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Cotton: Soft, absorbent and toxic

29 Aug. 2011 Posted by Hannah Mich in Bt cotton, GM cotton, pesticides, insecticides, cotton products
Bt cotton, cotton, organic cotton, pesticides, toxins

When you hear the word “cotton,” what do you think? Do you think white, fluffy, soft and absorbent? Do you think about t-shirts, socks and summer dresses? What many people do not think about is the process and chemicals used to get those cotton products we know and love. Now when I think about cotton, I cannot help but think about chemicals, toxins and health risk factors.

Here are some numbers to consider. 

  • Cotton accounts for 16% of all insecticides released into the environment 
  • $2 billion worth of pesticides are used on cotton crops each year 
  • The U.S. is the second largest producer of cotton 
  • 12 pesticides found in waterways are used on cotton crops
  • The demand for cotton is at 20 million tons per year and growing 
  • Conventionally grown cotton is produced in 80 countries 

The demand for cotton and cotton products keeps rising each year; but at what cost? The chemicals excessively and recklessly used on cotton and cotton products causes illness and death to employees handling the cotton and textile products. These harsh chemicals can destroy the surrounding environment and fragile ecosystems, and they very likely have dangerous long-term side effects on the general population.

Eighteen different pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides used on cotton crops are considered moderately to extremely hazardous, and they include Aldicarb, Pendimethalin and Methamidophos. Many of these chemicals are known carcinogens, neurotoxins or hormone disruptors that can be deadly. One thousandth of an ounce of Aldicarb, for example, can kill a human.

In many countries, such as India, there are few regulations and educational programs on the use of these chemicals. Monsanto came out with genetically modified [GM] cottonseeds or Bt cotton to possibly help eliminate some of the heavy use of these chemicals on cotton crops. However, like the use of chemicals the GM crops may not be a long-term solution or sustainable. Instead, the GM crops might contribute to the development of stronger and more resistant pests and, therefore, making it necessary for stronger chemicals to be developed to deal with the problem.

So do these pesticides and insecticides used on the cotton-crops just disappear after the crop is harvested and processed? No. The chemicals used on the cotton-crops and in the soil leave residues on the cotton that can still be found on cotton before it is made into the final product. And trace amounts can still be found in some final products. Furthermore, the process of making cotton into products, like clothing, adds more chemicals to the mix, such as bleach, formaldehyde and dyes. All of these chemicals do not just vanish when we purchase them, use them, and wear them. Inevitably these toxins are released into the indoor air, water system and us – the consumers. We can breath in these toxins, regardless of how small an amount, and we can absorb these toxins through our skin.

What do you think this type chemical exposure can do to people year after year? To start, it might lead to infertility, obesity, nerve damage and cancer. Prolonged exposure to low-doses of these various chemicals more than likely lead to minor health problems that are currently considered unassociated because it just has not been discovered or proven by science.

The solutions for creating safer working environments and products within the cotton and textile industries are not simple and will not be overnight solutions. In the meantime, what do we do as consumers to help improve the safety of the cotton and textile industries? One solution is purchasing clothing made from organic cotton, bamboo and hemp. Another solution is avoiding companies that do not disclose their cotton sources and processing methods. We need to do our best as consumers to hold companies accountable, and the best way to do that is with our money.

Other solutions are supporting legislation that ban harmful pesticides, encouraging more research on the long-term health implications of the chemicals used in the textile industry, and providing feedback to textile or clothing companies about the quality and safety of their products.

As always the first step in any solution or solutions is awareness. So stay up-to-date on the progress made within the clothing industry and research companies prior to purchasing products. This will ensure you are supporting companies that are making eco-friendly decisions.

On the upside, the organic cotton industry has grown drastically over the last few years and organic cotton is now grown in 20 countries. But we need to stay persistent in this fight because we have a long way to go.

Call To Action: 

Buy organic cotton, hemp and bamboo products.
Support legislation banning the use of hazardous pesticides.
Contact clothing manufactures about their cotton sources and processing.

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