The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton

Photo by Old Navy

Photo by Old Navy

Greensleeves Wendy Richardson needs to blog more often. How else would I have found the U.K.-based Environmental Justice Foundation’s 2007 report, The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton? It’s a 40-pager, which may require more dedication than you currently have, but here is a sampling of the salient points, as outlined in the report’s Executive Summary. (Those two pages very worth a read-through in their entirety.) Global consumption of cotton, by the by, has doubled in the past 30 years.

  • Cotton is the world’s most important non-food agricultural commodity, yet it is responsible for the release of US$2 billion of chemical pesticides each year, within which at least US$819 million are considered toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by the World Health Organisation. Cotton accounts for 16% of global insecticide releases—more than any other single crop. Almost 1.0 kilogram of hazardous pesticides is applied for every hectare under cotton.

  • Between 1 and 3% of agricultural workers worldwide suffer from acute pesticide poisoning with at least 1 million requiring hospitalization each year, according to a report prepared jointly for the FAO, UNEP, and WHO. These figures equate to between 25 million and 77 million agricultural workers worldwide.

  • A single drop of the pesticide aldicarb, absorbed through the skin can kill an adult. Aldicarb is commonly used in cotton production and in 2003 almost 1 million kilos was applied to cotton grown in the USA. Aldicarb is also applied to cotton in 25 other countries worldwide.

  • Despite being particularly vulnerable to poisoning, child labourers throughout the world risk exposure to hazardous pesticides through participation in cotton production. In India and Uzbekistan children are directly involved in cotton pesticide application. While in Pakistan, Egypt, and Central Asia child labourers work in cotton fields either during or following the spraying season. Children are also often the first victims of pesticide poisonings, even if they do not participate to spraying, due to the proximity of their homes to cotton fields, or because of the re-use of empty pesticide containers.

  • Hazardous pesticides associated with global cotton production represent a substantial threat to global freshwater resources. Hazardous cotton pesticides are now known to contaminate rivers in USA, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Australia, Greece and West Africa. In Brazil, the world’s 4th largest consumer of agrochemicals, researchers tested rainwater for the presence of pesticides. 19 different chemicals were identified of which 12 were applied to cotton within the study area.

(Emphasis is mine.)

Wendy, herself, speaking at her church in New Jersey, made a product-information tag you’d never find on a T-shirt at Old Navy:

Made of 100% Cotton
Harvested by children as young as 7 in Uzbekistan where unemployment is near 70% and cotton workers are paid less than $7/month.

Children who fail to meet quota or pick poor quality cotton are punished by scoldings and beatings.

The processing of the cotton required 1/3 pound of concentrated pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers and 744 gallons of water.

Cotton fabric was processed with formaldehyde to reduce wrinkles and bleached with chlorine producing dioxin, a known carcinogen. It was then colored blue using chemical dyes that contained toxic heavy metals including chrome, copper and zinc.

Sewn in Cambodia, one of the world’s poorest countries, by Chenda, a 19-year-old seamstress working 80-hour weeks at 5 cents per hour.

The “death-trap” textile factory Chenda worked in was cramped, hot, often over 100 degrees with no fans and very little ventilation. The two doors were kept locked.

This t-shirt will need to be washed frequently at high temperatures and require tumble-drying and ironing. 60% of the carbon emissions generated by this simple cotton t-shirt will come from the approximately 25 washes and machine dryings it will require over its lifetime.

Related article:
1. What’s the Cotton-Pickin’ Idea: Problems with Conventional Cotton


  1. betz said,

    April 23, 2007 at 8:49 pm

    The clothing aspect is disturbing enough…but add in the ripple effect of the pesticides in cotton byproducts in our FOOD! Cows are fed cottonseed, cottonseed oil is found in a lot of snack foods. Milk and Graham Crackers will never be the same.

  2. Deb G said,

    April 24, 2007 at 7:36 am

    I will not buy new cotton, I will not buy new cotton, I will not buy new cotton. Gosh that’s hard, I really love all those beautiful cotton prints for quilting. Thanks for sharing this info.

  3. One Size Fits All :: Favorite Posts at The Worsted Witch :: August :: 2007 said,

    August 24, 2007 at 11:34 am

    [...] * The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton [...]

  4. Martha Shireman said,

    October 10, 2007 at 4:41 pm

    What kind of material in clothing should we buy and/or how else can we help?

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