Chemicals and Toxins used in Conventional Cotton Baby Blankets
Compiled and published by Cherub's Blanket, LLC
A baby blanket is very special. It provides warmth and safety to a baby just minutes old, and lasting comfort for years on. Cotton is a popular choice for baby blankets; it is soft, breathable, and easy to care for. Unlike polyester, cotton is a natural fiber and is hypoallergenic, especially beneficial for those with sensitive skin or allergies.1 However, despite its inherent qualities, not all cotton fabric is created equal. Currently, there are two main methods of cotton production: conventional and organic. This white paper discusses the differences between the two and provides information so the consumer can make a more educated choice when it comes to a baby’s needs.
Conventional vs Organic
Conventional cotton production generally incorporates large-scale farms with uniform high-yield hybrid crops grown continuously over many seasons, and extensive use of pesticides and fertilizers. In turn with industrialized agribusiness, the objective is simply to maximize the crop yield at the lowest cost possible.2 As conventional cotton is grown, harvested, processed into fabric, and dyed, step by step it is subject to a series of chemical processes. The emerging fabric has chemicals imbedded within the fiber, coating the yarn, and bound to the fabric surface. In contrast, organic farming avoids or strictly minimizes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers and pesticides. The objective is to maximize yield in a way that maintains and supports an ecological balance of natural systems.3 From the start, fewer chemicals results in a cleaner fiber. From there, if the cotton is handled to maintain the organic integrity, fabric should be more natural and less chemically complex.
Most cotton grown conventionally begins its engineered life as a GMO (genetically modified organism) seed. GMOs are developed to be resistant to herbicides and insects. For example, the majority of China's cotton fields are sown with GMO seeds modified to produce a substance, Bt toxin. This protects the plant against insect pests, caterpillars in particular which bore into cotton bolls reducing yield and compromising quality.4 However, GMOs have their limits and downsides. As one pest is controlled, another flourishes. More and more, studies are revealing how the use of GMOs result in further, unanticipated agricultural problems, which in turn, require the need of different pesticides.5
These additives are meant to kill insects but they are harmful to humans as well. In fact, the Organic Trade Association declares insecticides to be “the most hazardous pesticide to human and animal health.”6 For example, the second most popular insecticide is Aldicarb and it “can kill a man with just one drop absorbed through the skin.”6
In low doses, pesticides do not always kill, but they can greatly compromise health and normal functioning. The detrimental effects of chemical used in agriculture on human health are well documented.7 For example, chlorpyrifos is an acutely toxic insecticide and one of the more thoroughly studied pesticides among organophosphates, a class of chemicals that damage the nervous system. In 2000, the EPA banned the use of chlorpyrifos in residential products because of the high risk to children: however it continues to be used in industrial agriculture applications.8 In 2006, a study was compiled by the Farm Worker Pesticide Project and the Pesticide Action Network of North America to evaluate the air concentrations of this chemical. Their results showed higher than acceptable levels in the air, posing significant increase chances for neurological and physiological impairment.9 In addition, 93% of Americans tested by the CDC had metabolites of chlorpyrifos in their urine.10, 11
After the applications of pesticides and herbicides during growing, another layer of chemical application is applied at harvest time. Crops are sprayed with a defoliant to remove the leaves from the cotton plant for more efficient harvesting. Otherwise, the foliage gets caught in the harvester causing mechanical breakdowns, staining the cotton fiber, and adding moisture which may lead to mildew. Tribufos is an organophosphate pesticide used as a defoliant. The EPA reports that tribufos “can over stimulate the nervous system causing nausea, dizziness, confusion, and at very high exposures (e.g.; accidents or major spills), respiratory paralysis and death.”12 The California Department of Pesticide Regulation reported this about tribufos: In 1999, a work crew re-entered a cotton field about five hours after it was treated with tribufos and sodium chlorate (re-entry should have been prohibited for 24 hours). Seven workers subsequently sought medical treatment and five have had ongoing health problems.13
