Everyday more and more companies are releasing “green” products. While this is great for the planet & consumers there is a down side. That down side is that products are released and called “green” and people buy it and embrace it with good intentions of making safe choices for their families but they are not always “green”. Unfortunately bamboo fibers are one of those products.
I was surprised when it came to my attention that in fact bamboo fabric is not organic or chemical free. While bamboo is a sustainable product the process of making it into fibers that can be used for clothing is not in anyway organic or natural.
Bamboo cellulose is taken from the inside of bamboo stalks and is crushed along with the leaves of the plant. This process is done in one place in China where they hold the patent for the process of producing bamboo fibers from bamboo cellulose. This company is Jiago Chemical Fiber Company. They produce tens of thousands of tons of bamboo fiber per year. When tens of thousands of tons of bamboo fiber is produced every year in one factory it seems it would be impossible to know which plants are grown organically or not. In the end that turns out to be irrelevant because the process of turning the bamboo plant into a rayon fiber to be used for clothing is done mainly with two chemicals, sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) & carbon disulfide.
Here is the process of creating a bamboo fiber (this comes from the post on Organic Clothing Blog)
- The crushed bamboo cellulose is soaked in a solution of 15% to 20% sodium hydroxide at a temperature between 20 degrees C to 25 degrees C for one to three hours to form alkali cellulose;
- The bamboo alkali cellulose is then pressed to remove any excess sodium hydroxide solution. The alkali cellulose is crashed by a grinder and left to dry for 24 hours;
- Roughly a third as much carbon disulfide is added to the bamboo alkali cellulose to sulfurize the compound causing it to jell;
- Any remaining carbon disulfide is removed by evaporation due to decompression and cellulose sodium xanthogenate is the result;
- A diluted solution of sodium hydroxide is added to the cellulose sodium xanthogenate dissolving it to create a viscose solution consisting of about 5% sodium hydroxide and 7% to 15% bamboo fiber cellulose.
The viscose bamboo cellulose is forced through spinneret nozzles into a large container of a diluted sulfuric acid solution which hardens the viscose bamboo cellulose sodium xanthogenate and reconverts it to cellulose bamboo fiber threads which are spun into bamboo fiber yarns to be woven into reconstructed and regenerated bamboo fabric.
As you can see there are several places where the chemicals are introduced to the fiber and where the employees are being exposed to those chemicals.
I want to point out here that sodium hydroxide is used on food, it is used in soap, drano, and other cleaning agents. It is used in a chemical process to peel fruits & vegetables. It is also used in soda production and caramel coloring. So arguments are being made that it can’t be that bad. Is this like saying formaldehyde is being used in baby mattresses, sheets, insulation etc. so it must not be bad? The danger with sodium hydroxide is also the amount being used. It is introduced to the fiber twice and in large doses each time. Sodium hydroxide can cause severe burning on a persons skin if it comes into contact with it. If inhaled in small doses it can also cause irritation of the nose, throat, and respiratory airways. Inhalation in larger doses can produce swelling or spasms of the upper airway leading to obstruction and loss of measurable pulse; inflammation of the lungs and accumulation of fluid in the lungs. If sodium hydroxide is ingested it can cause spontaneous vomiting, chest and abdominal pain, and difficulty swallowing. Corrosive injury to the mouth, throat, esophagus, and stomach is very rapid and may result in perforation, hemorrhage, and narrowing of the gastrointestinal tract. Case reports indicate that death results from shock, infection of the corroded tissues, lung damage, or loss of measurable pulse.
Carbon Disulfide is reported by OSHA as having the ability to cause coronary heart disease, organic brain damage, peripheral nervous system decrements, neurobehavioral dysfunction, and ocular & auditory effects. The amount of exposure of course is directly related to the risk of damage the chemical can cause. There are also risks at lower exposure of headaches, malaise, severe eye, skin and mucous membrane issues as well as vomiting, convulsions, muscle weakness, and euphoria. The process involving this chemical and sodium hydroxide is not an organic process.
It is also important to note that the process of making bamboo into a fiber removes any natural anti-microbial benefits associated with bamboo according to the FTC. The FTC also says this about bamboo, “The Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, wants you to know that the soft “bamboo” fabrics on the market today are rayon. They are made using toxic chemicals in a process that releases pollutants into the air. Extracting bamboo fibers is expensive and time-consuming, and textiles made just from bamboo fiber don’t feel silky smooth.”
There is one other process to create bamboo fibers which is to manually stamp the woody plant into fibers. This produces something called Bamboo Linen which is very rarely used for clothing because it is very laborious and expensive to produce. It does not require the chemical processing like the other method does.
The good news is that talk is filtering out that there is a biobamboo on the horizon. This could make bamboo exciting as a fabric choice again that is green and sustainable!
Sheri Doyle is the Vice President of Franklin Goose, LLC, a natural baby boutique! Sheri was a freelance writer and author prior to founding Franklin Goose, LLC. Now she is bringing not only the best natural & organic baby products to customers but also the best information and experts.