Environmental hazards from textile and clothing industries

Experimental visualization of narrower problems
Other Names:
Occupational hazards of wearing apparel manufacture

The textile industry is one of the largest and oldest employers of labour. The use of substances of concern in textile production has an important impact on farmers’ and factory workers’ health as well as on the surrounding environment.

Textile mills usually last for up to 100 years; and some old textile machines are over 40 years old. As a result, there are many hazards indigenous to the textile and clothing industries. 

One more recent hazard is the shift from using biodegradable, recyclable natural products to highly resilient and nonbiodegradable plastics made with toxic chemicals.  half a million tons of plastic microfibers shed during washing ends up in the ocean and ultimately enters the food chain

Steady production growth in the clothing industry is intrinsically linked to a decline in utilization per item, leading to an incredible amount of waste. 


The most common causes of injury and fatality in the clothing industry are: 

[Fire] Fires in textile mills usually spread with great rapidity due to highly inflammable loose textile fibre and accumulated fibre dust. Most textile mills are not of modern fire-resistant construction and floors are usually made of wood, often impregnated with oil dripping from the machines and thereby increasing fire risk.
[Lifting and carrying] The heavy loads which must be handled and carried can cause excessive strain and damage to health.

[Bleaching kiers] Cotton cloth is sometimes bleached in kiers - vertical tanks about 3m in diameter and 4m in height. One or more workers, usually youths, may have to go into the kiers (drained of the boiling water, bleaching solution and alkaline liquor used in the process) to stack or remove pieces of cloth. Deaths have occurred when one worker has been in the kier and another worker unknowingly opened valves to admit the deadly liquids.

[Temperature, humidity and ventilation] Temperatures and humidity levels vary depending upon whether the textile factory is in a cold or temperate climate or in a tropical region. In hot and humid climates, textile factories' humidity sometimes reaches 95% (Bangkok and Shanghai) with temperatures reaching 35ø C and inadequate ventilation. These three factors lead to overheating and exhaustion.

[Dust] Weaving and yarn preparation workrooms emit the toxic chemical asbestos into the air, and byssinosis, a respiratory disease, is prevalent among workers in cotton, flax, and hemp mills.

[Poor lighting] Good lighting is rare in textile factories even though workers must often thread thousands of intricate threads per day, taxing their eyesight. Windows are rarely kept clean and rooms are not painted in a colour with a high reflection factor, thus leading to eyestrain and possible adverse effects on production and quality control.

[Noise] It is impossible for workers to hear one another without shouting into each other's ears, due to the high noise level of shuttle looms, and the noise is often in excess of 85dB.

[Hours of work] In the past, working hours in textile mills were excessive: 13 hours a day, 7 days a week. That has been alleviated by the introduction of shift labour (4 six-hour shifts per day) but shift labour has initiated its own problems, with male workers being locked into permanent night labour with no hope of changing over to day work, due to labour laws which prohibit women from being employed after 11 p m.

One of the largest death tolls in recent history in the garment industry happened in Bangladesh when an eight-story building collapsed, killing 1,100 people making clothing for high end manufacturers.9 Following the disaster, widespread reforms were promised, but a report from the Human Rights Watch suggests that not enough has been done to protect the lives of garment workers.10

Nearly a decade ago T-shirts and low-cost clothing were made in the China province of Guangdong, known as the "world's workshop."11 Today much of the work has moved to Dhaka, Bangladesh, as soaring labor costs in China and their gradual shift from low-end to high-end manufacturing sent the garment industry searching for cheaper labor.

In California, garment workers are paid by the piece, often amounting to approximately $6 an hour, well below the $10.50 minimum wage standard set in that state.12 Factory owners get away with low wages and poor working conditions as most of the workers are undocumented and afraid to speak out. These sweatshop tactics are what keep the cost of mass-produced department store clothing within reach of the average consumer.

At the request of a U.S.-based garment brand, research was launched to explore the issues surrounding undocumented workers in the garment industry.13 They found that many of the people were at great risk of wage and working hour violations that placed their health and safety at risk. The workers were also at risk for abuse and harassment since they were undocumented and unwilling to report the conditions under which they were working.
The textile industry has taken full advantage of chemicals available to protect the garment or make changes to the product without consideration to how these chemicals affect the environment.

Procedures to treat clothing include using specialized chemicals, such as biocides, flame retardants and water repellents. Over 60 different chemical classes are used in the production of yarn, fabric pretreatments and finishing.

When fabrics are manufactured, between 10 and 100 percent of the weight of the fabric is added in chemicals.6 Even fabrics made from 100 percent cotton are coated with 27 percent of its weight in chemicals. Most fabrics are treated with liquid chemicals to ready them for the fashion industry, going through several treatments before being shipped to a manufacturer.

Many chemicals have known health and environmental issues. Greenpeace commissioned an investigation into the toxic chemicals used in clothing. They purchased 141 different pieces of clothing in 29 different countries. The chemicals found included high levels of phthalates and cancer-causing amines. The investigators also found 89 garments with nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). Levels above 100 ppm were found in 20 percent of the garments and above 1,000 ppm were recorded in 12 of the samples.

Any level of phthalates, amines or NPEs found in clothing that remains against your body is unacceptable as they are hazardous materials. However, the dangers from these chemicals don't end when you finish wearing the garment. As the material makes it to a landfill, these chemicals leach out from the fabric and make it to the groundwater.

Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) have been widely used in textile marketing and have been linked in epidemiological studies with several different types of cancers in humans.

These chemicals are so ubiquitous they've been found in the blood of polar bears and found in tap water supplies used by 15 million Americans in 27 states. Cheap, mass-produced clothing has given many individuals the chance to purchase the current style without breaking the bank. But an initial reduction in price on clothing may be at the expense of both people and the environment.

Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and ProductionGOAL 15: Life on Land
Problem Type:
D: Detailed problems
Date of last update
17.10.2021 – 05:58 CEST