The PAN Pesticides Database reported their 2009 findings on chemicals used on California cotton fields. They listed the top 50 products used which included plant growth regulators, herbicides, defoliants, microbiocides, nematicides, insecticides, pH adjusters, adjuviants and preservatives. These fell into various chemical classes: inorganic, Organophosphorus, Phosphonoglycine, N-Methyl Carbamate, Pyrethroid and Chloroacetanilide, to name a few. Over 5 million acres were treated with over 1.4 million pounds of chemicals. The extent and intensity of chemical use is mind-boggling.14
Interesting to note is a study was published in 2004 in the Journal of Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management of NC State University. It documents what residual chemicals were used in the growing process and trapped in the matrix of the fully formed cotton fiber, revealing that these chemical compounds are often a permanent part of the cotton.15 Two of the pesticides extracted from the cotton in this study were hexachlorobenzene and mirex. Chronic oral exposure of hexachlorobenzene in humans has resulted in liver disease, skin lesions, thyroid issues, bone effects and loss of hair. In human and animal studies, it has been shown to cross the placenta, accumulate in fetal tissues and transfer in breast milk.16 Mirex can enter the body via inhalation, ingestion, and via the skin. The health risks of both were so significant that they have been banned in the United States. They also made the “dirty dozen” list of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.17 However, not all countries, regions and cotton farmers adhere to the convention and cotton from these sources continues to circulate around the world.
After harvesting another set of chemicals are used in the processing. Once the cotton has been picked, run through a cotton gin, and spun into useable yarn or thread, the cotton is scoured and bleached. Scouring gets rid of natural oils and undesired non-plant matter. Scouring is achieved by applying caustic soda, also known as sodium hydroxide, at a high temperature.18 It separates the undesired materials from the cotton, and then the chemicals and non-cotton material are washed away. Unfortunately, sodium hydroxide can irritate and even burn eyes, skin, and the respiratory system, and can cause death from suffocation depending on the dosage the person is exposed to.19
To achieve a stark-white color, and to prepare the cotton for dyeing, the fiber must be bleached. Chlorine-based substances are commonly used, frequently sodium hypochlorite. As a chlorine compound, it is qualified as a hazardous chemical as a skin and eye irritant. On a scale from 1-4, it rated a 3, making it to the NJDHSS Special Health Hazard Substance List.20
After bleaching comes a finishing process. Cotton Incorporated explains that: “Because bleaching removes the natural finish, bleached cotton has high fiber-to-fiber friction. A lubricant and antistatic agent must be added to the fiber to allow it to be processed through the high-production web-forming equipment commonly used for nonwovens.”18 A common finishing solution is butoxyethyl stearate, BES. Inhalation of BES can cause severe respiratory irritation, skin contact can cause irritation and even burns, and chronic exposure can cause liver and kidney damage.21 Urea-formaldehyde is another common finishing agent to reduce shrinkage and wrinkling. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Possible short-term health effects when exposed to formaldehyde include wheezing, nausea, and skin irritation.22 “Cotton is a fiber designed by nature to absorb, and heat is used to lock finishes into the fiber. When heat is applied, this molecule [urea-formaldehyde and other finishing products] expands and becomes permanently bound in the fiber. It cannot be washed or dry cleaned out.”23
Most cotton products are then dyed to achieve bright, vivid colors. Typically, the dyeing process requires a mordant, which helps the dye color fasten to the cotton fibers, making it color-fast so that it will not fade in the sun or when washed. This also requires chemicals such as chromium and aluminum potassium sulfate. These are hazardous when in contact with skin and eyes. When inhaled, they cause irritation; when ingested, they can cause “mild abdominal cramping and nausea, to severe vomiting and hemorrhagic gastroenteritis depending on the concentration and amount ingested.”24
