“The Secret behind Cotton” by Lindsey Slaten

Posted: January 5, 2014 in Vol. 4: Fall Essays 2013

cottonCotton. Seems like a pretty standard thing, right? We all wear it, sleep on it in our sheets, our pajamas, and our favorite blanket that we love to watch movies in. But it’s more than just what is stuffed into our childhood teddy bears; it’s the crop with the world’s highest use of pesticides and insecticides, accounting for many of the insecticides used worldwide. These chemicals cause a variety of harm to our Earth and soil as well as our health. I believe all cotton should be produced and processed organically, for the production of conventional, non-organic cotton is harmful to its consumers or our environment. I will compare organic cotton to conventional, non-organic cotton while discussing these harms and risks and how they affect us.

Ever put on a new shirt straight from the store (you were just so excited you couldn’t contain yourself enough to wash it first, as your mother instructed) and then a little later you began to feel itchy? Woke up with a rash? Maybe you targeted your new lotion as the trigger for the sudden bumps – well, you may now take out your lotion once again, for the chemicals contained in the clothing you were wearing would most likely be the cause. A lot of people are familiar with pesticides and insecticides being used to grow our food, and with this information many people have switched to organic produce to better their health and environment. However, many people aren’t aware of the chemicals that are used to produce what we’re wearing. Cotton is used to produce clothing, sheets, couches, mattresses, towels, etc. It’s everywhere in things that people use every day. So should cotton be farmed using chemicals and GMO seeds that are potentially dangerous to us?

Cotton accounts for 10% percent of the world’s pesticide use and 25% of the world’s insecticide use, more than any other crop (“Cotton”). To put that into some perspective, it took one-third of a pound of pesticides to produce the t-shirt you’re wearing. Pesticides are chemicals that aid in growing crops for the manufacturer. It makes growing the crops easier, quicker and therefore more efficient. However, these chemicals come with a risk: not only are they sprayed onto the crop to prevent bugs and diseases to the plant while causing other harmful effects to humans, but they are sprayed into the air leading to a drift where the chemicals could be inhaled by anyone nearby. A study was conducted in Lubbock, Texas (an area very close to a cotton field where wind blows the sprayed chemicals into the town), and it was reported that more people had cancer in Lubbock than any other area of that population. Curious, isn’t it?

A few chemicals used in the production and finishing of cotton include formaldehyde, caustic soda, sulfuric acid, bromines, urea resins, sulfonamides, halogens, silicone waxes, harsh petroleum scours, softeners, heavy metals, soil retardants, ammonia, and flame retardants. This long list, however, only covers a small amount of chemicals used. Not familiar with what any of those chemicals are? Well, you’re wearing them – your body is being introduced to them every day. People can experience allergic reactions to these chemicals, and they can also increase the risk of asthma, hives, cancer and several different allergic reactions. Flame retardants are particularly special: they are sprayed on your clothing to make the product water, stain, and flame resistant. Flame retardant is made up of perfluorinated compounds (PFC), brominated flame retardants (BFR), and halogenated flame retardants (HFR), which are known endocrine disruptors; they mess with healthy hormonal development and can cause reproductive and development disorders. The Environmental Protection Agency considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton in 2000 in the United States as “possible,” “likely,” “probable,” or “known” human carcinogens (acephate, dichloropropene, diuron, fluometuron, pendimethalin, tribufos, and trifluralin) (“List”).

Many people will read this and think, “Well hey, all I have to do is wash the material and the chemicals will be washed away.” Not true. First, these chemicals are in your carpet and mattress, things that aren’t exactly easy to just toss into your load of laundry. But furthermore, washing your clothing or cotton materials doesn’t wash away all of the chemicals that have been used during your favorite shirt’s production. The chemicals that were used are bonding to the material of your shirt or any other cotton product. Some chemicals are washed away throughout your cycle of laundry, but not all of them, such as formaldehyde and the flame retardants.

In “Do You Know What Toxic Chemicals Lurk in Your Clothing?” Cathy Sherman shares her knowledge: “One study, which included an 18-month old baby, found high levels of flame retardants in the subjects’ blood. The results were two to three times the levels that are known to cause neurological damage in rats. . . . Yet US laws require flame retardants be applied to many kinds of children’s clothing.” No one would want to put their children or families at risk of neurological damage or at risk for hives or cancer as previously stated, so why are these chemicals used in the cotton? Pesticides, herbicides insecticides, defoliants and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are used to keep insects from disturbing the plant, prevent diseases, making growing easier and more efficient, and to make the cotton bigger and “better” to generate more income for the companies. It’s cheaper for the manufacturers to use these chemicals that have become accepted as a norm by society. However, no matter how much cheaper or more efficient, it’s not safer, a concept that one would think would play a bigger role in the world. And to some cotton farmers, it does. Organically grown cotton may take a little more work, some tender love and care versus a machine that sprays on poison, toxins, and chemicals with several known and even more unknown health risks. Organic cotton is chemical, pesticide, flame retardant, who-knows-what-else free. This means you could rest easy knowing harmful chemicals aren’t leeching into your body through your pores as you sleep on your 300-thread count sheets in your Christmas pajamas. You could safely snuggle into your blanket without cuddling up to nasty flame retardants at the same time. Most importantly, your constantly-growing child is safe in her organic mattress crib and not exposed to neurologically damaging toxins.

