Death by fashion: is your wardrobe poisoning the world's water supply?

A Greenpeace investigation has found traces of the toxin NPE in clothes made by 14 major brands. Gervase Poulden reports

A Greenpeace investigation has discovered the toxic chemical nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE) in clothing made by 14 major brands, including Adidas, H&M, Converse and Abercrombie and Fitch. NPE breaks down to form nonylphenol in water, which disrupts hormone levels and has been known to cause fish to change gender. Due to its persistence, nonylphenol builds up in each level in the food chain, meaning humans receive the highest dosage and can suffer from hormone imbalances as a result of eating contaminated fish and water.

The chemical is banned from use in textile production in the EU but in China and other Asian countries such as Vietnam, where many global clothing brands source their products from, lax restrictions mean that NPE is widely used in the dyeing process.

Some of the clothing labels named in Greenpeace’s study have hit back, with many disputing the significance of the findings. H&M have claimed that because the methods used for testing NPE levels are uncertain, studies such as Greenpeace’s that rely on a low threshold of contamination are ‘untrustworthy’. ‘Since the level of the findings stated [by Greenpeace] are very low, you cannot show that our products contain nonylphenol ethoxylate,' the company said in a statement to the Ecologist.

Adidas has also pointed out that the NPE levels found by Greenpeace in their own products were all below 100mg/kg. In comparison, one Converse t-shirt in Greenpeace’s study was found to have 27,000mg/kg. ‘The concentration was well below our own threshold,’ Katja Schreiber, an Adidas spokeswoman, told the Ecologist. Schreiber did, however, add that the findings were, ‘a clear sign that we need to continue to work in decreasing the amount of chemical substances in our products.’

Greenpeace have dismissed these objections as ‘nonsense’. ‘For Greenpeace the concentration levels don’t matter at all,’ explained Marietta Harjono, Greenpeace International Toxic Campaigner. ‘The levels that we have found are not an indication of toxic discharges that have occurred during production,’ she added, implying that lower levels in the finished clothing items could simply mean that more of the chemical had been washed into the water supply earlier in the process.

Harjono believes that the problem will not be solved until clothing brands pay more attention to their supply chain. ‘What we really want from a company like Adidas is to respect the right to know. We are seeking transparency throughout the supply chain and we want them to force their suppliers to disclose their chemical discharges.’


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