After the fabric is prepared, the dye is applied. When used, many of these release aromatic amines such as benzidine and toluidine. In scientific studies, aromatic amines are known to cause mammary tumors.25 The waste water of dyebaths also often contain heavy metals, ammonia, and alkalai salts- many of which are toxic. A global statistic shows that about 40% of dyes contain organically bound chlorine, a known carcinogen. Even natural dyes are rarely low-impact, depending on the specific dye and mordant used.26
Throughout the conventional process, the cotton is layered with chemical after chemical. Water and other cleaning agents are used to wash away the pesticides, the defoliants, the scouring agents, the bleach, and excess finish and dye, but with so much chemical use, it is difficult to eradicate all traces. There is growing scientific evidence that such diseases and issues as asthma, birth defects, ADHD, autism, dyslexia, mental retardation, childhood leukemia, brain cancer, childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes are partly caused by “hazardous exposures in the modern environment.”27 Children, especially babies, are more susceptible to the toxic effects of the environment. Their development is largely sensory. Babies and toddlers are swaddled in cloth, crawl on the ground, and place objects in their mouths. The Pesticide Action Network explains that, “When it comes to pesticides, children are among the most vulnerable. Pound for pound, they drink 2.5 times more water, eat 3-4 times more food, and breathe 2 times more air. They therefore absorb a higher concentration of pesticides than adults.”28 Children are most susceptible to the dangers that many of us do not worry about. To provide a child with the best possible environment to grow and develop is of the utmost importance. True organic industries embrace these concerns.
The Organic Difference
With organic cotton, the manner of growing and harvesting is similar to the process for conventional cotton. The plants take the same seasons and biological methods to grow. The organic mission is, however, is less concerned with cost and more concerned with producing crops and goods through environmentally-conscious and sustainable practices that also benefit the health of human consumers through the avoidance of toxic and irritating chemicals. The USDA provides the accepted definition:
Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.29
Instead of using GMOs, organic farmers start with a crop that grows well in the surrounding environment and which can readily compete with other local plants. “Organic producers often select species that are well adapted for the climate and therefore resist disease and pests.30 To deal with pests, organic farms try to proactively prevent harmful bugs, weeds, and diseases instead of treating them after they arrive. “By building healthy soils, organic farmers find that healthy plants are better able to resist disease and insects.”30 A healthy environment makes it possible for a healthy plant to grow. Instead of chemicals to control pests, manage weeds, and maximize growth, this farming system uses crop rotations, crop residues, legumes, green manures, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, and mineral-bearing rocks.31 According to the Texas Organic cotton Marketing Cooperative, strategies that farmers employ include applying manure as fertilizer, and interplanting corn as a bumper crop. “Intercropping adds diversity to the cropping system and diversity tends to lead to stability.”32 Instead of insecticides, biological pest control is an option. Pheromone traps are effective, and sometimes, beneficial insects are brought in to deal with pests.33 One example is from Tanzania where organic cotton farmers plant sunflowers to encourage beneficial ants that feed on the larvae of the bollworm, and fertilize the soil with manure from their cattle. In India, organic farmers intercrop cotton with pigeon peas and make insecticidal sprays from garlic, chili and the neem tree.34 With an organic mindset nature is allowed behave as it normally, maintaining balance and enhancing the environment.
Before harvesting, organic farmers often wait until the plant dies from frost and the leaves fall off naturally instead of using chemical defoliants.35 In addition, organic standards include regulations such as physically cleaning machinery instead of relying on chemical cleaning agents, using such things as hot water and biodegradable surfactants to scour the cotton, and finishing the fibers with natural substances like coconut oil.
