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Clothing Chemicals Get Washed Down the Drain—and Into Rivers and Lakes

When you do your laundry, you're putting fish and their aquatic ecosystems in danger.

Last time you did your laundry, you probably washed chemicals into the water system that will stay there for years. You probably didn’t realize it. But the textile industry uses a vast array of chemicals to create, dye, and process the clothes they sell, and when you buy a new shirt or skirt or pair of pants, some of those chemicals are still on the fabric. And when you wash them, those chemicals slough off, get washed down the drain, and end up in rivers and lakes.

As part of its campaign to convince the textile industry to stop using chemicals, Greenpeace measured the concentration of these chemicals—nonylphenol ethoxylates, or NPEs—on swaths of clothing before and after washing them. Some of the world’s most popular brands—Nike, H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, Calvin Klein—made the clothes from which these swaths were cut. The concentration dropped for all of the samples they tested, indicating that the chemicals had found their way into the water. Some samples lost about 10 percent of their chemical concentrations; some lost as much as 94 percent.

As Greenpeace is quick to point out, the NPEs on your clothes aren’t going to kill you. In the water, however, they will break down into a chemical called nonylphenol, or NP, which will do some serious damage to fish and their aquatic ecosystems. The European Union categorizes NPs as a “priority hazardous substance,” which means that all emissions of the stuff need to be phased out. In Sweden, most of the NPEs in their water come from newly-washed clothes. In United States, it’s harder to assess the amount of damage our collective laundry is causing. The Environmental Protection Agency recognizes NPs and NPEs as a problem, and it’s working on adding the chemicals to the Toxics Release Inventory. Once they’re on that list, reporting requirements will kick, and it’ll be clearer how these chemicals are entering the water here.

Greenpeace has been working hard to call attention to the chemical footprint of the textiles industry. By targeting high-profile brands, the group thinks it can change the way the textile industry does business. Textile factories serve a multiplicity of customers, and if their biggest orders from international brands require them to stop using chemicals, they’ll likely change over the process for smaller customers, too. The campaign’s had success so far in convincing brands like Nike and H&M to work towards creating clothing without chemicals. But there are still hold-outs, like Abercrombie and Calvin Klein.

As long as we’re buying clothes from brands, we can demand that they use their power to prioritize positive changes like the ones Greenpeace is advocating for. Places like the European Union and the United States, where governments are working to minimize the dumping of these chemicals in waterways at home, have outsourced their pollution to countries with fewer protections. Most of the chemicals that are used to make our clothes get dumped in places like India and China, where they’re made and dyed. This new research shows, though, that as long as the textile industry uses these chemicals, they’ll follow consumers back home.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Average Jane.

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