So you know the benefits and harms for you, but what about our environment? What about setting up the world to be safe and usable for our families’ next generations? All of these chemicals used are being absorbed directly into our soil, leeching into our water, getting into our oceans damaging aquatic life and other creatures, all while spreading around towns due to wind. Fifty-five million pounds of pesticides were sprayed on the 12.8 million acres of conventional cotton grown in the U.S. in 2003, ranking cotton third behind corn and soybeans in the amount of pesticides sprayed (“Agricultural”). As if that isn’t shocking already, over 2 billion pounds of synthetic fertilizers were applied to conventional cotton in 2000, making cotton the fourth most heavily fertilized crop behind corn, winter wheat, and soybeans (“Agricultural”). Michael from Care What You Wear says it best:

“Pesticides not only disrupt the balance of nature in the field, but also harm people who come in contact with them.  According to the Organic Consumers Association, the use of pesticides, which includes insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, for conventional cotton production has created serious problems for human health and the environment in all cotton-growing regions worldwide.”

After crops have been sprayed with these chemicals, it’s well known that one should avoid the area for 24 hours. There has been a case reported where a few guys entered the field after only five hours and quickly checked into a hospital, and they face ongoing health problems (“DPR”). Why let something so harmful be put into our soil, land, water and environment?

Organic cotton is not only better for you, as we’ve discussed, but it is also better for our environment. We still get to keep our beloved fluffy cotton, it’s just not deceiving anyone when the farmers follow the USDA Organic regulations for growing the cotton. Michael continues his argument as follows:

“By focusing on managing rather than completely eliminating troublesome weeds and insects, organic farmers are able to maintain ecological balance and protect the environment.  Organic cotton is now being grown in more than 18 countries worldwide.  In the United States, approximately 10,000 acres of organic cotton were planted in 1998 in the Mid-South, Texas and California.”

Less chemicals means happy people and a safer environment. The cotton is also safe from harsh chemicals during processing by following the Organic Trade Association’s Standards which oversees how materials such as cotton are handled after harvesting up to labeling of the product. This includes any bleaching or dyeing that occurs – it’s all watched and regulated in order to earn the approval for using the seal. Meaning producers would no longer be able to add chemicals to aid in preventing color fading or wrinkling.

Although I’m thankful that the organic options for clothing exist, why is this even optional? Why is it not standard that all cotton meet the USDA Organic standards, as well as the Organic Trade Association’s standards? Why is conventionally grown cotton where we are poisoning our land even an option at all? With all the harmful effects that these chemicals are known for, and with the knowledge that we are spreading these harms into our environment, I believe all cotton should be produced and processed organically. We seem to have the means, space, and materials for enough organic cotton to be produced to satisfy the cotton demand. As was previously stated, 18 other countries are growing organic cotton, and many countries have stricter policies than the United States. If other countries can find the means of switching to organic growing, harvesting and processing for the health benefit of their people, we can too. I believe the only thing that would stand in the way is big conglomerate factories or even individual factories that are interested in producing the most cotton while pinching every possible penny, even if health is at risk.

Conventionally grown cotton is dangerous. Maybe it’s more efficient to the manufacturers to treat their crop of cotton with toxins, but it’s not safe. Not safe for humans, animals (any living organism, really), and not safe for the world. Organic cotton is free of harm and doesn’t pose risks of cancer or other scary harms to the consumer.


“Agricultural Chemical Usage: 2003 Field Crop Summary.” U. S. Department of Agriculture. N.p., 2003. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.

“Cotton: The Crop and its Agrochemicals Market.” Allen Woodburn Associates Ltd./Managing Resources Ltd, 1995.Web. 5 Dec. 2013.

“DPR Releases Data on 1999 Pesticide Injuries,.” California Department of Pesticide Regulation. N.p., 2001. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.

“List of Chemicals Evaluated for Carcinogenic Potential.” U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. N.p., 2001. Web. 04 Dec. 2013.

Michael. “Care What You Wear: Facts on Cotton & Clothing Production.” Care What You Wear: Facts on Cotton & Clothing Production. N.p., 29 July 2007. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

Sherman, Cathy. “Do You Know What Toxic Chemicals Lurk in Your Clothing?” NaturalNews. N.p., 10 Mar. 2008. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.


Written for Cara Chang’s ENG 200: Composition II


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