By Dr. Mercola
Inexpensive clothing has become a serious pollution problem in more ways than one. Each year, an estimated 80 billion garments are sold worldwide, and each year, Americans alone throw away 15 million tons of clothing — most of it having been worn just a few times. This is a trend that completely disregards the toxic toll each garment takes on environmental and human health throughout the manufacturing and distribution processes involved in its creation.
Organic cotton, which is more sustainable, accounts for a mere 1 percent of the cotton grown across the globe. Sustainable plant dyes account for an even smaller portion of the global garment industry. Great benefits could come from expanding the organic cotton and natural textile dye industries. Natural materials such as leather also have significant downsides. Leather processing has become incredibly chemical intense, poisoning areas where locals are already struggling with widespread poverty and pollution.
The Toxic Side of Leather Tannery
The short video above by Daniel Lanteigne shows the impact the leather processing industry has had in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a country that has no regulations on toxic waste management. More than 20,000 people work and live in the Hazaribagh tannery district, where toxic chemicals from 200 tanneries flow freely through the open sewers lining the city streets. The Buriganga River has turned black from the toxins, and mounds of discarded leather scraps line its banks.
Yet people still use the river for clothes washing and bathing on a regular basis. As one would expect, skin ulcers, respiratory problems, and chest pains are common health complaints in the area. As noted in the video, “market profitability is causing both the government and the tanners to turn a blind eye to the environmental consequences and health hazards.”
Bangladesh also does not regulate workers’ conditions. Few if any are given any kind of protective gear and are in direct contact with the chemicals on a daily basis. Most tanneries do not even have ventilation or indoor lighting. Child labor is also commonplace and unregulated.
Garment Industry Poses Serious Threat to Waterways
A recent article by Heather Pringle and Amorina Kingdon in Hakai Magazine highlights how the fashion industry is impacting waterways around the globe. Commenting on the leather industry, Pringle and Kingdon write:
“To transform perishable animal skin into durable leather, factory workers soaked animal hides in a series of toxic baths containing nearly 40 different acids and several heavy metals including chromium, a known carcinogen. The hides absorbed just 20 percent of these chemical brews: the rest was waste.
In all, Dhaka’s tanneries discharged nearly 22,000 cubic liters of toxic effluent daily into the Buriganga River, which ultimately flows into the Bay of Bengal …
Faced with an environmental disaster along the floodplain of the Buriganga River, the Bangladeshi government forced Dhaka’s leather factories to move to a new industrial park in 2017, and it has promised to install an effluent treatment plant there. But the opening of the plant was delayed, and in February, residents raised fears that the transplanted tanneries were contaminating a second river, the Dhaleshwari.”
Toxic runoff from cotton growers also poses a serious threat to water quality. In Pakistan, the fourth-largest cotton producer in the world, the cotton industry has polluted much of the groundwater, rendering it unsafe to drink. Cotton also gobbles up 20 trillion liters (5.28 trillion gallons) of the Indus River’s precious water each year.
As a result of widespread water mismanagement, the Indus River now faces the same fate as the Aral Sea, situated between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which has been nearly drained for irrigation, obliterating the once-thriving fishing economy in the area. Aral Sea fishermen of old used to catch 40 tons of fish per year. Today, the area is littered with fishing vessels lying on dry land, and what used to be a thriving seaport is now nearly 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the water’s edge.
US Tannery Waste Linked to Polluted Drinking Water
The toxic nature of leather tanning is equally evident in the U.S. In Michigan, fluorinated chemicals have polluted the municipal drinking water in Kent County. The source was traced back to the Wolverine World Wide tannery in Rockford, which disposed toxic sludge at the State Disposal Landfill in the mid-‘60s. As reported by M Live:
“Wolverine once made the iconic Hush Puppies shoe brand in Rockford using Scotchgard, a stain and water repellant that relies on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS, (also called perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs) as its chemical backbone. PFAS compounds were found in Plainfield Township water in 2013. The system serves about 40,000 customers …
Kent County records state explicitly that Wolverine dumped sludge at the landfill during the years Tefft says he drove it there. Tefft, a former driver for Bell Pick-Up service, says he transported tannery sludge for 13 months in 1965 and 1966 from Wolverine to the landfill …
Tefft also drove sludge to a former Wolverine dump site on House Street NE, where a plume of PFAS compounds are polluting private drinking water wells in Belmont. The Belmont contamination was just discovered this spring … Both PFOS and PFOA are also present in House Street wells.”
