Okay, I don’t smell but am I safe?

King Gee recently released a range of work clothing that is manufactured using a technique that reduces the wearer’s body odour.   A sample was sent to SafetyAtWorkBlog unrequested.   For those tradespeople with a body odour issue, the clothing may be a godsend, maybe more so for the people they have to work with.   The new clothing has received at least one media mention.

The issue that has stopped me from wearing the sample shirt is that the “odour-killing” properties are due to a process of:

“…. engineering molecules at the nanoscale …[that] transforms the very fibers of the fabric to provide unsurpassed odour elimination.”

Nanotechnology is a recent technology that is being applied widely but without a detailed consideration of the possible health effects to the user, the environment and to those who manufacture nano-materials. In November 2009, SafetyAtWorkBlog reported on a research report from The Australia Institute that said

“Adopting a precautionary approach to the commercialisation of the [nano] technology in cases where the potential for harm has been demonstrated, significant uncertainties remain and social benefits appear marginal.”

With this type of information around my concern about King Gee Steel clothing is understandable.  And I could not help but remember how the washing of work clothing not so long ago gave wives asbestos-related diseases to share with their husbands.

I posed several questions expressing my concerns to King Gee (Mirjana Dujkovic) and Nano-Tex (Dirk Keunan). The responses are below:

Your media release says the shirt’s fabrics has been treated by Nano-Tex Neutralizer. Can this component be released during the wash cycle?

Dirk: These components cannot be washed out.   They are permanently bonded to the fabric through a patented process application.   Like with any finish application, multiple washing will lead over time to a decreased performance level.   The KingGee Steel shirts meet Nano-tex MINIMUM performance specifications of 30 home laundries (HL).  That does not mean that the performance is no longer present after 30HL – in fact, earlier internal tests have shown a durability surpassing well over 60HL.   The durability of the performance often is related to wash and wear conditions.   “Poor” wash conditions (e.g. use of wrong detergents or too many detergents, poor rinsing and therefore residue detergents left on the garments, high temperature etc.) will have a negative effect on the lifetime of a garment, not only with Neutralizer but with all performance enhancement finishes.   As far as the nano-particles are concerned, please find the product safety statement attached.

Mirjana: No the treatment will not wash out in the wash, the molecules that trap the BO smell open up, release the smell and are “reactivated” in a way that will have a deodorising effect.  It is difficult to say exactly how long the treatment will last (ie depending on how a wearer cares for the shirt and what added chemicals they are adding to the wash) however under normal washing conditions we would expect it to be strong for at least 30 washes and not unreasonable to still be working at 100 washes.

There have been concerns raised by some environmentalists over other clothing products containing nanomaterials where particles are washed from the fabric into the environment.  There are other nanotechnology concerns about the capacity for nanoparticles to be absorbed through the skin, particularly in cosmetics.  Is there any risk of the NanoTex treatment in the KingGee Steel clothing being absorbed through the wearer’s skin, particularly as the wearer perspires?

Dirk: Nano-Tex is fully aware of the concerns regarding potential toxicity of nanoparticles, including the means and effects of nanoparticle transfer, absorption, inhalation or ingestion.   Nano-Tex does not use any nanoparticles in any of our textile technologies.   Our technologies consist of unique polymer blends that contain nanoscale domains and features that meet the NNI (National Nanotechnology Initiative) definition of “Nanotechnolgy” (sic) but do not exist as discreet nanoparticles.   The polymers are relatively large and durably bound to the fabric: there is no chance of our material absorbing into the skin or becoming airborne, in both the manufacturing process and finished goods.

Do you check that the manufacturing and safety practices of your Chinese suppliers meet Australian and international safety standards?

Mirjana: Yes, the factories are inspected and need to meet Pacific Brands standards (See attached file: Code of Conduct for Suppliers and Manufacturers..).    Also Nano-Tex checks the integrity of the fabric mills that are accredited to apply this type of treatment.

Health Risks in Manufacturing

This last question came as a result of many reports about poor working conditions in some Asian countries, but particularly from a report in the Autumn-Winter 2009 edition of HesaMag quoting the August 2009 edition of the European Respiratory Journal in which a study by Y Song says that

“…nanoparticles may be linked to illness and 2 deaths among a group of workers in China”.

