The press has paid more attention to sustainability and fashion over the past decade, raising awareness, for instance, on issues related to the environmental and the human cost of fast fashion. Journalist Alden Wicker widens the scope in “To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making Us Sick.” The chemicals used in the making of clothing—from pesticide residues on non-organic cotton to stain-resistant formulas—are causing serious health problems for the maker (read the chapter on the horrors of dye houses) as well as the wearer.
Wicker begins her investigation with the people she considers the canaries in the coal mine: airline attendants.
In an overview that includes how the airline industry disinfects planes and fights airborne illnesses (for a time, spraying pesticides directly on seats and beds), Wicker interviews an industrial hygienist, Judith Anderson who works in the safety department for the Association of Flight Attendants. Anderson began looking into the uniforms worn by Alaska Airlines employees after receiving numerous complaints from workers who were breaking out with hives—some with severe allergic reactions that included swollen eyelids. Bolts of fabric were eventually tested revealing a large amount of a chemical known as TBP (tributyl phosphate) used as a solvent in textile manufacturing. Then Anderson began getting emails from bank and hotel employees whose uniforms were made with similar fabric. Anderson knew something was wrong with the garments, and discovered that it went beyond TBP to “dozens of different chemicals, all with known or suspected, different or overlapping human health effects, working in concert with each other.” Getting various industry leaders to pay attention was difficult. When it comes to contact dermatitis, the cause is hard to pin down since contact “as little as once a week can cause a constant rash.”
Wicker interviewed people outside of the airline industry who have experienced reactions to clothing. She spoke with chemists, garment workers, historians, residents of factory towns, and individuals suffering from serious autoimmune diseases. The result is a fascinating, albeit horrifying, read that is well-accessorized with historic facts and compelling anecdotes.
Humans have infused textiles with substances probably since the beginning of time—poisoned garments show up in Greek mythology, perfumed gloves in the Renaissance. During the hat-making days of the Victorian era, mercury was used in the felting process. To get at the chemical involved in leather tanning, Wicker takes us to Gloversville in upstate New York, which produced ninety-percent of gloves sold in the United States between 1880 and 1950 and where residents have reported a high incidence of neurological disease, cancer and respiratory illness traced to chromium-laced effluent. The industry left the area long ago but contaminated soil remains.
In more recent years, the use of PVC (Mary Quant’s shiny mod designs of the 1960s) and the textile industry’s quest for wrinkle-resistant clothing has produced another alphabet soup of chemicals. For permanent-press cotton, we got dimethylol dihydroxy ethylene (DMDHEU) that will release formaldehyde.
“This is a theme with fashion chemistry,” writes Wicker. “While the chemical used on a textile might not in itself be dangerous, over time it can break down into its toxic ingredients. So that ingredient—whether it’s formaldehyde in no-iron trousers or an amine in a dyed shirt—might poison garment workers, then contaminate a local community, and then after a brief sojourn as a harmless performance substance on your fashion, show up again to be breathed in or absorbed by your skin in small amounts, day after day.”
There is also a problem with microfibers that aren’t breaking down by the time they hit our waterways because “they are so thoroughly coated in chemicals and polymers.”
Wicker offers ideas for how we should proceed now that we are thoroughly freaked out. Companies could make it easier for the consumer if they “were compelled to get toxic chemicals out of their products” and provide product information. In the meantime we should avoid: “performance materials,” knock-offs, and most fast-fashion (H&M has been dealing with chemical management for years so—relief!—it’s on the good list), supersaturated colors (bye-bye festival neon), and give up dry cleaning. Really what it comes down to is that we have to care enough to demand change.
As she writes: “If we start tackling this as the interconnected and holistic problem it is, as a war against autoimmune disease, infertility and chronic poisonings—instead of a series of disparate skirmishes over finishes, dyes, and plastics—I believe we can revolutionize our health, as well as start to reverse the environmental degradation of our planet perpetuated in the name of fashion.”
“To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making Us Sick”
By Alden Wicker
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2023, 304 pages