Is 'Toxic Fashion' making us sick? A look at the chemicals lurking in our clothes
TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Most of us have gotten into the habit of checking out the ingredient labels on our foods or skin products. But what about our clothing? If you flip that little tag on the back of your collar, you won't see much information except for maybe where the garment is made or if it's cotton or something else but nothing about the chemicals used to keep that fabric vibrant, waterproof or wrinkle-free.
Well, our guest today, journalist Alden Wicker, began investigating why a few years ago, after some flight attendants started having awful reactions, like painful skin rashes, inflammatory diseases and even trouble breathing, after wearing their uniforms. Wicker's investigation led her to the unregulated use of potentially harmful chemicals in everyday clothing, and she's written a book about it titled "To Dye For" - spelled D-Y-E - "How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick - And How We Can Fight Back." Alden Wicker is an independent journalist and founder and editor-in-chief of EcoCult, a website that tracks the world of fast and sustainable fashion. She's published investigative pieces for The New York Times, Vogue and Wired.
Alden Wicker, welcome to FRESH AIR.
ALDEN WICKER: Thank you for having me.
MOSLEY: Let's go back to 2018. Designer Zac Posen has just designed a new uniform for Delta flight attendants. They're sleek. They're very retro. But almost immediately, some attendants started getting sick. What were they experiencing?
WICKER: Some of the reactions they were having were really horrendous. So it usually started with things like rashes and breathing problems, swollen eyes, brain fog, and then it would start progressing to more serious effects, like losing their hair. Some of them had their bathtubs or their bras or even their pearl earrings stained with this special purple dye. So it got worse as it went along. But a lot of them, it took them many, many months to make that connection.
MOSLEY: Right. I was thinking, how did they know that it was the uniforms making them sick?
WICKER: Well, it was pretty clear that something had changed after the introduction of the uniforms. They started getting sick, and then, you know, these flight attendants, they spend a lot of time together in the galleys at the back of the planes or in crash pads in these cities. And they would talk to each other and say, oh, you know, my period's gotten pretty wacky. Oh, well, my hair is falling out. Some of the airline attendants would tell me that they would start getting these reactions, and then the other airline attendants would be like, have you thought about the uniforms?
But, you know, these airlines tended to say, oh, no, it's not that. We've had the uniforms tested. We're not going to share the exact results with you, but we're confident that they're safe, and whatever's in them is not causing these reactions. So I was told recently by a Delta flight attendant on a flight that I was on that it really took her a long time to make that connection 'cause she believed the company. And then when she finally got a look-alike uniform that she just bought off the rack at a store, her breathing problems went away.
MOSLEY: What was in the clothing?
WICKER: So all sorts of things. There were the disperse dyes which are used to dye, specifically, polyester clothing. And a lot of these new uniforms, as they were switched out - not only at Delta, but three other major airlines - were being switched from these more traditional wool suiting to synthetic blends. And so they would have to add disperse dyes, which are known skin sensitizers, and then they would also have to add fire-retardant chemistry because wool is naturally fire-retardant, but polyester is not. It'll go up in flames if you hold it too close to a flame for a while.
And then they also had easy-care technology, so they had stain repellency, which is almost always provided by perfluorinated chemistry, PFAS. And that's - those are known toxic chemicals. They're called forever chemicals because they're so persistent, and they've been linked to, you know, reproductive toxicity, thyroid issues, birth defects, all sorts of things. And then also anti-wrinkle finishes, antifungal finishes - basically anything they could do to make these uniforms so resistant to any sort of wear and tear that they would hardly even need to wash them.
MOSLEY: So those anti-wrinkle finishes and the finishes to prevent mildew and mold and things like that, we're talking about formaldehyde and Teflon were used as chemical finishing as well, right?
