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Cotton Products "Made in China:" Is Your Baby Safe?

Written By: Christine Dantz

Most everyone loves the feel of cotton; from cotton t-shirts, cotton onesies, and cotton pajamas, to cotton blankets, bath towels, and even cotton swabs. But are cotton products made in China safe enough for your baby?

Cotton is a natural product, but does natural always mean safe? In April 2014, China released a report showing 19.4 percent of the Asian country's farmlands are contaminated. China is also the largest grower of cotton in the world, producing 33 million bales of cotton between 2010 and 2012. One bale of cotton can make 690 terry bath towels. In 2011, the U.S. imported over $16 million in cotton apparel and other cotton household products. Overall, the U.S. imports 98 percent of all clothing, despite being the third largest cotton exporter in the world.

End the Cotton Myth

Most cotton is natural, however, unless it's labeled organic, natural may not be safe. Even in the U.S., cotton is a dirty crop because of all the dangerous chemicals used in cultivating it. Out of 15 common pesticides used on cotton crops in the U.S., seven fall under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) list of potential or known cancer causing agents. Overall, cotton cultivation uses 25 percent of the world's pesticides and over 10 percent of the insecticides.

On top of pesticides, and insecticides, using formaldehyde is a common practice in textile manufacturing. Have you ever wondered how clothing stays so neat and wrinkle-free on the racks? Just as it preserves deceased loved ones for viewing after death, it keeps clothing preserved during storage, transport, and display.

What's in the Soil?

Because cotton is the world's dirtiest crop, "what's in the soil?" is a universal question. China comes in first place for "toxic environment" issues, with India not far behind. Both countries have a long history of poor environmental controls. The 2014 report released by the government in China indicated:

  • Close to 83 percent of the land is contaminated by inorganic pollutants
  • The highest levels of contamination are cadmium, nickel, and arsenic
  • The source of pollution is directly linked to industrial and agricultural activities  
  • Farmland in China is often located in close to chemical plants, mines, and heavy metal factories

The U.S. isn't innocent; however, the increase over the past decade in organic cotton cultivation is helping to lesson soil toxins. While no one ingests cotton, traditional cotton crops contaminate their adjacent farmland's soil.

Photo of Byron Bay - one of Australia's best beaches!

A farmer in Hunan Province prepared to plant sweet potatoes late last year. Behind him is a smokestack at a lead factory. Credit Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

The Formaldehyde Isn't Alone

From plant to thread, the process of converting cotton into clothing brings even more chemicals that are dangerous into the mix.

  • Nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE) - a chemical found in industrial laundry detergents as a lubricant. It is not biodegradable and significant amounts remain in the textiles after washing. The EPA banned U.S. textiles from using NPE, but that doesn't include its use on textile imports. Compounding the problem is the runoff of NPE contaminates water supplies and soil. Tests have detected the toxic chemical in breast milk, blood, and urine
  • Bleached Cotton-Non-organic cotton is bleached with either chlorine or hydrogen peroxide to strip away the other harsh chemicals used in the cultivation process as well as any dirt, mold, or bacteria
  • Turning bleached white thread into colorful products requires dozens of additional chemicals

Multiple washings can reduce some chemicals found in clothing and other textiles, unfortunately, it won't eliminate them. The best option is to search for products manufactured organically.

Tight, Body Hugging Baby Clothes

Anyone who's bought new baby pajamas knows the large yellow tags warn the fabric is NOT flame resistant and must fit snug to prevent catching fire. Tight clothing rubs across the skin where any remaining chemicals are absorbed into the skin. At the very least, these chemicals can cause painful, irritating rashes.

What you may not know about the pajamas without the large yellow warning labels is that federal law on children's sleepwear requires a coating of formaldehyde because the toxic carcinogen prevents the cotton from catching fire.

Dethrone King Cotton

The pre-Civil War South may have been wrong in 1858 about the power of the cotton crop; nonetheless, today cotton is king. Cotton uses 3 percent of the world's farmland, nearly another 3 percent of the world's water usage, and accounts for 50 percent of the textile crops in the world. These numbers don't even touch the overall environmental hazards of the traditional cotton industry.

The problem with dethroning king cotton is the bottom line. Estimated revenues associated with the industry is near $100 billion in the United States alone. The world produces 29 million tons of cotton each year to feed the king-sized appetite for the universal fiber.

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