Dear Umbra,

My nephew says that new clothes and other apparel that come from foreign countries are treated with toxic chemicals to avoid various types of fungal or insect contamination, and upon arriving at the loading dock of your favorite wanker-mart, they are ripe to toxify the air, your skin, your eyes. He worked on such a dock and had to wear a respirator and other protective devices to avoid dangerous levels of exposure to the stuff. So I am wondering how toxic the average clothing/apparel store is with all those new clothes drenched in toxic chemicals, synthetic fibers blowing around, etc. And when you wash the clothes, do the toxics contaminate the wastewater as well, and end up coming out of your kitchen faucet?

Thanks,
David Shelton

Dear David,

Hanging on Umbra’s every word.

I hope your nephew has found a new line of work. Chemicals are used to produce and process fabrics, dye them, make them wrinkle-free, clean them, and, as your nephew tells us, keep them from becoming insect nests during shipping. Many of these chemicals will give off gas either when newly applied or throughout their lives. Therefore it’s reasonable to assume that there are many toxics in the stale air of clothing stores — but difficult to quantify precisely how many.

Nonetheless, I will brashly say: Unless you work in them, clothing stores should not be your primary environmental concern. Wash new clothing before you wear it, and do not buy wrinkle-free leisure suits. In terms of your own personal health, it would be more fruitful to fret about chemicals at home or work, where you and yours spend most of your hours. I’ll give you a worry-starter: Toxics watchers seem most alarmed about formaldehyde, a probable carcinogen used in permanent-press vestments and many non-garment household items such as drapery, particle-board bargain bookshelves, and new kitchen cabinets.

As for your question about wastewater — our waterways are full of chemicals that slip from our clothes, lawns, farms, and cars to pass their half-life in the scenic groundwater of the world. The U.S. EPA has national guidelines and protocols for water quality and treatment, and the United States has some of the cleanest drinking water in the world. We’ve got it as good as it gets. If you are concerned about your local water, the utility managing it should be able to send you water-quality reports that set your mind at ease. Or not.

As I see it, the people who bear the brunt of toxins in apparel are laborers in other countries, where workplace safety and water-quality protections are sub-standard, to put it nicely. If you wish to take your concerns further back on the supply chain, find ways to support fair-labor practices in developing countries.

Sharing your dismay,
Umbra