WICKER: Yes. So Teflon is the brand name for water and stain repellent finishes, and that's PFAS, which you might know has been in the news lately because it's been found in the water of half of all Americans. And part of the reason why it's in the water of so many Americans is because there are still manufacturers in the United States of textiles for clothing, performance clothing, uniforms and furniture that use this stain-repellent chemistry, and then they put it in the water. And there's nothing illegal about that.
MOSLEY: OK. So when Delta was asked, at the time, about the sick flight attendants, they said that, of their 64,000 workers, only about 1% of them experienced these kind of symptoms. You know, with those percentages, it's kind of easy to brush it off and say, well, maybe it's just a few folks who are sensitive, who have sensitive skin. But you asked yourself whether these cases were isolated to the airline industry or if, basically, the flight attendants were early detectors of a more widespread phenomenon. And what did you find?
WICKER: Well, the first thing I found is that, in order to defend themselves, a lot of these uniform makers would say, well, this is the same type of chemistry that you can find on any normal apparel, as if that's supposed to make the attendants feel better. But it's true. Almost all of this chemistry you can find on anything that you and I can buy in the store. The difference is that these flight attendants were able to make that connection because there was a very clear before and after. They wear these uniforms for 12 hours or more than that if they're doing these long overnight flights. They sleep in them sometimes, and they can talk to each other and make those connections.
If you or I had several toxic pieces of clothing in our wardrobe, how would we know what's causing our rash? A rash can show up and stay for a week after contact once. We have dozens of different things that we wear every week, and it can be really hard for you or I to make that connection. But there are a lot of clues that something is going wrong in the health of average Americans and especially women.
MOSLEY: I want to go back a little bit to talk a little more about the use of formaldehyde, also metal and lead. Why would these chemicals be in our clothing?
WICKER: There's a lot of different reasons why these chemicals would be in our clothing. Sometimes they're deliberately used in finishes to give textiles performance quality. So formaldehyde is a base ingredient for a lot of these anti-wrinkle finishes. Lead...
MOSLEY: And when you say anti-wrinkle, you mean wrinkle-free. So if we buy a pair of pants or a skirt and we don't have to iron it, essentially.
WICKER: Exactly. Exactly. And some of these - you know, lead has been added, traditionally, to dyes to make them brighter. And other things are added purposely throughout the manufacturing process - so to process, to create some of these synthetic fibers like polyester or especially PVC or polyurethane, to dye them, to finish them, to - and some of these things are used - like, pesticides or antifungals are used in the warehouses or in the ships so that they contaminate the clothing kind of by accident as they're being shipped over to us.
MOSLEY: I do want to ask, is higher-end clothing better or safer than cheap clothes, or is it more complicated than that?
WICKER: Well, just this morning I was looking at some of the underlying data behind Fashion Revolution's Transparency Index, which just came out last week.
MOSLEY: And they're a watchdog group.
WICKER: Yes, they're a watchdog group founded after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, which killed over 1,100 workers. And so they have this index that ranks fashion brands, not according to sustainability or ethics, but just how much they're sharing about what they're doing. And some of the things they're looking at is whether or not brands are engaging in good practices around safe chemistry.
So I was looking at all of these different brands - the ones that are doing a lot, the ones that are doing absolutely nothing. And there weren't a lot of luxury fashion brands that were doing nothing, but there were a few. And there are also fast-fashion brands that are doing a lot. So there's no hard and fast rule that the more you pay for fashion, the safer it's going to be.
MOSLEY: OK, so you talked to several people who believe their lives were basically turned upside down from their clothing. Were you surprised by what you found, or did you already have some inkling as a journalist covering the fashion industry?
WICKER: It was completely shocking and surprising to me. When I first heard about the Delta Airlines flight attendants, I'd been writing about fashion for almost a decade, and I was one of these people that would look at the ingredient list on beauty products. I wrote a lot about garment workers and the effects that pollution has on their communities where they create fashion. But I had never heard anything about fashion being so toxic that it could cause problems to the end consumer or the end wearer. But when I looked into it more, it was everywhere. It was the sort of thing where once you see it, you can't unsee it.
