Are no-iron shirts made by soaking them in formaldehyde? Plus: Did the South Atlantic anomaly cause that Air France crash?

August 7, 2009

Dear Cecil:

I'm a hard-working attorney with minimal personal time who enjoys the efficiency that no-iron shirts afford. However, I heard a potentially disturbing statement that the "treatment" no-iron shirts are given is a bath in formaldehyde. Since exposure to formaldehyde is something I'd like to avoid until my trip to the morgue, please enlighten us as to what exactly is done to allow no-iron shirts to be so no-irony and whether there are any known (or even speculative) adverse health affects for those who wear no-iron shirts on a regular basis. I don't represent anyone in the no-iron shirt industry, so feel free to go after 'em.

Cecil replies:

Gee, thanks for the green light, counselor. I'd certainly think twice about tangling with the no-iron shirt industry if I suspected you were on its legal team.

The simple answer to your question is that no-iron shirts are indeed made by soaking them in formaldehyde — or more precisely, formaldehyde-containing resins. Although we think of it mainly in connection with embalmed cadavers and fetal pigs in jars, formaldehyde is widely used commercially to make plastics, particle board and plywood, and a variety of other common products. When resins containing formaldehyde are added to cotton fabric, they form cross-links between the fibers like rungs on a ladder, giving the fabric added strength and increasing its resistance to wrinkling.

Formaldehyde also has some drawbacks. In small doses it can cause respiratory problems and eye and skin irritation. It's likely a carcinogen, and breathing too much of it can be fatal. If you wear no-iron clothing, you can inhale formaldehyde vapors from the fabric or absorb it through your skin. To keep things in perspective, though, you'll leave a sharp-looking corpse.

Individual sensitivity to formaldehyde varies — and in some cases it's not clear whether formaldehyde is the culprit. Recent lawsuits have alleged that wearing certain Victoria's Secret bras led to hives, rashes, and even scars; the suits claimed that the bras had tested positive for formaldehyde, but VS denied using formaldehyde in making the garments. On the cancer front, research has yielded mixed results. A study of 11,000 U.S. garment workers who used formaldehyde to make wrinkle-free clothes found a moderate increase in leukemia, but scientists looking at 7,700 Australian textile workers saw no significant link between formaldehyde and cancer risk. If you're worried, washing your clothes before wearing them for the first time greatly reduces your exposure.

Formaldehyde isn't the only problematic chemical found in clothes. One common dry-cleaning agent is perchloroethylene (PERC), a solvent also used in stain removers, paint cleaner, and ink. Short-term exposure to high doses can cause dizziness, decreased motor skills, and vision trouble. You don't have to live above a dry cleaner to be at risk — PERC levels in a sealed car containing freshly dry-cleaned clothes have tested at more than eight times the recommended limit. (And if you do live above a dry cleaner, consider moving — measurements in such apartments have found concentrations of 30 to 52 times the limit.) True, cutting-edge dry cleaning technology uses little or no PERC, but who knows what chemical perils will turn up tomorrow? Then again, Mr. or Ms. Concerned Attorney, if the world contained no risks, nobody would need to hire you.

Dear Cecil:

While watching the National Geographic Channel today, I saw that the South Atlantic anomaly (a giant hole in Earth's magnetic field) could pose a serious risk to airplanes. Could the South Atlantic anomaly be responsible for the recent crash of the Air France plane flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris?

Cecil replies:

One doesn't want to be alarmist, but: hmmm.

Earth's magnetic field protects us from charged particles in the solar wind that could otherwise cause bad things to happen, from interfering with electronics to stripping away our atmosphere. The magnetic field isn't uniform — since 1958 we've known about a weak spot (not a hole) centered near Rio de Janeiro. Called the South Atlantic anomaly (SAA), it results in the magnetic field dipping to an altitude of 100 to 120 miles instead of its normal 500 miles or more.

Because it lets in more solar radiation, the SAA is a hazard to space flight. Satellites have had their circuits temporarily scrambled while passing through it, so some are shut off during that part of their orbit. Astronauts passing through the SAA see flashes of light when they close their eyes, caused by charged particles striking their retinas.

Coincidentally (or maybe not), the SAA lies right over part of the flight path of Air France flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic on June 1. The cause of the crash hasn't been established, but I had my assistant Una dig around for reports of unusual aircraft equipment failures near the SAA. She learned about solar activity blacking out aircraft radio over the poles, but nothing near the SAA. She also checked the space weather archives, and even though earthbound weather was terrible that night, things were calm from a solar radiation standpoint. So despite online claims, I doubt the SAA was a factor in the crash. But we'll see.

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References

Davis, Tony. “Dry cleaning dilemma” Arizona Daily Star 02 December, 2007. http://www.azstarnet.com/metro/214336

“Formaldehyde in Clothing and Other Textiles” Australia. Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. NICNAS Existing Chemicals Information Sheet October, 2007.

Fritschi, Lin, et al. “Cancer Incidence in Textile Manufacturing Workers in Australia” Journal of Occupational Health 46 (2004): 493-496.

Hellweg, Stefani, et al. “Confronting Workplace Exposure to Chemicals with LCA: Examples of Trichloroethylene and Perchloroethylene in Metal Degreasing and Dry Cleaning.” Environmental Science and Technology 39 (2005): 7741-7748.

Lynge, Elsebeth, et al. “Cancer in Persons Working in Dry Cleaning in the Nordic Countries” Environmental Health Perspectives 114.2 (2006): 213-219.
Ott, Wayne, Steinemann, Anne C., Wallace, Lance A. Exposure Analysis Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, 2006.

Pinkerton, L.E., Hein, M.J., and Stayner, L.T. “Mortality among a cohort of garment workers exposed to
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Scheman, Andrew J. et al. “Formaldehyde-related textile allergy: an update.” Contact Dermatitis 38 (1998): 332-336.

Broad, William J. “’Dip’ on Earth is Big Trouble in Space.” New York Times 05 June 1990, pg. C1.

Carlowicz, Michael J. and Lopez, Ramon E. Storms from the Sun Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2002.

“Gemini is measuring Van Allen anomaly.” New York Times 06 June 1965, pg. 71.

Knipp, Delores. “Space Weather Impacts and Some Schemes for Thinking About Them.” NCAR Advanced Study Program – Space Weather 31 May – 10 June, 2005, Boulder, Colorado. http://www.asp.ucar.edu/colloquium/2005/presentations/knipp/ASP_Space%20Weather%20Impacts.ppt

National Academy of Sciences. Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal And Economic Impacts: A Workshop Report Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2008.
http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=12507&page=51

National Weather Service Space Weather Prediction site: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/

Spera, Gabriel. “(The Back Page): A Space Oddity” Crosslink – Radiation in the Space Environment 4.2 (Summer, 2003) http://www.aero.org/publications/crosslink/summer2003/backpage.html

Sullivan, Walter. “Astronauts Confronted by 2 Radiation Hazards.” New York Times 20 July 1966, pg. 22.

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