When you think about environmental pollution, your clothing is likely not the first thing to come to mind. However, the clothing industry nears the top of the list of toxic industries that pollute water and expose you to dangerous chemicals used to dye and treat the textiles.
According to Rita Kant of the University Institute of Fashion Technology, color is one of the main reasons people choose specific pieces of clothing.1 While there are safe ways to dye clothing, the toxic nature of what is currently used has caused concern.
Other chemicals used for a variety of reasons pollute the environment, too, with heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury as well as sulfur, nitrates and naphthol. In 2018, Delta Airlines released new uniforms to their employees. Not long afterward the company began receiving reports of allergic and toxic reactions that the employees believed were due to chemicals in the uniforms.
The uniforms are “ultra-stretchy, brightly colored, designed for flying, and dizzyingly high-tech,” according to Quartz, which reported on the attendants’ complaints.2 In addition, the material used for the uniforms was designed to resist water stains, wrinkles and static. In what sounds like a science fiction movie, it is also self-deodorizing. But these features apparently come at a high cost, if it turns out that the attendants’ illnesses can be definitively linked to them.
Lawsuits Allege Toxic Uniforms Making Attendants Sick
The uniforms were first unveiled in May 2018, having been designed by Zac Posen and manufactured by Lands’ End. They were issued to 64,000 Delta Airline employees3 who began reporting a number of health concerns, including skin rashes, headaches and fatigue soon after they started using them.
The problems were first made public in a report by The Guardian4 in which several flight attendants spoke with the promise of anonymity, as they feared retaliation by the company. The Guardian published some pictures of the complainants’ skin conditions. One attendant reported:
“I noticed right away after I put the uniforms on that I had shortness of breath and I have been a runner my whole life. I don’t smoke or anything like that, so when I couldn’t get up the stairs without being extremely winded, I know there was some sort of problem.”
Another found it impossible to sleep, commenting:
“I don’t even want to call them rashes because it’s worse than that. Some of them look like chemical burns, some of them look like chemical bites, but they don’t go away for weeks at an end. I had a huge patch that got infected and I had to take an antibiotic, even, to get rid of it.”
One of the first class-action lawsuits was filed in May 2019 against Lands’ End by two Delta flight attendants seeking $ 5 million in damages. As 2019 progressed, the number of employees filing complaints rose to 943.5 Delta Airlines engaged an independent laboratory to test the garments, which found they are not linked “to any attributable health risk.”
Company Response Has Been Inconsistent; Union Steps In
The newest suit was filed in the Western District of Wisconsin court against Lands’ End, whose operations are based in Dodgeville, Wisconsin. Of the 525 Delta employees listed in the current lawsuit, 90% are flight attendants.6
The lead attorney for the suit was allowed access to a closed Facebook page devoted to discussions of the uniform issue at Delta Airlines. He remarked there were 6,000 registered users. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), commented on the clothing concerns:
“This issue is real. It affects different people in different ways, and the reactions can vary in severity with symptoms such as rashes, headaches, hair loss and breathing problems when wearing the uniform to becoming so sensitized to the chemicals that it’s impossible to even be in the same space without getting extremely sick.”
It wasn’t until November 2019 that the airlines began allowing some employees to wear non-uniform clothing they purchased independently.7 Many of the complaints have centered on inconsistent and unfair treatment. After 18 months of mystery illnesses and symptoms, Delta employees are no closer to an answer or resolution.
Many have fears for their health and job security, resulting in a heavy financial burden. One attendant was seen by a dermatologist in Atlanta, who told her she had been exposed to a toxin causing her reactions. Most of the employees agree the company’s response has been disjointed.
Several spoke anonymously to Business Insider, who reported attendants were not logically granted permission to wear an alternative uniform. Some were threatened with job loss if they refused and others were given permission only after telling the company they wouldn’t return to work unless they were allowed to wear a different uniform.
Judith Anderson, a 20-year industrial hygienist for AFA, explained that the dye is a suspicious target as it has rubbed off on airplane seats and flight attendants’ skin. Anderson believes a lack of oversight in the supply chain, combined with poor testing before distribution, resulted in inconsistent chemical application.