So once I started looking into it, and I saw the kind of reactions that the flight attendants were having, I started looking around for other people who weren't wearing uniforms to see what the reactions they were having. And I talked to all sorts of people. I talked to a mother whose toddler refused to get dressed in the morning and had such severe eczema that he developed sores behind his elbows and knees. And the only thing that made it better was her buying non-toxic-certified fabric offline and creating his own underwear for him to wear. I talked to a fashion worker in New York who oversaw production for a series of brands, and her health began to spiral downward after she identified that she was allergic to several substances used in fashion. But of course, she couldn't avoid it because she works in fashion, but also because she has to wear clothing to live.
WICKER: And then I talked to a garment worker in India who had terrible cauliflower rashes on her arms and legs because she was working in a garment factory sewing synthetic clothing for the domestic market.
MOSLEY: You know, part of the challenge, I'm guessing, for anyone who's experiencing an adverse reaction to a piece of clothing is that it might be hard to pinpoint what might be causing their distress. So they might know it. You know, I mean, you wear a piece of clothing, and you have a rash all of a sudden, and you go to the doctor, and you say, I suspect this sweater or these pants might have caused this. And the doctor might just say, well, don't wear it anymore. But beyond that, I'm guessing it's probably pretty hard to get very far. You talk about this mother who ended up making her own clothes for her child.
WICKER: Well, I mean, I would be surprised if many people are going to their doctor and saying, I know it's my clothes, because a lot of people I talked to tried everything else before they came to that conclusion because this is just not something that people are talking about. I spoke to a - this is recently - I spoke to someone who used to work at a mass-market store, folding T-shirts all day. And she said she developed these rashes all over her hands. She went to the doctor. The doctor said, what detergent are you using? What soaps are you using? What lotions are you using? They never talked about her job.
MOSLEY: They never brought up clothing or her job.
WICKER: No. And I spoke to a lot of people - you know, some of these flight attendants who - they would say, look, I know it's the uniforms. And the doctors just say, well, there's no evidence of that. So here's some steroid cream, and good luck.
MOSLEY: For the book, how were you able to assess what reactions a person might be experiencing is due to their clothing versus outside factors like the environment?
WICKER: Well, unfortunately, in the United States, it can be really hard to pinpoint that it's coming from fashion. We have a lot of front-line communities that live near factories, that live near highways, that might live in homes that still have lead exposure. And so it was pretty difficult for me to find people who could say, I know this is from my fashion. Because, you know, especially in communities of color, there's a lot of other things that might be causing this.
And so to find people, I had to find people that have control over their environment, have tried everything else and have access to medical care. Often the types of doctors that will address this - they don't take insurance. They only take cash. So it can really be a privilege to get to the point where you can even say, hey, this is my clothing, and to be able to try to reduce your exposure.
MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest today is Alden Wicker, fashion sustainability journalist and author of the new book "To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick - And How We Can Fight Back." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S "SHIMMER")
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Today we're talking to Alden Wicker, fashion sustainability journalist and author of "To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick - And How We Can Fight Back." Alden Wicker is an independent journalist and founder and editor-in-chief of EcoCult, a website that tracks the world of fast fashion and sustainable fashion.
You devote an entire chapter to the possibility that chemicals like BPA and PFAs and phthalates are endocrine disruptors - the possibility that they can cause or contribute to reproductive problems for women. You know, we're pretty familiar with the harm of phthalates and BPAs in children's products and plastics, but I have never heard of it in clothing. So can you explain this a little bit more?
WICKER: So recently there were tests of polyester spandex workout gear - things like sports bras, socks, T-shirts - that showed that they had high levels of BPA. And what we've been told in the past is that we don't need to worry about fashion having hazardous substances because, you know, it's not like we eat it, and we don't know how much is getting onto our skin or getting into our bodies, so let's not be too hasty here.
