Have you ever experienced a rash or an itch from that brand-new blouse you bought for your summer holidays? Or from those leather sandals you planned on wearing to the beach?

Jean-Luc Wietor scratches beneath the surface to find out more

Although rare, at least an estimated 1% of the population has had allergic reactions to textile and leather products as they have become sensitive to a natural or synthetic chemical substance.

Intruders in your wardrobe

When faced with a molecular intruder that doesn’t agree with, your immune system tries to deal with it for a while until your body can no longer keep the allergic reaction at bay. Your immune system will remember an allergic reaction to a particular substance – a process known as ‘sensitisation’. The same allergic reaction will be triggered much faster the next time the body is exposed to the same substance, even at lower doses.

The good news is that scientists have a fairly well-developed knowledge of which substances can sensitise people. The European Chemicals Agency has identified 145,286 substances as sensitisers, and 1,212 of these are officially classified at the EU-level.  

The bad news is that until now this has had no effect on what your clothes may or may not contain. Importers and retailers are under no general obligation to inform consumers or communicate about it – no more than they are obliged to worry about working conditions or other environmental damage in their value chain.

A ban is looming

But there is hope. EU authorities are working on banning some sensitising substances and limiting others to levels considered safe through the EU’s chemical control process, known as REACH.

The proposed REACH restriction is set to cover more than a thousand sensitising substances, including:  

  • Nickel, cobalt and chromium (VI) compounds (used in dyes and in leather tanning)
  • Rosin (a tree extract used in glues)
  • Some chemicals used to make neoprene, printings and foams
  • So-called ‘disperse dyes’ (old-fashioned chemicals sometimes used in polyester dyeing)

This list was put forward by public health experts from France and Sweden, based on laboratory tests, international studies, real allergy cases and results from allergy patch tests. Before it finalises its scientific opinion on the restriction proposal, the European Chemicals Agency is currently collecting technical input from scientists, NGOs, producers and national authorities.

In cooperation with EFA, an organisation representing allergy patients, the EEB has provided input into this call, in order to make the restriction as effective and efficient as possible.

Once the restriction comes into force, producers in the EU that don’t stamp out the harmful substances lurking in our clothes will have to comply, and if they don’t they could face all sorts of sanctions from fines to being shut down if the risks posed to citizens are too high.

But with the EU importing 90% of all clothing sold, EU member states’ border control authorities must check that imported goods comply with the new restriction. Risky goods caught by the authorities are published in a user-friendly way in the European Rapex database.

Yet, however useful this restriction will be, it will of course not tackle all the problems caused by the use of chemicals in textile production processes. Even the strictest application of EU chemicals law only determines whether that substance is present in a final garment; it tells us nothing of what substances were used during the production process and the pollution they may have caused.

That’s why it’s time for a broad EU ‘due diligence’ law that ensures companies have done all in their power to check that their supply chain lives up to high ethical, health, occupational and environmental standards. To tackle the sector’s huge environmental and climate damage and widespread exploitation of workers this cannot come soon enough.

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