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My Jeans Hurt My Thyroid? Seriously?

Post Published: 23 September 2010
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Category: Guest Bloggers, My Jeans Hurt My Thyroid? Seriously?
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I’ve recently gotten curious about the toxins used when we make and dye our clothing, and whether prolonged exposure of toxic clothes to our largest organ, our skin, causes problems.

Turns out, yes, it does cause problems. Problems for your thyroid, boobs and bones.

Here’s how. Let’s start with jeans. American women on average own 8 pairs of denim jeans. You? Me – afraid so, 8 pair – a mix of Sevens, Luckies and Dolces.

Chances are high that your cotton was drenched in pesticides before it was dyed with toxic synthetic blue, and then chemically softened to give it that worn-in feel.

Toxic dyes are used nearly everywhere except perhaps the eco-dye organic t-shirt you bought when your kid was a baby.

Today I’m heading to California School of Herbal Studies with my friend and colleague, Rebecca Burgess, eco-artist and natural dye expert. While she delivers her astounding Powerpoint presentation on how we’ve harmed developing countries with our endless appetite for things like jeans (women in the US average 8 pair, and I’m no exception), I’ll jump in to address the issue of endocrine disruption with conventional cotton production, toxic dyes and flame retardants.

Here’s the back story.

  • To make your jeans — synthetic fertilizers, defoliants, and soil additives were used, which damage soil, water, air, you and many other animals and plants.
  • Conventional cotton crops in California alone are dusted with 7 million pounds of chemicals per year. Ouch – I hate it when we bring the badness to a scale I can wrap my head around.
  • Heavy metals in particular are used in making your jeans that pretty blue color, including lead, mercury, cadmium, selenium, chrome, copper, zinc and antimony.
  • Dioxins are used, and often formaldehyde. Both are thought to be carcinogenic, and dioxin is an endocrine disruptor (an exogenous substance that interferes with the many jobs of natural hormones).

In fact, it takes 2/3 pound of pesticides and fertilizers to make one pair of jeans. According to the EPA, over half of the pesticides used in conventional cotton production are known carcinogens (cyanice, dicofol, naled, propargite and trifluralin).

Synthetic indigo is used to get the blue in your jeans, and there are problems both with this and with the developer used, Thiox, which is a known carcinogen.

Here’s a pretty picture of what happens in places that make our jeans such as a village in China that produces almost half of the jeans we import, as reported this year by CNN . Xintang makes 200 million or more jeans per year, and their “Pearl River” has recently turned black as a result of dye, bleach and detergents. The local Chief Medical Officer reports that the heavy metals in particular are “neurotoxic, carcinogenic, they disrupt the endocrine system. They cause cancer of different organs.”

Why do we tolerate that nasty pollution in the water? Why do we wear that pollution against our skin, for hours on end?

Want to hear another sad story of how our need for new jeans and what it does to other countries? Let’s go to Mexico. Environmental regulations are lax and synthetic dye is cheap. In Tehuacan, water samples downstream from textile plants in this major denim-producing region show: lead, mercury, cadmium, and selenium. Ask local farmers about their water supply and they report chemically burned seedlings and sterile soil.

Mercury and your thyroid? Mercury slows production of both T4 and T3. It blocks the action of various cofactors in the conversion of inactive thyroid hormone (T4) to active hormone (T3) such as copper and zinc.

I’m going to go off on a tangent here with one other well-documented problem: flame retardants. As a mom of two kids, I note that my kids have pajamas treated with this stuff. Unfortunately, flame retardants are known to adversely affect the thyroid and estrogen balance, and there is a small study from Sweden showing a link between exposure to flame retardants and non-Hodgkins lymphoma in humans. In rodents, flame retardants increase follicular thyroid cancer, liver cancer and pancreatic adenomas. How do flame retardants affect the thyroid, you ask? Various mechanisms:

  • Lower thyroid hormone levels & cause hypothyroidism
  • Bind to thyroid receptors with varying affinities
  • Interfere with thyroid gene transcription
  • Bind to thyroid transport proteins
  • Stimulate genes that are normally triggered by thyroid hormones

Problem 1: Bioaccumulation. More bad news here is that you accumulate these toxins over your lifetime, and they often get stored deep in your tissues such as in fat (endocrine disruptors) and bone (heavy metals). In women, the breast tissue is an area of concentration, leading to the concern for a link between endocrine disruptors and breast cancer.

Problem 2: Synergistic effects. Turns out the wider the variety that you are exposed to, the lower the threshold for damage and risk. For instance, you’ve heard in previous posts about my mercury toxicity – that makes me at greater risk for lead exposure and perhaps endocrine disruption. That is particularly true for younger ones such as the fetus in utero, babies and young kids. This is one of the most persuasive arguments in favor or purchasing organic cotton and nontoxic clothing for everyone in your family, and if price is an issue, consider thrift stores where the tincture of time has removed more of the toxic load.

There’s a concept here that gives me hope when you have scientific types dismissing these concerns as junk science – the idea of the “precautionary principle:” if an action (or chemical) has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action (or chemical) is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.

Let’s go, Levi Strauss. Time to take the right action.

Written by Dr. Sara Gottfried

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8 Responses to “My Jeans Hurt My Thyroid? Seriously?”

  1. Linny says:

    Thank you for sharing this.
    I remember going to school with a girl in the 60’s who had one of the first mircowaves.
    Her mother had health problems.
    First time I ever heard of “thyroid problems”

    This world is full of bad stuff for us.
    So frightening, Linny

  2. I’m never going to look at my jeans the same. Thanks for writing this–it really is great information!

  3. Amanda says:

    Thank you for sharing this information. If we don’t keep learning the reasons why, it will keep happening.

    Although, I am beginning to wonder if it wouldn’t just be easier to have a list of things that DON’T CAUSE THYROID PROBLEMS! Geesh. It would probably fit on a business card I could carry in my wallet.

    Thanks again… I always love your input and insight.

    Amanda

  4. Lolly says:

    Thanks for sharing this who knew well some of us.
    There are so many things in the world that are toxins harmful to us. I even changed all my non stick sausepans with teflon many years ago because of it. Now only use stainless steel and never use anything plastic in the microwave only glass or microwaveable non toxic stuff. even your mobile phone are dangerous.

    do docotrs carry and government warning health sign because even some of them can be dangerous to our health. 🙂

    thanks for the article enjoyed reading it really is an eye opener.
    When things were much simplier we lived longer and healtier man made toxins and distruction has changed this world and not for the better.

    Lolly

  5. Melissa Travis says:

    Thanks for the science lesson!!

  6. Jen says:

    Holy mackerel, that is disturbing. Also makes me glad I don’t wear jeans (but I’m a skirt kinda girl).

  7. Thanks for your comments, Everyone! Love the idea of making a biz card with the things that are not harmful to our thyroid. What’s on it? Help me out here. All I can think of is love, gratitude, kale and shoulder stand.

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