The thing about endocrine disruptors, though, is that they can do a lot of damage even at very, very, very low amounts. So research shows that an amount the size of a drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool can cross the placenta and cause long-term damage to the fetus. And that's not a lot. And it's definitely what you can get from wearing clothing because, of course, we know now that microfibers can break off our clothing when we wash it, and also when we wear it. They get into our house dust. We can breathe them in. We can also breathe in any volatile organic compounds that are off-gassing or breathing out into the air around us.
So we're definitely ingesting high amounts of these chemicals or high enough amounts to do damage. And, you know, it's not just about our reproductive system. Our endocrine system, our hormones - they regulate all the important systems of our body - our energy levels, our brain, you know, our weight, our skin appearance. I mean, as anybody with thyroid disease can tell you, it's - your quality of life can be severely impacted when your endocrine system isn't functioning properly.
MOSLEY: As part of your reporting, you actually did your own testing of several pieces from different brands. You actually had some challenges in this. What did you find?
WICKER: Well, the first thing I found is that it's way too expensive to get your clothing tested. A lot of these commercial labs will not let normal people who are not brands get their things tested. Even if you can come up with the - well, I spent 10,000 - almost $10,000 getting five things tested for a limited number of substances.
MOSLEY: But you originally had planned to test dozens of pieces of clothing, right?
WICKER: I did. And then when I was working with the lab representative, he sent me back the original bill, and it was $17,000. And I was like, I paid $700 for all of these things together. And I've been asked by people, OK, well, so how do I get my things tested? I think I'm having a reaction. And I say, look, unless you're made of money, like, this - it might not even get you to where you want to go.
Because the thing about our current testing paradigm is that you have to know what you're looking for. And these tests have to test for each chemical individually. And each test can cost over $1,000. So when you know that there are at least 3,000 different chemicals used to create and manufacture fashion, there's just no way you're going to catch everything that's in there. And so you could pay a lot for tests and still miss the thing that is causing these reactions.
And I think that's part of what made it so difficult for these flight attendants and other consumers who have tried to sue fashion brands to hold them accountable for the reactions that they were causing, because these brands can avoid culpability by saying, well, just tell us the chemical that is causing all of your reactions. And that's an impossible task.
MOSLEY: You know, the other thing I was thinking about is just how we think about fabric in general. I think we've been conditioned to think of, you know, polyester and some of the other type of synthetic fabrics as maybe, like, less desirable - maybe if we were thinking about skin conditions and its impacts on us, we think about it in those terms - or how cotton might be better for us. Is that the case, or are these chemicals also used in cotton fabrics?
WICKER: Synthetic fabrics do tend to be riskier when it comes to some of these hazardous chemicals or some of these finishes that can cause reactions. But cotton and other natural fibers can also be coated in performance chemicals or be contaminated with some of these pesticides, fungicides or just other contaminants that can be in the chemical substances themselves that are used in the factories. So it's not a hard and fast rule, no. But I do recommend, and this is both from my research and the lived experiences of people who have sensitive skin or chronic illness, that people do try to wear natural fibers whenever possible as one way to decrease their exposure.
MOSLEY: Our guest today is journalist and author Alden Wicker. Her new book is called "To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick - And How We Can Fight Back." I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU'S "TALLAHASSEE JUNCTION")
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And today we're talking to journalist and author Alden Wicker. Her new book is called "To Dye For."
Let's talk about Shein for a minute. It's one of the most popular brands in the U.S. And they're facing all sorts of legal troubles - copyright infringement, accusations of forced labor - for a while now. And they've been known as one of the worst offenders of having concerning levels of chemicals in their clothing. What can you tell us about their use of toxic chemicals?
WICKER: There have been tests of Shein that have shown, especially in their children's products, that they have high levels of lead, high levels of phthalates, at up to 19 times California's safe limit for some of these substances. And they can get away with a lot, a lot more than some of the larger legacy brands.