Due to the widespread desire for color in our lives, more often than not, organic cotton is put through the dyeing process. If the fabric is to be colored, it must first be bleached. The choice is between chlorine dioxide and hydrogen peroxide. Because chlorine bleach is a carcinogen and ten times as toxic as hydrogen peroxide, the later is preferred and is most often used with organic cotton.36
From here, it is important to also discuss the dyes. Natural dyes used in home and artisanal work are derived from plants, insects or minerals. The majority also require the use of a mordant. In traditional dyeing, the common mordants are vinegar, tannin from oak bark, sumac or oak galls, ammonia from stale urine, and wood-ash liquor from wood ashes. In industrial dyeing today, there is a growing trend to use low-impact dyes: “Dyes that contain no metals, low salt, and are AZO & dioxazines compound free. Low impact dyes require significantly less water for the dyeing process so there is less polluted runoff than from the conventional dye process.”37 It is important to understand that low-impact is in reference to the environment, and not necessarily a reduction in chemical pass-through to the fabric. For those seeking the purest, cleanest cotton, a better choice may be to select items made from unbleached, undyed, naturally colored cotton. When you see the fabric in its natural color, a soft, cream white, you know it has maintained the organic integrity.
So, how do you know when something is truly organic? The organic system is designed to verify that federally regulated organic production and processing methods are followed. US organic standards require strict rules, strong oversight, and annual verification. For textiles, there are two labels to look for.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibers, including ecological and social criteria. The standard covers the harvesting, processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, trading, and distribution of all textiles made from at least 70% certified organic natural fiber including yarns, fabrics, clothes, and home textiles. The aim of the standard is to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer.38
Oeko-Tex Standard 100 is an international testing and certification system for textiles. It limits the use of certain chemicals, establishes up-front safety standards throughout the textile manufacturing chain, and checks for harmful substances at each stage in the production process. The tests include formaldehyde content, the presence of pesticides, heavy metals, chlorinated organic carriers, preservatives such as pentachlorophenol and tetrachlorophenol, amines and allergy-inducing dyestuffs. The Oeko-Tex Standard 100 has become the best known and most successful label for textiles tested for harmful substances and is the most widely recognized benchmark for the consumer.39
It should be noted that the cotton industry does not seek to harm, nor does the use of conventional cotton ensure sickness and irritation. However, everyone should have a better understanding of what goes into our everyday products. Parents, who are cautious when it comes to the health of their child, should have the information to make a more informed choice. Not all chemicals may be harmful, but it is difficult to assure that all of them are not, especially with little testing and oversight of the toxicity of most of the chemicals in use and on the market. “EPA has been able to require testing of only a few hundred of the 62,000 chemicals that have been on the market since TSCA [Toxic Substances Control Act] was passed 35 years ago, a number that has increased to 85,000 chemicals today.”40 Dr. Sanjay Gupta investigated the link between toxins and health for a 2010 CNN program called “Toxic America”. While speaking to Congress, he summed up the concerns over little regulation on chemicals by describing it this way: “The chemicals in this country are innocent until proven guilty, and the only way they are ultimately proven guilty is by health effects turning up in people who have been exposed often years, if not decades, later.”41
The world is now inundated with chemicals, some safer than others. Cotton may be clearly labeled as a part of a baby blanket, but it takes research to find out what other ingredients are attached to that cotton. While the government works on becoming more proactive and preventative, individual consumers don’t have to wait. They can become informed and make their own choices. The organic certifications can ensure that organic cotton has less overall health risks than conventional cotton products. We all want to be confident that we are giving our children the safest and healthiest start to their new young life. Organic cotton is a natural ingredient in that.
Cherub’s Blanket offers organic cotton baby blankets and natural baby items. We believe in providing the best natural and healthy environment in which a baby may develop and thrive. We support the Cradle to Cradle philosophy: all materials should enrich and benefit the environment through their life cycle, as products are manufactured, used, and naturally returned to the earth. The fabric used for our organic cotton baby blankets and clothing products is naturally-colored and GOTS certified, ensuring the protection of our most sensitive consumers, babies. Choosing organic items for children decreases exposure to toxins and is proven to be safer, stronger and less expensive over time. We believe in preserving families, and the environment.
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