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The landscape of retail consumption has changed drastically over the last two decades. Trend cycles, which would previously shift over five to ten years, have now been reduced to a matter of weeks. Thanks to increased participation in social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, rapid industrialization of production processes, and the offshoring of manufacturing to countries with cheap labour, we now consume 400% more clothing globally than we did twenty years prior.

Micro-trends and the unreasonable rise of “ultra-fast fashion” brands like Shein and Zaful have multiple well-documented negative implications on our environment and the quality of life for the workers who produce these garments. However, there is a new cost of fast fashion — our health.

In 2021, University of Toronto environmental chemist Miriam Diamond conducted a series of tests with CBC’s Marketplace on clothing purchased from Zaful, AliExpress, and Shein. Their findings were shocking — 20% of the items bought from these retailers contained extremely high levels of harmful chemicals such as lead, PFAS, and phthalates

Among the culprits was a Shein children’s coat carrying 20 times the amount of lead that Health Canada states is safe for children. Another Shein product, a red purse, was found to have five times the limit. A transparent tote bag produced by Zaful tested positively for worryingly high levels of phthalates, as did a child’s dress, a raincoat, and a plastic bib from AliExpress. 

Following Diamond’s research and presenting these findings to the retailers, the products were removed from their websites. Shein also claimed it would cease production with the specified suppliers until the issue was resolved, stating that they were “committed to the continuous improvement of [their] supply chain.” However, the company’s history of ducking international regulations, manipulative online sales tactics, and convoluted supply chains make it difficult to believe they will keep their promise. With nearly 6,000 new products put up for sale on the site daily and the high percentage of harmful chemicals in clothing bought at random from the retail giant, it seems impossible that Shein would be able to eliminate the toxic clothing without overhauling their entire business model.

Lead, Phthalates, and PFAS, Oh My!

This issue extends well beyond Shein, Zaful, and AliExpress. Diamond noted that chemicals such as PFAS and phthalates are utilized in clothing manufacturing because the human-made materials are cheap and easily accessible. Likewise, manufacturers use these chemicals on “water-repellant” and “stain-resistant” clothing or rain gear to make it breathable.

Unfortunately, it quickly becomes evident that avoiding products sporting these terms will not cut your contact with PFAS and phthalates. One 2022 study analyzing 60 products from brands such as Amazon, Costco, Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, Walmart and Kohl’s found the chemicals in 75% of the items. Even companies like Patagonia, who boast their eco-friendly credentials on their website, utilize PFAS in their outerwear.

PFAS and phthalates are also forever chemicals as “they don’t break down in the environment or … our bodies.”. Erika Schreder, co-author of the 2022 study, outlines just how pervasive these chemicals are: “[these companies] are using chemicals that contaminate homes, drinking water, and breast milk…when you have these products indoors, depending on how many PFAS-treated products you have, there will be high levels of PFAS in your indoor air.” Children are at acute risk, says Diamond, because they tend to chew on clothing, and their skin absorbs the chemicals more than an adult’s.

Phthalates are estimated to be in up to 80% of all PVC products, a durable plastic utilized extensively across various industries. The demand for this third-most produced polymer globally is still rising, with a predicted worldwide demand of 9.75 million tonnes by 2024, a nearly 7 million tonne increase since 2009. 

There are more consequences from using lead, phthalates, and PFAS apart from some of the better-known negative impacts on health and the environment, such as solid waste pollution and toxic chemical exposure. Harvard researchers have recently linked these chemicals to cancers, thyroid disease, liver damage, asthma, decreased fertility, birth defects, and delayed development in children. One Canadian study found that at least 65% of infants are exposed to PFAS in the womb. Carmen Messerlian, an assistant professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Insider magazine, “This is only basically what we’ve been able to study. There’s probably a lot more impact. We just haven’t been able to do the science to be able to show it.”

Death and Disease: Now Trending

Because of their unchanging nature, anyone who comes in contact with a PFAS/phthalate product may experience harmful effects. However, the consequences are extreme for individuals who construct and handle these items daily, particularly garment workers in South and Southeast Asian countries.

Research conducted in China found that textile workers inhaled five times more of these toxic chemicals daily than the average Western person. This increased exposure means that all of the health implications experienced by the consumer are being felt much more acutely by the producers; yet, we will likely not know the full extent of the harm caused for decades as comprehensive research on the effects of the chemicals has begun recently

The abusive and unsafe environments the labourers work in only add to the severity of the chemicals’ effects that they suffer from. Factories have poor ventilation, and governments and corporations often violently silence employees attempting to form unions or protests to protect their human rights. Despite reported cases of respiratory, endocrine, and reproductive harms by activist organizations, other potential health hazards remain extremely underreported in these exploitative environments.