What they do is they often ship their products straight from China or from Canada and Mexico. And because a lot of their shipments are under $800 - way, way under $800 - according to U.S. law, the Customs and Border Protection, they don't have to check these packages for safety. And they also don't even apply tariffs to them like they would to larger shipments. So that's a huge loophole for these ultra-fast fashion brands to be able to outcompete fashion brands that create a higher quality or safer product and also are more environmentally friendly.
MOSLEY: You know, I heard a conversation you had about the protests against Nike back in the '90s over the use of sweatshops, and how public outrage really didn't hurt the bottom line for the company. And I was thinking about a company like Shein, or maybe any other company that we may learn has bad business practices or uses toxic chemicals. Really, it will take more than public outrage, is kind of what you're saying in your book.
WICKER: I have not seen a good example of public education or outrage sending the fashion industry in the correct direction. I think a lot of consumers, most consumers, are aware that there are terrible things happening in our supply chain. And one of the only reasons that Nike, for example, started overhauling its supply chain to get rid of child labor was because its employees started failing the cocktail party test, which is, can you walk into a cocktail party, tell people what you do and not have them cringe a little bit? And especially for a company like Shein, which is based in China, that's definitely not going to happen. And that's actually one of the reasons why I chose to write about this particular subject in my book.
I had been offered the opportunity to write a pretty basic book about how to shop more sustainably, and that's been done - and done well - before. But I was starting to lose faith that just telling people about the atrocities that happened in our supply chain would convince them to shop better for a few reasons. One is that it's really hard when you have so many competing priorities to think about a garment worker who you'll never meet or never see across the other side of the world and keep her in mind when you're shopping. The other thing is that consumers would believe - or don't know that if they pay $5 more, that $5 is going to make it to that garment worker or to that cotton farmer. So when I was deciding what I wanted to write about, I realized that maybe the only and best way to get people to really care about what happens across the ocean is to show how it affects them.
MOSLEY: Alden, I want to get into regulation. You know, the closest thing we've gotten - it's not quite regulation, but it is an eye on the issue - is some states like California, which has Prop 65, which basically provides warning labels. And some of the warnings are like, this product contains a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer. I happen to live in California, and I appreciate this. But sometimes it really is scary because you basically see the warning everywhere on everything, and there's not the next step to take except for maybe not to purchase the product.
WICKER: It's true. It does seem really scary because it can be on so many different products, especially if they're plastic or contain any synthetic substances. But a lot of the work that Prop 65 has done has been underneath the surface. So the reason why we know that so many fashion products have been found to have things like BPA, which is a hormone-disrupting chemical - or phthalates, or lead, or cadmium - is because Prop 65 has made it possible for advocacy groups to buy products that are unlabeled, test them and then sue companies that don't remediate that.
So it doesn't say that you can't have those banned chemicals in clothing. It just says, if you do, you have to label them. And a lot of fashion brands do not want to put that label on their products. So there have been agreements where fashion brands have reduced cadmium, phthalates and lead out of their products. And we're going to start seeing that with BPA as well.
MOSLEY: You're also making the case for the passage of bills like the Fashion Act. What is the Fashion Act, and what would it do?
WICKER: The Fashion Act is a proposed law in New York City that would require fashion brands to know and list their suppliers down to at least, I think, Tier 1, for sure, and share the environmental impact of the manufacturing that goes into their supply chain. Right now, a lot of fashion brands say, well, we only have control over, you know, our headquarters and our stores. But the decisions that fashion brands make around sourcing, around how much they'll pay, have real effects on the environmental impact of their fashion.
So that would get us a pretty good, long way toward reducing the negative environmental impact. And also, it would help us with toxic fashion chemistry, because a fashion brand that does not know who is dyeing the textiles going into their clothing is a fashion brand that probably has contamination and deliberately applied toxic chemicals on their fashion.
MOSLEY: What is the appetite currently for the passage of something like the Fashion Act?
