Do jeans give you cancer?

If so what color?

Have you ever noticed how some of the most effective chemicals and materials have some of worst side effects? CFCs are great refrigerants but terrible for the ozone layer. Asbestos is a wonderful inert material but very dangerous to your health. Well it appears that some dyes are in a similar category.

The issue came to the fore recently when 50,000 clothing items were recalled across Australia due to increased cancer risk.

One of the most popular types of dyes used for textiles are Azo dyes. They are cost effective, provide great bright colours, particularly red, orange and yellow, and because they form within the fibre, they are very colour-fast. But there is a catch.

While the vast majority of Azo dyes are considered safe (some are even used in food), there is the small minority that can cause trouble. The trouble lies when Azo dyes break down and release certain aromatic amines which pose a cancer risk. The list of 22 aromatic amines is well known and either severely restricted or banned in many countries include the EU and US for skin contact applications.

What about Australia?

There is no specific restriction on these dyes for use in Australia. But strangely this does not mean that suppliers are off the hook. There is another process involving regular safety monitoring by the ACCC, which tests garments to the European standard. In other words the EU standard has become a de facto voluntary standard for Australia.

I am surprised the particularly dangerous formulations of Azo dyes are still produced given the restrictions on their use in major markets. But they sneak through, indicating inadequate supply chain risk assessment or vigilance.

Local retailers affected by the recall claim that they effectively ban the use of those particular Azo dyes in their contracts. But it must be difficult to control when the products are manufactured offshore, other Azo dyes continue to be used, and there is no strong regulation in Australia anyway (the recall is voluntary).

It would have been so much easier all around if the jeans had been certified to a recognised standard. For example the Oeko-Tex 100 certification specialises in ensuring that textiles meet the toughest European standards. By testing all elements in the product including the fabric, yarn and accessories (buckles), the brand would have certainty that its products are safe for their customers. Another standard such as Good Environmental Choice Australia’s (GECA’s) Textiles Standard would ensure that these harmful substances were not present.

So the answer is no, you probably won’t get cancer from your jeans, even if they are bright red, but companies could do a better job managing the risks in their supply chain to avoid costly and embarrassing recalls.

Image source: News Limited

Image source: News Limited