Hazardous chemicals in clothing

Standard Page - 2011-08-22
Greenpeace is campaigning to stop industry poisoning our water with hazardous, persistent and hormone-disrupting chemicals. The Detox campaign challenges top brands to make amends by working with their suppliers to eliminate all hazardous chemicals across their entire supply chain, and the entire life-cycle of their products. This is a priority list of hazardous chemicals which would-be champions for a toxic-free future need to help eliminate.

Clothing and the Global Toxic Water Cycle


Commonly used alkylphenol compounds include nonylphenols (NPs) and octylphenols and their ethoxylates, particularly nonylphenol ethoxylates. NPs are widely used in the textiles industry in cleaning and dyeing processes. They are toxic to aquatic life, persist in the environment and can accumulate in body tissue and biomagnify (increase in concentration through the food chain). Their similarity to natural oestrogen hormones can disrupt sexual development in some organisms, most notably causing the feminisation of fish.

NPs are heavily regulated in Europe and since 2005 there has been an EU-wide ban on major applications.


Phthalates are a group of chemicals most commonly used to soften PVC (the plastic polyvinyl chloride). In the textile industry they are used in artificial leather, rubber and PVC and in some dyes. There are substantial concerns about the toxicity of phthalates such as DEHP (Bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate), which is reprotoxic in mammals, as it can interfere with development of the testes in early life.

The phthalates DEHP and DBP (Dibutyl phthalate) are classed as ‘toxic to reproduction’ in Europe and their use restricted.

Brominated and chlorinated flame retardants

Many brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals that are now present throughout the environment. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are one of the most common groups of BFRs and have been used to fireproof a wide variety of materials, including textiles.

Some PBDEs are capable of interfering with the hormone systems involved in growth and sexual development. Under EU law the use of some types of PBDE is tightly restricted and one PBDE has been listed as a ‘priority hazardous substance’ under European water law, which requires that measures be taken to eliminate its pollution of surface waters.

Azo dyes

Azo dyes are one of the main types of dye used by the textile industry. However, some azo dyes break down during use and release chemicals known as aromatic amines, some of which can cause cancer. The EU has banned the use of these azo dyes that release cancer-causing amines in any textiles that come into contact with human skin.

Organotin compounds

Organotin compounds are used in biocides and as antifungal agents in a range of consumer products. Within the textile industry they have been used in products such as socks, shoes and sport clothes to prevent odour caused by the breakdown of sweat.

One of the best-known organotin compounds is tributyltin (TBT). One of its main uses was in antifouling paints for ships, until evidence emerged that it persists in the environment, builds up in the body and can affect immune and reproductive systems. Its use as an antifouling paint is now largely banned. TBT has also been used in textiles and is listed as a ‘priority hazardous substance’ under EU regulations that require measures to be taken to eliminate its pollution of surface waters in Europe. 

Perfluorinated chemicals

Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are manmade chemicals widely used by industry for their non-stick and water-repellent properties. In the textile industry they are used to make textile and leather products both water and stain-proof.

Evidence shows that many PFCs persist in the environment and can accumulate in body tissue and biomagnify (increasing in levels) through the food chain. Once in the body some have been shown to affect the liver as well as acting as hormone disruptors, altering levels of growth and reproductive hormones.

The best known of the PFCs is perfluorooctane sulphonate (PFOS), a compound highly resistant to degradation; it is expected to persist for very long periods in the environment. PFOS is one of the ‘persistent organic pollutants’ restricted under the Stockholm Convention, a global treaty to protect human health and the environment, and PFOS is also prohibited within Europe and in Canada for certain uses.


Chlorobenzenes are persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals that have been used as solvents and biocides, in the manufacture of dyes and as chemical intermediaries. The effects of exposure depend on the type of chlorobenzene; however, they commonly affect the liver, thyroid and central nervous system. Hexachlorobenzene (HCB), the most toxic and persistent chemical of this group, is also a hormone disruptor.

Within the EU, pentachlorobenzene and HCB are classified as ‘priority hazardous substances’ under regulations that require measures to be taken to eliminate their pollution of surface waters in Europe. They are also listed as ‘persistent organic pollutants’ for global restriction under the Stockholm Convention, and in line with this they are prohibited or scheduled for reduction and eventual elimination in Europe.

Chlorinated solvents

Chlorinated solvents - such as trichloroethane (TCE) - are used by textile manufacturers to dissolve other substances during manufacturing and to clean fabrics.

TCE is an ozone-depleting substance that can persist in the environment. It is also known to affect the central nervous system, liver and kidneys. Since 2008 the EU has severely restricted the use of TCE in both products and fabric cleaning.


Chlorophenols are a group of chemicals used as biocides in a wide range of applications, from pesticides to wood preservatives and textiles.

Pentachlorophenol (PCP) and its derivatives are used as biocides in the textile industry. PCP is highly toxic to humans and can affect many organs in the body. It is also highly toxic to aquatic organisms. The EU banned production of PCP-containing products in 1991 and now also heavily restricts the sale and use of all goods that contain the chemical.

Short-chain chlorinated paraffins

Short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs) are used in the textile industry as flame retardants and finishing agents for leather and textiles. They are highly toxic to aquatic organisms, do not readily break down in the environment and have a high potential to accumulate in living organisms. Their use has been restricted in some applications in the EU since 2004.

Heavy metals: cadmium, lead, mercury and chromium (VI)

Heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and mercury, have been used in certain dyes and pigments used for textiles. These metals can accumulate in the body over time and are highly toxic, with irreversible effects including damage to the nervous system (lead and mercury) or the kidneys (cadmium). Cadmium is also known to cause cancer.

Uses of chromium (VI) include certain textile processes and leather tanning: it is highly toxic even at low concentrations, including to many aquatic organisms.

Within the EU cadmium, mercury and lead have been classified as ‘priority hazardous substances’ under regulations that require measures to be taken to eliminate their pollution of surface waters in Europe. Uses of cadmium, mercury and lead have been severely restricted in Europe for some time, including certain specific uses of mercury and cadmium in textiles.