WICKER: I think the fashion industry - or I know the fashion industry was very much caught off guard by the introduction of this legislation. They don't really have a lot of lobbyists right now, so there hasn't been a ton of pushback. But also, there hasn't been many brands that have wanted to get on board either, even the ones that tout their sustainability, because what the Fashion Act asks them to do is rather expensive, will require hiring people to manage the process, as these things do.
But, you know, there are some fashion brands, surprisingly, like H&M, that have come out publicly, especially in the European Union and in California, as saying that the current paradigm is not enough, that they want to know more about what chemical substances are in the manufacturing of their products and are asking for something to be done.
MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest today is Alden Wicker, fashion sustainability journalist and author of the new book "To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick - And How We Can Fight Back." This is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking to Alden Wicker, fashion journalist and author of "To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick - And How We Can Fight Back." Alden Wicker is an independent journalist and founder and editor in chief of EcoCult, a website that tracks the world of fast fashion and sustainable fashion.
Alden, one of the things you do in this book is to give folks some practical tips on what they can do to be better consumers and protect themselves from these potentially toxic chemicals in our clothing. So let's go through a few of them. First, avoid cheap knockoff or unknown brands. And you know what? This one seems pretty obvious to me. But then I thought about how much I got into buying from these random shops off of Instagram during the pandemic. You say that that is a no-no.
WICKER: It's absolutely a no-no. Those fashion brands - I mean, I think it's a stretch to call them a fashion brand because you might have noticed they have these sort of gibberish names that don't really make sense.
MOSLEY: They do.
MOSLEY: But it's always so cute, so amazing photography. I know that it's not an excuse. But, yes, continue.
WICKER: Well, I would ask you, did the product that showed up match the photo that you bought from?
MOSLEY: You know, it was 50/50. Yeah, not always. Yep.
WICKER: Yeah. So these brands, I mean, they are created by factory owners so that they can sell straight to the consumer, and nobody is checking those packages as they move from - straight from the factory to your front door. If you buy from a brand that has a reputation that it cares about from a retailer that can be held legally accountable in the state of California, somebody is checking once or twice, at least, to make sure that these products are safe and don't have restricted hazardous substances on them. But those fashion brands, they don't care about their reputation. If you've ever tried to return something, you know that they just disappear.
MOSLEY: Impossible. Impossible.
MOSLEY: Yep. OK. Another thing is to look for third-party labels. Can you explain what you mean by that?
WICKER: There are some labels that govern different parts of the supply chain and toxicity. So Bluesign is one. They work with partner with factories and suppliers to make sure that they're using safe chemistry and using it safely for workers. There's also Oeko-Tex. That's O-E-K-O-T-E-X - Oeko-Tex. And that one is a certification that's for consumers to know that the product's been tested for over 300 substances, and nothing has been found to be over their limit. And then there's GOTS organic, and that label means that the product moved through a series of factories that are using safe chemistry according to organic principles.
MOSLEY: And you can find these just in the label of your clothing?
WICKER: Yeah, exactly, or on the product page or the about or sustainability page on a retailer's website.
MOSLEY: OK. So another one is to avoid performance materials like spandex and workout gear.
WICKER: If it promises to be anti-odor, wrinkle free, easy care, stain resistant, water resistant, all of those things are usually achieved with synthetic finishes that are known to be toxic. I think a lot of people feel disappointed when I tell them that they shouldn't be buying performance products because they're - think, oh, but they make my life so easy. But a lot of times, they don't even really work as well as advertised. There was some research that came out earlier this year showing that PFAS doesn't even really provide that good of stain repellency.
MOSLEY: You know what I thought about when I read to avoid performance materials? - is just how many of us live in our workout gear, especially now, and how I've actually had friends who had rashes from their spandex or workout gear, but they always attribute it to maybe wearing it too long because they're working out, and the sweat is then in between the clothing and their skin. It just makes you rethink your relationship with your clothing and maybe some of the experiences that you've had with them over time.
