The Monster on Your Back

We cause ourselves great making sure that what we eat and the environment in which we live are free of harm; we avoid chemically sprayed food, industrially packaged water, factory prepared beverages, and artificially ripened fruits. We protect ourselves against the hazardous ultraviolet rays of the sun; we stay away from the smoke and the noise that are constantly polluting the air we breathe. Awareness of environmental hazards has never been higher.  So, how is it possible that we live with the real monsters clinging to our bare backs?

Like most people, I never considered how my clothes were made, or what they were made of.  I didn’t know the difference between natural fibers and synthetics or what impact my choices had on sustainability, environmental damage, or my health.

Sound familiar?  Let’s take it from the beginning and figure it out together.


The textile industry once relied basically on natural fabric materials such as silk, cotton, jute, wool, flax, hemp cashmere, coir, and abaca. These are natural products and posed no threat to the environment or to the individual wearing them. Of course, there is no profit to be made when natural fibers are plentiful and abundant.

So enters everyone’s favorite chemical company, DuPont.  In the 1930’s Dupont created the first synthetic fiber, Rayon, which is still used for much of our clothing. Rayon is a textile that is essentially made from “purified cellulose, primarily from wood pulp, which is chemically converted into a soluble compound”

That’s right – it is made from trees.  Around this time DuPont and the timber industry teamed up to successfully ensure that hemp was banned.  Rayon and paper could, therefore, continue to be made by chemically processing wood from trees without competition.

If we fast-forward a couple of decades the “wash and wear” revolution, 1953 saw the introduction of polyester into fabrics. Polyester is a compound in a class of petroleum-derived substances known as polymers. Thus, polyester (in common with most polymers) begins its life in our time as crude oil. Crude oil is a cocktail of components that can be separated by industrial distillation. Gasoline is one of these components, and the precursors of polymers such as polyethylene are also present.

These synthetic materials are produced using highly toxic chemicals and while they may not produce immediate reactions for most, the long term accumulation of these toxins added to our polluted air, water, and food have been proven to cause numerous health ailments, including cancer.

Progress(?) marches on, and today we use a huge variety of chemicals as textiles and additives: Rayon, Saran, Acetate, Modacyclic, Acrylic, Polyester, Liocel, Olefin, Sulfer, Rubber and Nylon, just to name a few.

Now that we have brought all of these toxic chemicals into our homes and worn them for a few days, naturally we need to wash them….

Our clothes smell and feel so fresh and clean straight from the dryer and I can’t wait to bury my face in them. But wait, apart from the toxicity of detergents, bleaches, and washing soap we also run the risk of formaldehyde and other very toxic chemicals coming in contact with our body and our environment, including:

  • Polyester – the worst fabric you can buy. It is made from synthetic polymers that are made from esters of dihydric alcohol and terpthalic acid which causes skin irritation and respiratory discomfort when swallowed
  • Acrylic –  fabrics are polycrylonitriles and may cause cancer, according to the EPA
  • Rayon – recycled wood pulp that must be treated with chemicals like caustic soda, ammonia, acetone, and sulfuric acid to survive regular washing and wearing
  • Acetate and Triacetate – are made from wood fibers called cellulose and undergo extensive chemical processing to produce the finished product. These chemicals are known to cause skin and nasal irritation
  • Nylon is made from petroleum and is often given a permanent chemical finish that can be harmful
  • Anything static resistant, stain resistant, permanent press, wrinkle-free, stain proof, or moth repellent. Many stain resistant and wrinkle-free fabrics are treated with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), like Teflon, which causes polymer fumes, a Flu-like effects in humans that can also be hazardous to birds
  • Formaldehyde is used in packaging clothes so that they will not be rumpled in transit and is a major irritant to our airways

Apart from direct skin contact during washing, a bigger challenge is that of disposing the wash waste water.

All of these fabrics and toxic chemicals are totally non-biodegradable, they do not degenerate, and therefore, end up as permanent additions to our water, soil, and air.

  • If the toxins end up in the air, we may breathe them in, causing repository, cardiovascular, and other diseases. Or, the rain will wash them down into our soil and waterways
  • The soil serves as the base of our food chain, the source of nutrition to plants who subsequently absorbs these toxic substances along with soil nutrients. Since plants cannot process these unnatural toxins, the toxins will build up in the plant’s tissues indefinitely.  Eventually the plant will either die and return the toxins to the environment all over again, be harvested for human consumption, or be passed on to other animals, both wild and animals raised by the agriculture industry. In short, once these poisons become part of the food chain, they never leave it – indeed they become present in higher and higher concentrations as you move up the food chain, a process called bioaccumulation.
  • Some of the waste  water may also find its way into larger bodies of water such as ponds and lakes, poisoning aquatic life as well as drinking water.  In a similar way, the toxins can enter the aquatic food chain, poisoning the fish and other foodstuff we harvest from oceans and lakes.  As on land, the toxins accumulate as you move up the food chain, so a predatory fish like a salmon will have a much higher toxin levels than a sardine

Of course, when we are done with our clothes and other fabrics we need to dispose of them.  An average US citizen throws away over 70 pounds of clothing per year,  and clothing consumes over 5% of US landfill space. Overseas the story is even grimmer.  The US alone exports nearly 7 billion tons (yes that was billion… with a “B”) most of which ends up in landfills in poor countries with little to no environmental safeguards.  

Because synthetic fabrics cannot biodegrade, they remain in landfills perpetually releasing toxins into the air, land, and water.

Once these substances enter our body, they cannot be destroyed, so they continue to accumulate, leading to toxic poisoning of internal organs such as the liver, kidney, pancreas, and intestinal tract. Most of these toxins are carried directly through our blood vessels to our hearts, lungs, and brains.

If you are like me, all of this information comes as a shock. Fortunately, the solution is startlingly simple.

It is time to return to natural organic fibers!

That’s it… no rocket science.  So next time you go shopping make sure to read the label and find out what your clothes are made of.

Get that monster off your back.


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