Steps to a Healthier Home – Part 5: What’s the rub?

Fabric. Everything from the clothes we wear to the sheets we sleep in. It used to be that these fibers came from natural sources: flax, wool, cotton, and silk. However, natural fibers often wrinkle, need delicate handling, or shrink easy. So we used our technological advancements to create wrinkle-free, stain resistant, fire-retardant fabrics. And in doing so, we are surrounding ourselves with synthetic chemicals all day long.


Polyester is made from petroleum products through a process than involves antimony. Antimony exposure can adversely affect the heart, digestive system, eyes, skin and lungs. Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) are added to  fabrics for durability, stain resistance, and wrinkle resistance. The body cannot metabolize (break down) PFCs so they stay in the body, accumulating in cells and causing reproductive and developmental toxicity as well as being linked to liver and bladder cancer. Fabrics labeled “no iron” typically contain PFCs. Since the increased use of plastics in fabric has actually increased their flammability, we added more chemicals to meet fire standards. Halogenated Flame Retardants (HFRs) have been linked to thyroid disruption, reproductive and neurodevelopmental problems, and immune suppression. Cadmium, cobalt, and antimony, used to color the fabrics, are released (off-gassed) over time into our systems. And don’t forget your mattress. The key material of most mattresses is polyurethane foam which is so flammable the insurance industry calls it solid gasoline. So bring on more flame retardant chemicals! Surveys have shown that these chemicals are steadily accumulating in the bodies of our children, disrupting hormone activity and interfering with brain function.

Then there’s dry-cleaning. How we clean all of these chemical fabrics. Do you even know what dry cleaning is? It’s not dry for one thing. And for another thing, it doesn’t actually leave them clean. When your clothes are dry cleaned, they are put into a machine very similar to a washing machine, except that instead of adding water and soap, non-water-soluble stain-removing agents are used. The worst offender? Perchloroethylene (perc) is a volatile organic compound. Meaning it vaporizes at room temperature. The cleaning process that removes the dirt and other “contaminants” from your clothes, DOES NOT remove the perc. When you bring put clothes into your closet, the chemicals are off-gassing into your home. When you were them, you are directly inhaling them AND they are being absorbed through your skin. In fact, exposure to perc can be measured by a breathalyzer. It is stored in the fat, released slowly into the bloodstream and can be detected weeks after heavy exposure. One study on residential air quality in New Jersey found that elevated levels of perc persisted IN THE HOME for up to 48 hours.  Long-term perc exposure can cause kidney and liver damage and causes cancer in lab animals. California and a few other states have ordered that perc be phased out by 2023.

Economy over ecology right?

So what are some things you can do to reduce your exposure to these toxins?

1. Switch to natural fabrics or organic cotton for your sheets and pajamas, at least.

2. Eliminate dry cleaning or switch to a green cleaner.

3. If those aren’t options, at least air out your dry-cleaned clothes for 2 days before bringing it into the house and wear an undershirt made of natural fibers.

4. Switch to an organic or natural rubber mattress or mattress cover.

5. If that’s not in your budget, air out your mattress (windows open) whenever you change the sheets.

Just remember, as overwhelming as some of this information can be, our family’s health should always be a priority. Regularly taking small steps over a lifetime can add up to noticeable better health.

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