How your clothes influence the air you breathe

Dusan Licina, a tenure-track assistant professor at the Smart Living Lab, EPFL Fribourg, has taken a critical look at how much we really know about our exposure to particles and chemicals transported by our clothing. His study concludes that further research is needed and opens up new areas of investigation.


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The wearing of clothing is mostly restricted to human beings and is a feature of all human societies. Physically, clothing serves many purposes: it can serve as protection from the elements and can enhance safety during hazardous activities.

Clothing goes about as a defensive barrier against physical and chemical risks. Be that as it may, it can likewise expose us to conceivably dangerous chemicals and biological particles by discharging a huge number of such substances consistently, contingent upon how we use and treat the clothes.

Some hazardous substances include molecular compounds, abiotic particles and biotic particles (such as microbes and allergens), and can end up in our lungs, for example, nicotine remnants from cigarette smoke, microbes from pets and dangerous compounds utilized in the agriculture, medicinal and manufacturing industries.

Until now, scientists have taken little interest in this issue. Scientists in a new study identified some serious knowledge gaps as well as specific avenues for further research.

Dusan Licina, a tenure-track assistant professor at EPFL’s Smart Living Lab in Fribourg said, “The clothing and fabrics people wear have changed enormously over the past few years – today our clothes contain synthetic materials with antimicrobial, anti-UV, stain-repellent and water-repellent additives – but nobody can say whether these new materials expose us to more chemicals and particles than natural fibers.”

“All clothing include a label indicating not just what materials it is made from, but also what substances were used in the fabrication process – much like the ingredient and nutrition-information labels that are required on food.”

Licina said, “Today there are no laws or regulations addressing this issue. In short, we know that clothing can have a significant impact on our daily exposure to particles and chemicals, through the air we breathe and the contact with our skin, but we don’t what the full ramifications are in terms of public health.”

Licina was conducting research in the US, where he measured how particles are transported inside the unit and even to babies’ incubators. He found that when nurses entered the unit, the air-particle concentration increased by a factor of 2.5 and that some of those particles could be traced directly to the shirts that nurses wore during their commute to the hospital. These particles could feasibly play a major role in the development of the babies’ immune systems. But, once again, more research is needed.

Similar studies on clothing revealed significant traces of insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides – compounds that could be absorbed by fabrics in one place and released in another.

Licina said, “Research has already shown that an individual’s clothing can carry potentially toxic particles that can expose people nearby. For example, scientists have found that non-smokers who sit next to smokers with nicotine particles on their clothing have traces of nicotine in their blood and urine later on.”

“What’s more, the particle concentrations that people are thus exposed to from clothing are substantial when compared with total exposure estimates in health effect studies. However, what’s missing are data on how that exposure affects us on a day-to-day basis.”

To fill in those holes, Licina approaches biologists and chemists to work closely with environmental specialists, in light of a legitimate concern for public wellbeing. He likewise recommends that until further research is led and better garments data guidelines are received, consumers should pay more consideration to how their garments are made and wash them normally utilizing gentle, all natural detergents.

Licina just published a critical review of research on this topic in Environmental Science and Technology.


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