That report dealt with a spray manufacturing process. When asked about the manufacturing process Dirk Keunan advised that this would not be discussed due to commercial secrecy.

Further to Mirjana Djukovic’s response above the Code of Conduct states

“Suppliers/Manufacturers shall ensure that

  • a safe and hygienic working environment is provided, bearing in mind the prevailing knowledge of the industry and of any specific hazards. Adequate steps be taken to prevent accidents and injury to health arising out of, associated with, or occurring in the course of work, by minimising, so far as is reasonably practicable, the causes of hazards inherent in the working environment.
  • workers receive regular and recorded health and safety training, and such training shall be repeated for new or reassigned workers.
  • access to clean toilet facilities and to potable water, and, if appropriate, sanitary facilities for food storage be provided.
  • accommodation, where provided, be clean, safe, and meet the basic needs of the workers.”

There is some wriggle room in the supplier obligations, as there is in most Codes.   With codes in the past that have applied to offshore manufacturing and OHS, the performance could only ever be verified by independent onsite assessments.

Pacific Dunlop, the owners of King Gee, have most of their clothing manufactured outside of Australia and it is unclear whether such Australian legal concepts as “so far as is reasonably practicable” is to, in this case, Chinese OHS standards or those in King Gee’s home country, Australia.

Coincidentally, in a breakfast seminar yesterday WorkSafe Victoria identified nanotechnology as one of the emerging hazards that they are monitoring. I took the opportunity to ask the WorkSafe speaker, Stan Krpan, whether he was aware of the new nano-treated safety clothing. He said that he was but the major concern was for the manufacturing of nanomaterials.

What is remarkable is that King Gee and its marketers don’t address in the website, media release or ads, the real concerns that exist in the marketplace over everything “nano” (except perhaps iPod nanos and Mork).  The clothing specifications circulated with the sample only mention the presence of the “revolutionary breakthrough” of Nano-Tex Neutraliser.

The labels on the clothing make no mention of extending the effectiveness of the shirt’s technology by avoiding the

“…use of wrong detergents or too many detergents, poor rinsing and therefore residue detergents left on the garments, high temperature…”

as mentioned by Dirk Keunan above.

From Dirk Keunan’s comments, he clearly believes there is no health risk from wearing the clothing.   It is understandable that one would not want to risk harming sales by referring to a non-existent hazard   That the available evidence shows no risk is accepted, and we may even wear the shirt at least once to check the fit and feel.  But my initial response to a nanotechnology-treated article of clothing was suspicion, a response which I believe is not unique.

The whole campaign is aimed at tradespeople, understandably, but unionised tradespeople will be more aware of the potential hazards of nanotechnology than any benefits, so will the fear of being smelly override any concerns about (unfounded) nanotechnology health risks?

Kevin Jones

2 thoughts on “Okay, I don’t smell but am I safe?”

  1. \”Our technologies consist of unique polymer blends that contain nanoscale domains and features that meet the NNI (National Nanotechnology Initiative) definition of “Nanotechnolgy” (sic) but do not exist as discreet nanoparticles.\”

    Doesn\’t sound like there\’s any nanotechnology there at all. Sounds to me more like someone\’s used a new application of good ol\’ polymer technology that I was learning about at Uni 25 years ago, & gave it a new techie-sounding nanotechnology buzzword-type name, in the hope of grabbing a marketing edge.

    Too many more hard questions back like yours & they might be rethinking their marketing strategy Kevin! Either that or you\’ll be struck off their contra list! 🙂

    1. No contra Ross.

      As I am not a chemical engineer I take your point about creating a thread with technology rather than treating a thread with a nanotechnology. If that is the case, the manufacturers could be misrepresenting their clothing, in my opinion, or at least mis-marketing the product.

      It may also be that I am barking up a dead end, to mix metaphors, and worrying about nothing. Is it possible that I am reading too much into this? The article in The Sunday Age didn\’t raise any nano concerns. Or could the lack of concern be because the product is safety clothing designed not only for smelly blokes but smelly \”tradies\”?

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