Delta’s uniform debacle proves how toxic clothes can be

The clothing production process is full of toxic chemicals that can harm human health.

Employees of Delta Air Lines are upset after a new uniform left them covered in hives and experiencing respiratory difficulties. The new line of purple and grey uniforms, designed by Zac Posen with Land’s End, was launched in 2018 for the company’s 36,000 employees, but it has not gone well. Business Insider (BI) reported:

“Flight attendants began noticing and reporting health problems, such as hives, respiratory problems, and hair loss, and other issues. Several flight attendants who spoke with BI said they encountered high medical bills due to treatment of the alleged health complaints, or had issues with short-term disability claims.”

There have now been so many complaints that Delta says it will redesign all of the uniforms. In the meantime, thousands of employees have been approved to wear non-uniform black and white clothing purchased independently.

What exactly has caused the health problems is unclear. A study commissioned by Delta has not found a link to specific chemicals in the production process that triggered the reactions, but it could be a combination of factors. As BI reported, “Poor quality control at global suppliers can cause uniforms, which are often treated to be stain-, wrinkle-, and flame-resistant — to become contaminated with toxic chemicals.” The problem is likely exacerbated by the long hours that flight attendants wear their uniforms in an enclosed environment, providing a “particularly good petri dish to see how these chemicals actually interact with our skin” (via The Cut).

While it’s an unfortunate situation for Delta employees, it comes as no surprise to TreeHugger, where we’ve been writing for years about toxic chemicals in clothing. A 2014 study by Greenpeace tested 12 major clothing brands geared toward children and found that all of them contained toxic chemicals, including perfluorated chemicals (PFCs), phthalates, nonylphenol, nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE), and cadmium.

Most synthetic textiles are dyed with azo-aniline dyes, which the Wall Street Journal said can cause a “severe skin reaction akin to poison ivy in the small population of people allergic to them. For others, reactions to dyes are less extreme, and may result in slightly inflamed, dry, itchy patches of skin.” Clothes are often sprayed with anti-fungal agents that contain formaldehyde to protect from moisture during transportation.

It’s important always to wash new clothes prior to wearing, but also to be aware of this toxicity when shopping. Look for cleaner, greener brands that adhere to tight production standards, such as Bluesign certification, or buy second-hand so you know items have already off-gassed and are safer for your skin.

Delta, in the meantime, will continue to resolve its dilemma. New uniforms have been promised, but not until end of 2021.

The clothing production process is full of toxic chemicals that can harm human health.

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