Antibacterial substances
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Garments treated with antibacterial substances
a threat to health and the environment

14 December 2011

The Swedish Chemicals Agency has analysed 30 textile articles with respect to their contents of three antibacterial agents (biocides); silver, triclosan and trichlocarban.

The antibacterial treatment is usually labelled with the function to prevent bad smell in textiles.

Chemical analyses were performed on all samples before washing and after three and ten washes. Silver was found in sixteen of the thirty product samples before washing. A combination of triclosan and trichlocarban was found in two samples.

Substances leaking out with the washing water

Concentrations of biocides in fabrics fell after washing of those that had been treated with one of the three investigated substances. In the case of triclosan and trichlocarban about half or more of the original content was washed out after ten washes. In the case of silver the original concentration and washed-out content varied to a large extent.

Antibacterial treatment is not only used for synthetic material but also for cotton garments for young children, as well as synthetics, wool, and silk mixtures. There are of course many other manufacturers using biocidal treatment to their articles than those who were included in the study.

These substances are toxic

The Swedish Chemicals Agency is concerned about the increasing use of biocidal products in general. Biocides are often toxic and designed to prevent or control different organisms. Such substances must be used with caution and with good control so they do not spread out of control, harming human health or the environment. It is remarkable that such a large proportion of added biocides are washed out of textiles and thus enter treatment plants and the environment.

The three analysed biocides are not degraded at all (silver) or slowly (trichlocarban and triclosan) in the environment. Silver in ionic form, triclosan and trichlocarban are very toxic to aquatic organisms. Trichlocarban has in studies demonstrated to have reproductive properties and triclosan endocrine-disrupting properties.

Silver, triclosan and trichlocarban leaking from textiles contaminate the sludge from treatment plants. Concentrations of silver are no longer declining in sewage sludge from sewage treatment plants, which has been the case since the photographic industry was digitilised. Sludge is spread on farmland as soil fertiliser. The substances contained in the sludge can be taken up by cultivated plants, finally to end up in animal feed and food. These substances can also affect water and soil organisms.