It is easy to forget just how prevalent chemicals are in everyday life. For example, take a look at some clothes in your closet – you’ll likely find polyester, nylon, and maybe even spandex. The common theme shared by these materials is that they are synthetic fabrics, or composed of chemicals. It is important to note that these chemicals are classified as petrochemicals, meaning that they are derived from coal and natural gases (fossil fuels).
Although convenient, an environmental concern with synthetic materials is that they are not biodegradable.
In recent news, there have been increasing studies reported with arising issues regarding these synthetic fabrics. For example, American Airlines recently rolled out new uniforms for their flight attendants only having have to recall them. Over 1,600 attendants reported cases of symptoms ranging from headaches, rashes, burning skin, eye irritation, itching, and even respiratory problems. This was no coincidence, as the science behind skin exposure to synthetic materials begins to develop.
There are two petrochemical classes, large hydrophobic aromatic rings and olefins, which are unsaturated hydrophobic chains. Chemicals are not stable; they remain reactive under certain conditions and these synthetic materials could prove harmful when exposed to external environments. When we wash our clothes, we use detergent as an anti-microbial agent since detergent is an extremely reactive chemical which can disrupt the cell wall of bacteria. While this sounds great, it is consequentially reactive enough to also interact with moieties present in synthetic fabrics which releases them. Quinolines, belonging to the aromatic compound family, is present in synthetic fabrics and has been labeled as probable human carcinogen by the EPA. This is disturbing once you realize that your favorite outfit may be made out of carcinogenic material, the same harmful materials that we are told to avoid throughout our life. Detergent isn’t the only culprit; chemicals behave in equilibrium meaning that binding and dissociation are constantly happening to maintain balance. Therefore, these damaging compounds located in these synthetic fabrics are constantly releasing these compounds to some extent.
What is the largest organ of the human body? Skin. Skin is the largest organ of absorption and elimination. The mechanism by which this works is that when toxins are absorbed by the skin, where they travel from the lymphatic system to the liver, commonly known as the chemical-processing plant of the body where the harmful toxins are vented through the skin. However, the presence of petrochemical fibers, released through clothing suffocates the skin effectively shutting down toxic release. This may be the cause in the onset of disease.
The takeaway from this is not to burn your clothes with polyester, nylon, etc. (although since it is not biodegradable, that would be the only way to properly dispose of it). This is a warning to become more aware of personal and environmental issues caused by chemicals in our everyday life. The first step is awareness; people must understand not to overlook anything due to the prevalence of chemicals. Next, people need a tool that can be used to answer any questions regarding a chemical they spot, whether it be on fabrics, foods, etc. The solution to this second problem can be found at ViridisChem’s Green Pocketbook. This software allows a complete chemical analysis of a plethora of chemicals within the database. While we cannot help others become aware of the human and environmental dangers, those who possess the proper knowledge will find success using this tool.