The European Parliament estimates that clothing production accounts for 20% of “global clean water pollution from dyeing and finishing products,” which results in the leak of harmful materials such as lead, PFAS, and phthalates. These effects concentrate around the factories where the garments are produced, with wastewater directly entering the drinking water systems of some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities. 

Near the Noyyal River in India, a 2019 study found that women’s breast milk contained PFAS levels 16 times higher than what the United States deems acceptable in its drinking water. Supplies of pork and fish used to feed this community were similarly contaminated with the toxins, as was the air. They also noted that children had the highest intakes of PFAS per kilogram of body weight, directly assigning these alarming results to “extensive industrial activity in the area[,] including textile factories that dump directly into the river.”

Clothing To Dye For

Similarly to once-commonly used chemicals like asbestos, many scientists and advocates believe we live in an interim period before PFAS and phthalates are permanently banned. Investigative journalist Alden Wicker reported in her new book To Dye For the famous Delta employee lawsuit where hundreds of workers sued the clothing company Lands’ End for their “toxic uniforms.” She suggests that the danger of these chemicals is obvious and deserves more public alertness. 

A slew of other class-action lawsuits have also been brought against companies who manufacture PFAS, as well as brands who utilize PFAS such as Nike, GymShark and Fabletics, by consumers who experienced negative health impacts from their clothing. Time magazine confirmed that lawsuits against PFAS companies will “eclipse the big tobacco settlement,” in which approximately USD 11.5 billion has already been paid by companies like Dupont and Tennant in damages for PFAS contamination.

Investigative journalist Alden Wicker published her book To Dye For this year following her inquiry into the rampant illnesses Delta flight attendants experienced in 2018 after being issued new uniforms designed by Zac Posen. The employees began showing side effects almost immediately after receiving the uniform, such as rashes, breathing problems, menstrual irregularities, and hair loss. The symptoms progressively worsened, and hundreds of Delta employees eventually filed a class-action lawsuit against the company in 2020, with one stewardess claiming the uniform was responsible for her T-cell lymphoma cancer. 

Wicker seeks to alert the public to show just how dangerous these chemicals are and cites research showing that “an amount the size of a drop in an Olympic-size swimming pool can cross the placenta and cause long-term damage to the fetus … we’re definitely ingesting high amounts of these chemicals or high enough amounts to do damage.” Miriam Diamond holds similar sentiments: “People should be shocked … this is a class of chemicals that should not be used unless they’re absolutely essential.”

Regulators Lagging and May Not Be Able to Catch Up

Governments are beginning to realize the dangers of these chemicals, albeit slowly. In May 2023, the Canadian government took its first steps towards regulating PFAS and phthalates, releasing a report detailing the risks of exposure and potential management options. In the US, Maine passed a groundbreaking bill banning PFAS from all products sold in the state with strict exceptions for “unavoidable use.” According to SaferStates, 19 US states will consider bills to limit PFAS in textiles and other uses this year. 

Regulation is a step in the right direction, but corruption in the fast fashion industry could make it difficult for regulators to detect PFAS entering their countries. While in India interviewing garment workers, Wicker reported that employees stated their companies often faked chemical compliance certificates requested by clothing companies and governments. With the fast fashion industry expected to grow to USD 133 billion by 2026, there is a lot of money to generate from keeping these chemicals in our clothing.

We will live with phthalates, PFAS, and other toxic chemicals used in fast fashion for future centuries. They have been detected in every inch of our planet — from penguin eggs in Antarctica to deep-sea basins in the Atlantic Ocean. We currently have some known measures to mitigate levels of these chemicals in our water and air but do not have any definitive processes to remove them from our bodies. These measures will prove sadly inadequate if fast fashion continues producing at this rate. Unless regulators and corporations work together hastily towards a full-stop ban, we will not leave a closet full of trendy clothing for future generations but a legacy of tainted drinking water, sick bodies, and polluted air.

Edited by Alexandra Hu

Emily Hellam

"Emily was born in Toronto but grew up in Bermuda, Malta, and Indonesia. She is currently in the fourth year of her undergraduate degree in International Relations from UBC, and works at the university...