Slipping into a pair of cool cotton undies and a cotton tank may seem like nature's solution to a sticky summer heat wave, but today's fabric is anything but pure.Twenty-five per cent of the world's pesticides are sprayed on cotton fields every year (even though the crop accounts for only 3 per cent of all cultivated land), and commercially grown cotton is one of the most toxic crops around. That translates into a hefty quarter-pound of pesticides for every cotton T in your closet.
With the fabric everywhere you look, you'd think there'd be a raft of studies investigating whether these toxins linger and affect long-term health. Alas, no one really knows.
What is clear, however, is that we end up taking in the cancer-causing chemicals (like cyanide in the U.S. and DDT around the globe) via our food and water supply when the toxins in the fields drift into nearby veggie and fruit farms, forests and rivers.
Once transformed into fabric, another chemical bath awaits the downy cloth in the textile and apparel factories that give it that colour-fast vibrant hue or fire-retardant finish. Formaldehyde, ammonia, silicone waxes and petroleum scours are all added in the final cycle. Remember, Canada doesn't regulate your clothing's chemical processing, and neither do the developing countries that cut, dye and stitch your cotton into the perfect fit.
In Mexico, the deep indigo that gives your jeans that special shade of blue also runs through the creeks and rivers surrounding the sweatshops that stitch them up.
For a growing number of consumers who have allergies to the chemicals or who worry about long-term health issues both for themselves and the fieldworkers who pick the stuff, seeking out organic fibres is the only answer.
Organic cotton and hemp are both great alternatives, but be careful when you're buying cotton labelled "green." Though the processing of such products is said to be chlorine-, dye- and formaldehyde-free, conventionally grown cotton is used as the base fabric.
And unlike organic products, which go through a certification process, green products are completely unregulated. Even organic products are, as of yet, unregulated when it comes to factory processing. So whether you're buying organic or not, it's a good idea to wash all new clothing with natural detergents before wearing it.
what the experts say"There are chemicals used on cotton that are banned from use on food crops, but these are making their way through the food chain through cotton feed, going completely unregulated and unchecked. We don't know what the ramifications are. There are cancer clusters around agricultural areas intensive with cotton, but scientists say they can't prove anything."
LYNDA GROSE, Sustainable Cotton Project, California
"Because cotton is supposed to be a safe material, most doctors seeing patients with hypersensitivity, like hives or itchiness, would prescribe creams when patients should (instead) switch to organic cotton or hemp. People think of cotton as the safe thing to wear if they have bladder infections or yeast, but a lot of that could be hypersensitivity to pesticides and dyes."
MASINA WRIGHT, naturopath
"The danger of using genetically engineered cotton is horizontal gene transfer. Many cotton crops have antibiotic-resistant genes. Those can be passed to bacteria in the guts of animals through cotton-seed feed, and antibiotic-resistant genes can be passed on through human guts. Monsanto's cotton has a gene that's resistant to treatments for gonorrhea and TB. I'm really worried about this cotton when it's used for babies and for women in tampons and sanitary napkins."
MAE-WON HO, geneticist and biophysicist with the UK's Institute of Science in Society
"U.S. cotton farmers may grow only biotechnology-enhanced cotton types that have been approved by federal authorities. They have determined that these insect-protected and herbicide-tolerant cottons pose no threat to consumers, plants, animals or the environment."
COTTON COUNCIL INTERNATIONAL
"The average person spends most of his or her life wearing cotton clothing and sleeping on cotton sheets, increasing their exposure to chemicals and endangering their health. Most of (our customers) cannot wear conventionally grown cotton due to sensitivities and/or allergies to the chemicals. Therefore, they must choose to wear organic cotton."
ROB GRAND, Grassroots Environmental Products
"There are no chemical-based regulations on cotton apparel, except that cotton textiles treated at the manufacturers level to impart certain desired properties, like fire-retardant or wrinkle-retardant, would say "Wash before wearing.'"
ANDREW SWIFT, Health Canada
"Many khakis have some wrinkle resistance (using formaldehyde) applied to them, but they don't have a "Wash before wearing' label. I don't believe there is a widely accepted risk to people's health. If consumers wanted it, then any voluntary standards around dyes and chemicals used in processing could potentially be made mandatory."
BOB KIRKE, Canadian Apparel Federation
"People with chemical sensitivities could react to Kleenex or tampons with rashes, poisoning symptoms, diarrhea or brain fog. I use the biomagnetic energy of the allergen and introduce it to patients' systems. In 25 hours any symptom disappears, and after that the patient can use the cotton without reacting."
DANIEL RAD, acupuncturist and naturopath