most Want to Avoid, and Why
- The Green Guide - "Inherently" Flame-Resistant Pajamas?
- SixWise.com - The 6+ Synthetic Fabrics You Most Want To Avoid And Why
- Taipei Times - Carcinogen found in Chinese clothes
- Fibre2fashion.com - Natural, “Green” Dyes for the Textile Industry
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Federal Register: 40 CFR Parts 148, 261, 268, 271, and 302
- Health & Safety Executive - Dyes and chemicals in textile finishing: An introduction
- The Green Guide - Color By Nature
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Chemicals In The Environment: Chlorine