No Chemicals Please

By Ada Kong 8 November, 2012

Greenpeace's Ada Kong on the chemistry of textiles and your exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), Greenpeace's Ada Kong on the chemistry of textiles and your exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), Greenpeace's Ada Kong on the chemistry of textiles and your exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs)

Over 45,000 kinds of synthetic chemicals are produced, used & discharged into China’s waterways
EDCs are persistent in the environment; some brands are moving to phase them out
China gov't to release “Measures for the Registration of Hazardous Chemicals for Environmental Management”

We all know what pollution is. When something looks murky, smells filthy and makes fish die, it is pollution. This is the usual concept of pollution. Yet if we are only bearing this convenient understanding of pollution, we are not going to truly solve the problem.

“In China, there are merely 70 items to gauge the quality of discharge-water. However, there are over 45,000 kinds of synthetic chemicals being produced, used and discharged into China’s waterways.”

Parameters of water quality are always limited. In China, there are merely 70 items to gauge the quality of discharge-water. However, there are over 45,000 kinds of synthetic chemicals being produced, used and discharged into China’s waterways. Although not all 45,000 kinds of chemicals are harmful to the environment, 70 parameters are definitely not enough to monitor what hazardous chemicals might do to our rivers. But should they be discharged in the first place? Because in reality, end-of-pipe solutions are never as effective as preventing hazardous chemicals from entering the production line from the start. Yet, it is still not as effective as literally banning the production of hazardous chemicals.

Some of the synthetic chemicals used are posing a great threat to clean water resources. UNEP’s Global Chemicals Outlook report recently highlighted, the risks posed by the unsustainable management of chemicals are being compounded by the shift in the production, use and disposal of chemical products to developing economies, where safeguards and regulations can be weaker.

Nowadays, China has surpassed USA to be the biggest chemicals manufacturing country in the world. The Chinese government is also rapidly tightening their regulation on chemicals usage and disposal. Recently, some international authorities have addressed the importance of controlling a relatively new kind of pollutant, the endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) – compounds that produce and secrete hormones in humans and wildlife, thereby disrupting our endocrine systems.

Focus on EDCs: a new movement in chemical regulation

“… officials from the Chinese government, recognized the need to better understand and communicate the risks posed by EDCs …”

This September in Nairobi, Kenya, UNEP held the third International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM3). As the sustainable management of chemicals becomes an issue of growing global concern, over 500 delegates and experts from 124 countries, international organizations, governments, non-governmental organizations and the chemicals industry gathered to look for solution to solve the problem of chemical pollution.

Delegates at the conference, including officials from the Chinese government, recognized the need to better understand and communicate the risks posed by EDCs and marked them as an emerging issue. The conclusion of this important conference reflected the direction and resolution of international chemical management authorities.

EDCs and their risks to water, marine life and our health

Almost 800 chemicals have the ability to disrupt endocrine systems. However, only one fifth of them are under certain statutory regulation in the most sophisticated chemical management systems in the world.

A 2002 study found that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that some wildlife species have suffered disruption from these chemicals, and a growing body of work since then has found emerging evidence of adverse effects on humans – including links to infertility and cancers, as well as impaired thyroid and brain functions.

EDCs in our clothes

The textile industry consumes a quarter of the chemicals produced in the world per year and this includes a number of EDCs.

For example, NPEO (nonylphenol ethoxylates) has been widely used in the wet process in textile production. Nonylphenol (NP), a by-product of NPEO, is found disrupting endocrine systems and seriously damaging lives in water. NP has been banned from textile production under REACH directive, the European chemical management system. However, the substance is not regulated at all in China and finds its way back into Europe’s waterways through the washing of clothes made in China.

“Some PFCs are very persistent in the environment and do not breakdown easily … PFCs have been found in human breast milk and even in the blood of fetuses”

PFCs (perfluorochemicals) are another group of chemicals that causes serious problem. Some PFCs are very persistent in the environment and do not breakdown easily and their half-life can last for over 41 years in sediment form. This means they might take a century before they can be broken down to a benign state. PFCs have been found in human breast milk and even in the blood of fetuses. We have been readily exposed to these substances and naively affected. Stockholm Convention, an international agreement, is addressing the great threat PFOS (a kind of PFCs) by asking its member states to phase them out eventually. However, this group of chemicals is still widely used in the production of water-proof fabric.

EDCs cannot be easily treated with water treatment facilities. The only effective way to stop this pollution is to restrict their usage and to design using textiles which do not require the use of these chemicals in their production. H&M has announced to phase out PFCs by the January 2013, we would hope more textile brands could be as ambitious.

Zero discharge + the Right-to-Know (RtK)

20 years ago in Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development affirmed the right of communities and workers to know about toxic chemicals and the importance of chemicals inventories to meet that right-to-know (RtK). “Industry should provide data for substances used that are produced that are needed specifically for the assessment of potential risks to human health and the environment. Such data should be made available to the public…”.

However, some companies hesitate to disclose environmental information of their suppliers without realizing the fact that information disclosure is a fundamental duty of each facility. Some, multinational fashion brands may be caught in a quandary: On one hand, they are aspiring to work towards “zero discharge” whilst on the other, they have failed to recognize the RtK of communities near their suppliers and in turn their consumers are also not aware of their exposure to these “invisible” hazardous chemicals.

New chemical regulations in China

the draft of “Measures for the Registration of Hazardous Chemicals for Environmental Management” will be released for consultation by the end of this year

Ministry of Environmental Protection

In China, the Priority Chemical Measurement was approved by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) this July. The Measurement has stated that the draft of “Measures for the Registration of Hazardous Chemicals for Environmental Management” will be released for consultation by the end of this year. They have indicated that it might take effect next year. The “Measures” are believed to be the government’s move to ensure higher transparency of factories’ environmental performance. Given this, the industry has every reason to push forward their chemicals monitoring system and be ready to disclose any release and transfer of toxic chemicals as soon as possible.

We believe that collaborative work is essential for brands to implement their zero discharge commitment. I have talked to many of the Hong Kong textile suppliers; they have all showed great concern for their facilities’ impact on the environment and are keen to find solutions. They however told me that one of the biggest challenges is that with too few suppliers , the price of buying safe alternatives to hazardous chemicals remains high in China. More suppliers need to realize the urgency to use safe chemicals in order to push up demand from the industry and lower price.

This feedback just demonstrates how important it is to have more suppliers move together. We need more brands to take the lead to unite the industry to go “zero discharge”, recognize RtK. We need to be ambitious in phasing out hazardous chemicals which our environment cannot no longer tolerate.


Further Reading:

Ada Kong
Author: Ada Kong
Ada Kong, Campaigner of Greenpeace East Asia. She specializes in hazardous substances pollution in China. By doing on-site investigation, policy analysis and campaigning to the public, she works to eliminate hazardous chemicals and push forward better chemicals management policy in China.
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