Your Clothes Are Trying To Kill You: One More Thing To Worry About When It Comes To Fast Fashion

Sometimes I pick up a garment in a really cheap clothing store and am bowled over by the horrible “burning tire” smell emanating from it. According to Greenpeace, that smell is caused by straight-up toxic chemicals.

Jun 3, 2013 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

God, I am such a conflicted teenager about my clothes. I love them! I hate them! I’m in a Romeo and Juliet style bad romance with my wardrobe. But I never thought that my closet full of clothes could be trying to kill me until I recently bought an innocuous-looking top at Forever 21 after spilling an XL latte down my shirt while in the middle of my workday.
 
I grabbed the top off the rack, paid the $18.00 they wanted for it, and changed into it in the dressing room. 
 
About an hour later, I started to feel hot, itchy, and completely discombobulated. I went back to my office and lay down on the sofa, covering my face with my arm to block out the fluorescent lights above me. 
 
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This is actually how I always sleep.

 
I woke up coughing and wheezing, desperate to breathe. (For the record, I do have asthma, but it is very well controlled via my badass pulmonologist. I absolutely never have an attack anymore, ever.) I could not WAIT for the day to be over so I could go home to use my inhaler and scratch my ferociously itching tits in peace.
 
When I got home and took off my shirt, it was a total horror show. My chest, neck and breasts were covered with hives that looked like a map of the continents. I had scratched my chest so hard it was bleeding. The rash was spreading to my face, and even my ears itched. I took Benadryl, I used calamine lotion, I applied Cortisone (which stung like hell). Nothing gave me relief until it calmed down by itself 3 WHOLE days later.
 
It was sometime in the middle of day 2 when my boyfriend pointed out that it could possibly be from the new, unwashed shirt I had bought the day before. I MEAN DUH. I hadn’t even considered it, because the rash was also on my face. But then I remembered draping my arm across my face during my workday couch nap. Forget Nancy Drew, this case was SOLVED.
 
Because I love you, I will post this HIDEOUSLY unflattering photo of myself while I was visiting Rash City.
 
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Midway through day 2, at home in my pajamas. 

 
I brushed off the whole debacle as some sort of fluke until I read this disturbing article on Racked.com -- “Nobody Freak Out: ASOS Recalled Its Radioactive Belts.” WAIT, WHAT?!!
 
Fast fashion companies and the factories that manufacture their goods have come under heavy scrutiny in the past few weeks, as a building collapse in Bangladesh has claimed the lives of over 1,000 workers. I guess it’s not a surprise that those cute, cheap garments could be trying to kill us, too. They already succeeded in killing the persons who made them for us, right?

 The plight of workers, particularly female workers, in factories around the world is disgusting, cruel, and impossible for human beings to ignore any longer.
 
The ASOS radioactive belt story was particularly terrifying because the report on the incident stated, "Unfortunately, this incident is quite a common occurrence. India and the Far East are large consumers of scrap metal for their home and foreign markets. During the refining process of these metals, orphaned radioactive sources are sometimes accidentally melted at the same time. This in turn [contaminates the process] and traps the radioactivity in the metal as an alloy or in suspension."
 
So what's happening to the workers in these factories while all this accidental radiation is flying around???!!!! And why is it only unacceptable when the items are about to be delivered to us, the end consumer?
 
It seems you’d have to wear the belt in question all day, every day to soak up enough radioactivity to cause you grievous harm, but I tend to like my fashion without a side dose of radiation, thank you very much. Why should we be exposed to anything that's possibly bad for us in the name of being stylish?
 
I told a handful of my friends about the reaction I had to the shirt and 2 of them reported a shockingly similar scenario. It can’t be that we are all just extraordinarily sensitive to chemicals -- I myself am a dedicated hair highlighter and a lifetime acrylic nail wearer, plus I shop at the mall for a living! I'm exposed daily to every single chemical used in clothing manufacturing in the world.
 
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The view from where I sit--a room full of freshly purchased cheap mall gear for a commercial I'm working on. 

 
Sometimes I pick up a garment in a really cheap clothing store and am bowled over by the horrible “burning tire” smell emanating from it. According to Greenpeace, that smell is caused by straight up toxic chemicals: “We found that 20 of the world’s favorite brands are making and selling clothes containing hazardous chemicals which contribute to toxic water pollution where the clothes are made and washed,” said Greenpeace Toxics Campaigner John Deans, quoting Greenpeace’s 2011 report, “Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up.” The study examined 141 articles of clothing from 20 major brands.
 
The results are a little unsettling -- the report states that four garments contained high levels of toxic phthalates, 89 garments contained NPEs and two items contained cancer-causing amines connected to the use of azo dyes. Is there a high probability that some of the same chemicals were at work in the top that made me break out in a horrible rash? It seems quite likely.
 
Greenpeace has launched The Detox Campaign, urging the world’s biggest global brands to cut out the use of toxic chemicals in their overseas factories. So far a handful of companies have signed the pledge -- but are currently so dependent on the use of toxic chemicals in their manufacturing processes that it will take them until 2020 to eliminate their use entirely!


 
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Greenpeace's Detox campaign, Greenpeace.org/detox.

 
To be clear: I don’t endorse everything Greenpeace does blindly, nor do I fear all chemicals without question. Many chemicals are simply harmless analogs of naturally occurring pants and substances. But the triple threat of Greenpeace’s study, my personal experience and the radiated belts story is starting to make me wonder what exactly is lurking in my clothes. Again, why should any of us be exposed to more chemicals than actually necessary?
 
What can the average consumer do to avoid something potentially dangerous? The answers are lame and unclear. “Buy clothing made in the USA” is the biggest one. We have EPA regulations as to what types of chemicals factories can use that many countries do not. But the rest of the answers aren’t all that great. “Have a clothing swap with your friends! Buy second-hand! Up-cycle your old garments into something new!” These are not perfect solutions for a large percentage of the population. 
 
I've bought a few dresses from ThreadsforThought.com -- they are pretty simple styles but actually affordable. I also cruise Alternative Apparel's offerings regularly, but again, we're not talking anything too crazy fashion-forward here. A decent resource for impartial guidance regarding brands to seek out and ones to avoid is GoodGuide.com.
 
Start delving a little bit into the companies you purchase from regularly -- if they are following ethical business/manufacturing practices, chances are they will be talking about it. We really need more transparency in this country about how the clothes we put on our bodies are made. 
 
I think everyone has the right to look cute, no matter what their budget or social status. In my grandmother’s era, it was obvious who was poor -- they had one coat, one handbag, one pair of shoes and wore their dresses 2-3x/week. Cheap, affordable clothing has democratized fashion and removed yet another barrier between the classes. 

 
My current solution is just to buy very little new clothing. I’m forcing myself to wear and love what I already own. I most definitely wash anything new I buy at least 2 times before wearing it. (Although it seems all this does is release whatever chemicals were in the garment into the local water system, which in California, dumps to the Pacific Ocean.)
 
I'm not so sure I can quit cheap fashion entirely. Can any of us? I think the very best thing I can do is be informed, ask questions, and constantly make adjustments to my shopping habits.
 
Any other ideas?

I'm on Twitter: @IveyAlison.