Recently American Airlines employees have complained that new uniforms are making them sick. The only reason I can think for this, is that there must be fire retardant chemicals being sprayed on the fabric. Is this a common practice, adding fire retardant chemicals to garment fabrics?

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Adding flame and fire retardends to clothing garments is possible, but it is not standard in the clothing industry. Those chemicals are usually reserved for specialty application, like race driving suits.

Racing suits, design and usage Other suits consist of cotton treated with Proban, a chemical manufactured by Rhodia, or other substances. These suits can lose their fire-resistant properties over time, particularly after washing.

Much more common are additions that provide a more direct "benefit"; to manufactures, shippers or merchants. Especially long distance shipping in containers seems to prompt the ample usage of fungcides to combat moulds during sea voyages from Asia. Fabric softeners, colour fastener, easy-iron applications also come to mind. And of course toxic residues of pesticides during plant growth or other chemicals during manufacturing can never be excluded.

In the case of American Airlines uniforms: these have been tested by now, and the PR-storm the company unraveled to dismiss the claims and accusations is less impressive than the long list of really nasty stuff found in them.

The "benefits" for manufacturers are classified a bit differently from a health perspective:

  • Irritants – chemicals that cause irritation to the skin, eyes, or respiratory tract that is local to the part of the body that is exposed to the chemical in question;

    • 2-Bromo-4,6-dinitro-benzeneamine: women’s parka with fur 2-Butoxy ethanol: women’s crew scarf 2-(phenylmethylene)-octanol: women’s pilot pants and blouse 9,10-Anthracenedione: men’s “car coat” 9, 10-Dimethylanthracene: black men’s tie 9-0ctadecenoic acid: men’s/women’s pilot blazers Benzaldehyde: women’s pilot blazer Bis-(2-hydroxyethyl)lauramide: men’s crew blazer Butylated hydroxytoluene: men’s coat, women’s parka with fur Caprolactam: women’s crew blazer, men’s copilot jacket, women’s crew jacket Docosane: women’s pilot blouse and neckwear, men’s car coat, shirt (undefined) Isopropyl palmitate (1-methylethyl ester hexadecanoic acid): women’s jacket Methyl palmitate (methyl ester hexadecanoic acid): women‘s blue-checkered blouse, dress, women’s jacket, men’s blue tie N-ethyl-4-methyl benzenesulfonamide: women’s pilot blouse Octadecane: women’s pilot neckwear, men’s/women’s pilot blazers, men’s long-sleeved white shirt, men’s long-sleeved pilot shirt, women’s short-sleeved blue blouse Oleic acid: pants (undefined) Tridecanol: women’s pilot blouse Undecanol: women’s pilot blouse
  • Sensitizers – chemicals that cause an immune-mediated response which is generally more serious than the “local” type of irritant reaction and may be systemic, rather than localized;

    • Benzyl benzoate: men’s pilot tie, long-sleeved men’s “rip stop” shirt Disperse orange dye 30: men’s pilot tie 2-(phenylmethylene)-octanol: women’s pilot pants and blouse Benzaldehyde: women’s pilot blazer 9,10-Anthracenedione: men’s “car coat” 9, 10-Dimethylanthracene: men’s black tie Antimony; Arsenic salts; Benzophenone (CAS number 119-61-9); Benzyl benzoate (CAS number 120-51-4) – also potentially irritating; 4-Biphenyl ester benzoic acid (CAS number 2170-13-0); C.I. Disperse Red 60 (CAS number 17418-58-5) – also potentially irritating; C.I. Disperse Orange 30 (CAS number 12223-23-3/5261-314) Cobalt and cobalt compounds; 9,10-Dimethylanthracene (CAS number 781-43-1); 4,4’-Diphenylmethane diisocyanate (CAS number 101-68-8) – also potentially irritating; Ethylbenzaldehyde (CAS number 4748-78-1); Formaldehyde (CAS number 50-00-0) – also potentially irritating; Mercaptobenzothiazole (CAS number 149-30-4); 2-(Methylthio)-benzothiazole (CAS number 615-22-5) – also potentially irritating; and Soluble chromium.
  • Endocrine disruptors – chemicals that are structurally similar to human hormones, such that they can disrupt hormonal cycles; and
  • Carcinogens – chemicals that either can (confirmed ) or may (probable/possible) cause uncontained cell growth/tumor formation.

Your uniform, your health (The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) 2018).

While pentachlorophenol and tetrachlorophenol where the only substances that really exceeded any limits (Oeko-Tex 100) recently, the amount and mixture of all the other substances make for an interesting experiment, some of the results from this experiment are pictred online.

More information on the "the common" part of the question may be found in European survey on the release of formaldehyde from textiles.

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