Hesperian Health Guides
Treating cloth with dyes and chemicals
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Before it gets to garment workers, cloth is often treated with different chemicals that give the fabric color, ﬁre resistance, permanent press, or other qualities. Bleach makes the fabric white and easier to dye. Dyes give the fabric speciﬁc colors. Mordants improve how color sticks to the fabric. Sealers and ﬁxers prevent dyes from washing off with water or sweat.
The chemicals stay on the fabric. If you get rashes when working with cloth, it might be caused by the dyes or chemicals used to make it.
Dyes and chemicals can irritate your skin and cause rashes, allergies, or breathing problems.
Cleaning your hands with solvents after working with dyes also can cause rashes, allergies, and breathing problems. Stay away from benzene or chemicals that smell sweet or pleasant. These chemicals, called aromatic hydrocarbons, are breathed in or absorbed through the skin. Some of them cause cancer.
Alcohols (such as isopropanol, IPA) are less dangerous but they still irritate your skin. Even though it may take longer to get the dye off, wash your hands with water and soap instead.
Permanent press and waterproofing
Formaldehyde is added to fabric to make it smooth and less likely to wrinkle or crease. Workers dip the fabric in formaldehyde baths, or put fabric in large chambers filled with formaldehyde gas. Workers in this part of the process are exposed to the most formaldehyde, although without good ventilation, all workers in the shop will be exposed to an unhealthy amount.
Formaldehyde irritates the skin, making it red and itchy. Breathing the fumes harms the nose, throat, and lungs. Formaldehyde causes asthma and cancer.
Fire resistant chemicals
Fire resistant chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants, make clothing less likely to burn. However, these chemicals can harm the reproductive system and cause cancer.
Garments are dipped in baths containing silver, triclosan, or trichlocarban. These keep bacteria from growing in the garments and make them less likely to smell. Workers add the chemicals in liquid, powder, or pellet form into baths which are then heated. Antibacterial chemicals gradually wash out when the clothing is washed at home.
Silver is particularly dangerous because it does not break down. It accumulates in and poisons people, animals, water, and land.
Some chemicals are used in a form called nanoparticles, which means they have been made to be very, very small. Nanoparticles can be spun into fibers or coated on them after the cloth is made. Cloth is treated with a variety of chemical nanoparticles to make it sturdier, to fight bacteria, to resist stains and repel water, to protect against the sun’s rays and against fire, and for other uses.
Nanoparticles are so tiny that they can easily pass through skin and into our blood and internal organs. Workers should be extremely careful working with nanoparticles and demand that all safety systems – enclosures, ventilation, and others – be in good working order. If you handle nanoparticles, wearing a double set of nitrile gloves is recommended, but no one really knows if they protect enough.