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Don't Sweat It
But Your Gym Clothes Could Be Toxic....
Today’s story is a hard one, even for me. When I’m feeling stressed, I go for long walks, usually in my yoga pants. I also love to get sweaty in the gym. In a world full of so much chaos, working out helps brings me some calm.
I hadn’t thought much about what my workout clothes were made of until this new research emerged earlier this year. Gah! Here we go….
Sports clothes are particularly problematic because most of their fabrics are made from synthetics like Spandex, nylon, and polyester, which are essentially plastic. These materials are made from petrochemicals, or the products obtained from petroleum refining. Many times, these clothes also contain harmful chemical additives such as phthalates, PFAS, and bisphenols.
A 2022 report by Toxic-Free Future, an environmental health research and advocacy organization, found that nearly three-quarters of products labeled as water- or stain-resistant tested positive for PFAS. Another study by the American Chemical Society found textile products sold in the U.S. and Canada contained high concentrations of PFAS in materials used in children's uniforms marketed as stain-resistant.
The problem is that when we sweat, chemical additives can leach out of clothing and get absorbed through our skin. Another route of toxic exposure!
In the study, researchers at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom looked at a class of compounds called brominated flame retardants (BFR), which are used to prevent burning in everything from fabrics to furnishings. Adverse health effects from exposure can include endocrine and thyroid disruption, immunotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, and cancer.
The scientists found that because sweat contains oil, and oil has a lipophilic chemical nature that encourages the chemicals in plastic to dissolve and diffuse, the oil in your body can leach chemicals from the plastic.
In short, the sweat “helps the bad chemicals to come out of the microplastic fibers and become available for human absorption,” Dr Mohamed Abdallah, an associate professor in environmental science at the University of Birmingham, and the principal investigator of the study, told The Guardian.
Flame retardants are added to some fabrics, but they are not always associated with sportswear. Further research is needed to know more about the type and quantity of chemicals that could escape from synthetic workout wear.
But Abdallah said the study implies that other chemical plastic additives, like bisphenols (which have been found at up to 40 times the safe limit of exposure in items from popular sportswear brands), phthalates and PFAS, “may leach out into sweat and become available for dermal absorption.”
The other issue is that chemicals in plastics bioaccumulate, so different and repeated exposure over time can certainly contribute to health problems. We just have so little research to help understand it all.
One cohort study from earlier this year of more than 560,000 people is cause for concern. Researchers found increasing rates of early-onset cancer in the U.S. (meaning people under 50), particularly women, with gastrointestinal, endocrine (including thyroid) and breast cancers rising at the fastest rates. In 2019, breast cancer had the highest number of incident early-onset cases.
Big Fashion’s Impact on Water
It’s also worth noting the fashion industry’s negative touch on our water and environment in general.
The industry emits up to 10 percent of global carbon emissions and continues to be the second-largest consumer of water, according to reporting in FairPlanet.
The production of synthetic fabrics also creates wastewater that releases lead, arsenic, benzene, and other pollutants into water sources.
Recent studies have shown that only one in 10 fashion companies keep track of their water pollution levels, while less than a quarter of companies have set goals to reduce water pollution across the supply-chain.
While many people have become accustomed to the look of sleek workout clothes, we have to consider their impact on our bodies and the environment.
When shopping, consider whenever possible natural fibers that require less water and that have less harmful chemicals in them such as organic linen, cotton, bamboo, or hemp. While the price tag is generally higher, the risk to your health is lower.
You can also reduce the amount of time you spend wearing synthetic clothing. Take your clothes off after your workout and change into more sustainable fibers.
Check out To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making Us Sick — And How We Can Fight Back, by Alden Wicker, known as a Silent Spring for your wardrobe.
This post talks about which sustainable certifications for clothing are the most trustworthy.
I know it can be expensive to swap everything all at once, so start where you can and replace more of the synthetics with sustainable options as you can.
Have more ideas about how to avoid toxic chemicals especially as we enter into the holiday season? Share more in the comments below.