The Downsides of Denim and Synthetics
Denim — a cultural staple in the Western world — and modern synthetic textiles are also problematic. Most denim produced today is dyed using synthetic indigo dye made from fossil fuels. The faded “stonewash” look also typically involves the use of toxic chemicals. And, most leather tanneries and denim factories tend to be located in the developing world, where regulations and environmental protections are less stringent, if not nonexistent.
One of the largest denim producers in the world is located in Xintang, China, in the Pearl River Delta. Like the Buriganga River in Bangladesh, the local river in Xintang has turned black from the denim industry, which dumps untreated dye water into it. Greenpeace tests reveal nearly 80 percent of water and sediment samples collected around Xintang and neighboring Gurao contain heavy metals.
Meanwhile, scientists now warn that synthetic fabrics such as acrylic, polyester and fleece shed microfibers when washed, and these microfibers end up threatening marine and human life alike by entering the ecosystem. As noted in Hakai Magazine, “ … [M]icroplastics may choke zooplankton. Microfibers could then work their way up the food chain, as larger animals gobble up the plastic-stuffed zooplankton.”
The fibers have also been found to cause starvation in crabs. Microfibers are used in more than 60 percent of all clothing made today, making the fashion industry a surprisingly significant source of plastic pollution in addition to chemical pollution.
Man-Made Fibers Pollute Fish Stocks
A 2015 study from the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) directly linked plastics and man-made fibers to the pollution in fish. Microfibers, which are more prevalent than microbeads (found in face scrubs and similar items), are particularly dangerous as the fibers are easily consumed by fish and other wildlife, accumulating in the gut and concentrating in the bodies of other animals higher up the food chain.
Textile fibers are found in both marine and freshwater fish. When Abigail Barrows, chief investigator for Global Microplastics Initiative, sampled over 2,000 marine and freshwater fish, 90 percent had microfiber debris in their bodies. High concentrations of acrylic and polyester fibers are also found in beach sediment near wastewater treatment plants. Making matters worse, these microscopic plastic fibers soak up toxins like a sponge, concentrating PCBs, pesticides, and oil in ever higher amounts as you move up the food chain.
According to a recent PBS News Hour report, which featured Barrows’ research, 300 million microfibers from washed clothing enters the Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson River in New York each day. Remarkably, microfibers also enter our environment via air and rainwater.
Rainwater samples reveal up to 10 tons of microfibers descend upon the 1,098-square-mile region surrounding Paris, France, each year. According to urban hydrologist Bruno Tassin, University of Paris-Est, clothes shed fibers not only during washing, but during daily wear as well!
The Dirty Side of Clean Clothes
Once you begin investigating the garment industry, you come to the sober realization that clothing is taking a severe toll on environmental and human health from start to finish, beginning with the toxic chemicals applied to cotton fields, continuing all the way through textile dyeing and tanning of leather, manufacturing, transportation, washing and, ultimately, disposing of each garment. Following are some of the ways the simple everyday act of washing your clothes contribute to environmental pollution:
The Road Ahead
We have a long road ahead of us, considering we need to clean up the entire supply chain — and alter public consciousness about fashion along the way. There’s definitely something to be said for the minimalist trend where you own fewer but higher quality items made in a sustainable way that you can wear for many years to come. To get you started, here are some tips and suggestions for cleaning up your laundry and developing a more sustainable wardrobe:
*Article originally appeared at Mercola.