This week, amid the hubbub over Donald Trump’s Taiwan Twitter tantrums and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, there lurked a news story that, had it broken at a more serene sociocultural moment, might have trended. In a memo to its members last week, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants reported that a substantial number of American Airlines employees are disgruntled about their new uniforms—and not because of the way they look. “We have received over 1,600 flight attendant reports of suspected uniform reactions that include headaches, rashes, hives, burning skin and eye irritation, itching, and respiratory problems—to name a few,” the letter read. And while the organization demanded a full recall, it was reported this week that three lab tests conducted by the airline determined the fabric to be safe.
Still, the anecdotal evidence is disquieting. Could fashion, in fact, be hazardous to your health? (Matters of psychological well-being aside, that is.) Though the casual observer might be inclined to blame a bad batch of polyester, the story has another twist: The uniforms were made from natural wool. Which raises a question that fashion enthusiasts, even the increasing number of them concerned with sustainability, tend not to contemplate: What, exactly, besides the fiber itself, is in our clothes—and should we be worried?
“It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on,” says David Andrews, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit that researches the risks consumer products pose to human health. “Clothing has labeling for the materials, and yet it may be treated with numerous chemicals,” including not only dyes but also compounds “to make it nonstick or stain-repellent or wrinkle-free.” And he’s not only referring to the obvious Dockers. “All the largest chemical manufacturers in the country have pages of their websites dedicated to clothing additives,” he continues. “Yet as a consumer, you’re very much blinded to that information.”
So, too, are many designers themselves: The presence of such additives “may not be so obvious to the purchaser [of the material], either,” says Paul David Blanc, M.D., a professor and a chair of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and author of the new book Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon (Yale University Press).
Both experts, however, agree that itchy, inflamed skin is the tip of the symptomatic iceberg. For starters, in the case of nonstick compounds, which Andrews says “can be detected in the blood of pretty much all Americans”: “We’re learning that in the last few years that low concentrations [in the body] can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, or potentially lead to developmental issues”—in both aquatic life and human fetuses. Another compound used for washing during fabric production—a hormone disrupter known as NPE, which lingers on clothes, drains into waterways, and was found in a Greenpeace study to be present in two-thirds of clothing samples tested (most commonly, those made in China)—was banned in imports by the EU last year.
Yet as Blanc explains, “by and large, the end user is not at a particular health risk” from contact between skin and trace amounts of chemicals. But, he notes—and as his book documents in grim detail—“most of the issues with textiles that have been of greatest importance are the health effects on people who make them.” With that in mind, directing dollars toward brands and stores with an emphasis on organic and ethically produced clothing is a helpful, if not foolproof, first step. Still, Blanc points out, “What we really need at the societal level are regulatory mechanisms that guarantee what we’re purchasing is safe and the people who made it are safe. And not only are we in fairly weak territory on that, but”—with the Environmental Protection Agency potentially about to be overseen (and perhaps decimated) by a longtime fossil fuel industry ally—“it’s about to get weaker.”