WICKER: This is a conversation I've had over and over and over again over the past few years where people say, I've never heard about this before, and then I start to tell them about some things, and they go, oh, yeah. You know what? You're right. I do get a rash when I wear things like this, or I can't really - my mom says she can't really tolerate polyester. I have pretty robust health, but I did notice that I got the worst - at the risk of TMI - I got the worst breakout on my butt after I wore black workout bike shorts to a hot yoga class, and I had taken them off right away. So I now try to wear, you know, 95-plus percent cotton workout clothing so that that doesn't happen and also because it itches less.
MOSLEY: OK. Another one is avoid supersaturated, ultrabright or neon colors. But, Alden, the '90s are back.
WICKER: I know. You know, when I emerged from the pandemic and suddenly my neighborhood seemed to be 10 years younger, I was looking around and I was like, oh, my God, so much synthetic mesh, so many neon colors, so many clear plastics. Yeah. I mean, I hate to tell people that they can't express themselves fully with their fashion. What I would say is that, yeah, these types of neon colors are very, very risky. If you're in perfect health and this makes you happy, I mean, go at your own risk. But I think if you're having reactions, if you have skin reactions, if you have a chronic illness, if you're recovering from cancer and you're trying to get endocrine disruptors out of your environment, I would go for light colors, earthy colors and avoid those supersaturated neon, black and blue colors.
MOSLEY: OK, so going back to the airline workers, there were several lawsuits that were filed, Delta being the most recent one. What ended up happening?
WICKER: None of the lawsuits that were - the three lawsuits that were filed related to the three major airlines have made it through to a class action lawsuit. The first one was against Twin Hill, the maker of Alaska Airlines' uniforms. It was thrown out for lack of evidence. Unfortunately, there was a study that came out later, after this, showing that a lot of the symptoms of the airline attendants, like breathing issues, rashes, multiple chemical sensitivity, had more or less doubled. But by then it was too late. American Airlines - that lawsuit is still ongoing. I have not heard any updates yet on that. And the Delta lawsuit failed to qualify for class action.
So, again, a lot of these brands have avoided culpability by saying, well, there was nothing in there by itself that was at high enough levels to cause all of these different reactions. And that is a really clever way to avoid culpability, because what it doesn't include is the fact that chemicals can mix together and create different chemicals or have synergistic effects where they can help other chemicals have even more damaging effects on our bodies. And these fashion products, the uniforms especially, but even normal fashion products, can have dozens of different substances layered on top of each other. So they're definitely mixing. And a lot of them do the same type of damage to the same organs. And so they're working together, and together they might be over the limit.
But right now, we have these textile limits that in many cases are based on really shoddy research, best guesses. And in the United States, they're pretty much voluntary. So even if one of them's shown to be over these sort of arbitrary limits that are voluntarily taken up by some brands, there's no legal reason they need to follow that limit.
MOSLEY: You mentioned how sometimes fashion brands don't even know the full details of the chemicals that are in the finishes that are in their clothing. What did you hear from manufacturers or fashion brands when you were researching this book?
WICKER: Well, I didn't hear much from fashion brands because they didn't really want to talk to me about this. But from manufacturers - when I was in India, I was talking to some garment workers, and they had a son there who is a merchandiser for one of these factories that produces for large American brands, which I will not name here. But he said, oh, yeah, so we are asked by these brands to have our products tested by a third-party service and then send them the certificate. But we can change it if it comes up positive for hazardous substances, as long as they're not...
MOSLEY: We can change it?
WICKER: We can change it, yeah. I mean, look, there's a lot of corruption in the fashion industry, and it's - you know, it's not hard to ask somebody to fake a certificate.
MOSLEY: Alden Wicker, thank you so much for this conversation - very enlightening.
WICKER: Thank you so much. This has been great.
MOSLEY: Alden Wicker is a journalist and author of "To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick - And How We Can Fight Back."
Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews an unearthed 1974 session of tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan. This is FRESH AIR.
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