She believes this may partially explain why a higher percentage of employees have not had health complaints since the uniforms may not have had equal chemical treatments applied.
Flight Attendants May Be Unwitting Test Subjects
Delta Airlines is not the first airline that flight attendants have had trouble with, due to health issues resulting from their uniforms. Historically, only legal actions have triggered policy changes by affected airlines.8 In 2010 new uniforms were issued to Alaska Airlines attendants. Not long afterward the company received reports of rashes and eye irritation, as well as scaly skin patches, hives and blisters.
The uniforms were manufactured by Twin Hill, which subsequently won a lawsuit filed by the attendants, with the court ruling “there was no reliable evidence that the injuries were caused by the uniforms.” Shortly afterward, the airline received more new uniforms manufactured by Twin Hill and flight attendants again began to report symptoms.
In 2018, a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report noted that there were no complaints in 2015 before the new uniforms were issued. However, by 2016, the airline’s OSHA logs showed 87 skin disorders, 83 of which employees claimed were related to the new uniforms.
Skin symptoms were most common, but employees also reported migraines, shortness of breath, vomiting and hair loss. Employees filed a lawsuit against Twin Hill in 2017 following more than 3,500 complaints.
The case against Alaska Airlines interested researchers from Harvard University9 who were studying the health effects of working in an airplane cabin environment.
Using survey data from 684 flight attendants working for Alaska Airlines before and after the uniforms were issued, they found that respiratory, allergic and dermatological symptoms began to rise after flight attendants started wearing the new uniforms.
Eileen McNeely is a lead researcher in the study from Harvard University, and she believes flight attendants may be inadvertently testing the toxic chemicals that are in their clothing. She describes an ideal laboratory environment for researchers in which the attendants are wearing the same articles of clothing in the same environmental conditions on a consistent basis.
Fast Fashion Major Source of Pollution
The textile industry is also a major source of environmental pollution. During the dying process, 80% of the dye remains on the fabric while the rest is flushed down the drain. In the case of the uniforms from Delta Airlines, flight attendants said the dye was rubbing off on their skin and airline jump seats.
The dyes cause problems, but so do the chemicals used to fix the color into the fabric. According to Kant,10 the industry uses more than 1,000 chemicals that are directly or indirectly poisonous and damaging to human health.
In addition to using a massive amount of water, producing clothing also pollutes it. A textile mill that produces 8,000 kg (17,637 pounds) of fabric each day can use 1.6 million liters (422,675 gallons) of water to do so. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the fast fashion industry encourages consumers to continually buy the latest fashions, which are sold cheaply.11
Americans buy more and more clothing every year, with the average consumer purchasing more than 65 articles in 2016. At the same time, 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles are thrown out each year.
As Green America wrote in their 2019 Toxic Textiles report, even when recycled, “less than 1% of the resources required to make clothing is recaptured and reused to create new clothing.”
Much of donated clothing ends up being sold to textile recyclers and exported to other countries, all contributing to a growing global waste problem. While speaking to The Guardian, one flight attendant voiced a concern regarding the airline industry, which may potentially identify a challenge in the general population:12
“Image is one of the five metrics that we are rated on by customers that contribute towards our overall profile as employees. As a largely female workforce, it feels as though our general appearance takes priority over our health.”
Change May Happen Only When Consumers Speak
Irina Mordukhovich, an epidemiologist from Harvard University, said Delta Airlines did not allow the research team access to study the concern. In discussing the issue with The Guardian, she said she saw parallels in how other airline companies historically responded to uniform health concerns:
“The airlines always deny there is a problem. The airlines are very risk averse when it comes to any health research studies. They don’t tend to cooperate.”
On attendant wrote in an email:
“I flew a two-day trip and have been coughing and clearing fluid from my throat all day today. And my voice went last night. But the only way this will change is when the traveling public demands it.”
Realistically, the only way most industries change is when you vote with your pocketbook. Moving forward, consider giving serious thought to cleaning up and “greening” your wardrobe.
Remember, being a conscious consumer does not stop at food and household products. Your clothing can be a source of hazardous chemicals, and cheaply made fast fashion items take a tremendous toll on the environment and the people working in the industry.