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My Early Experience with Cotton

I grew up in the cotton producing area of Central Arizona. I should have known that I was being poisoned with seasonal regularity by the production of a crop that grew just across the road from my family home – but I had no idea then; and, it has only been recently that I became aware of the hazards to human and environmental health that are inherent in the production of non-organic cotton and cotton clothing.

Cotton is planted in the Spring as soon as it warms up enough for the seeds to germinate. Not long after planting I could look out of my bedroom window and see tractors crawling across the fields spraying chemical fertilizers and pesticides on the young plants. In late spring and early summer as the cotton began to mature crop dusters took off from nearby air-strips and crisscrossed the fields in regular patterns spraying parathion on the dreaded boll weevil – a beetle that can decimate a cotton crop if not controlled. When the wind was out of the west the insecticide drifted past our house and on across town. No one considered it a hazard and at most it was considered a somewhat smelly inconvenience.

I worked some summers as a flagman for the crop dusters – standing at the end of long rows of cotton waving a large white flag to mark the next area to be sprayed for the pilot. There was no way to avoid being sprayed myself as the pilot only shut off the spray at the end of the row as he looped the plane up and over and back down a few feet above the next section of cotton to be sprayed.

Conventional Cotton Production Today.

That was how it was done then and that is still how it is done today. It had never occurred to me how harmful conventional cotton production is to health and environment although I had virtually grown up in the middle of a cotton field. So I did some research……

Federal regulations limit applications of pesticides and some, such as DDT are banned altogether. Other regulations are designed to protect farm workers. Protective clothing is required for those working directly with farm chemicals. But that is not enough.

In spite of these measures to protect humans and the environment non-organic cotton production requires the application of so many harmful chemicals that damage is unavoidable. Chemical fertilizers are in abundant use on cotton crops – it takes about one-third pound of fertilizer to produce one pound of cotton. Cotton requires more insecticides and pesticides than any other crop. Ten percent of all pesticides and twenty-five percent of all insecticides used worldwide are used on cotton. Most of these chemicals make their way into the environment and into the cotton. The most harmful of these are insecticides such as organophosphates (parathion being the most common) and carbamate pesticides that damage humans, beneficial insects, livestock, pets and virtually all wildlife. Parathion is absorbed directly into the skin and mucus membranes so it is not necessary to swallow it to be poisoned.

The environment is poisoned by clouds of insecticides in the wind; runoff from irrigation and rain; direct contact with crops and farm equipment; and leakage from spraying and other application equipment just to name a few of the ways these harmful chemicals are transmitted into the environment. Of as much concern is the fact that cottonseeds are used to make cattle feed and oils that brings these chemicals directly back into the human food chain.



Harmful Practices in Producing Cotton Clothing.

I wasn’t very far into my research before I began to wonder how many of these chemicals show up in clothing, bedding and other cotton products. I prefer cotton clothes because they are comfortable, easy to care for, reasonably priced and provide warmth in the winter and are cool in the summer. The sheets and pillowcases on my bed are cotton. It seems that my connection to cotton is more than my childhood experience of growing up in cotton country – this research was becoming very relevant to my current situation.

The facts concerning the harmful effects of cotton clothing production turned out to be almost as alarming as the facts surrounding the growing of cotton.

In addition to the chemicals that find their way into cotton during the farming process most cotton products are treated with a chemical soup that includes ammonia, dyes, soil retardants, heavy metals, chemical softeners, silicone, and formaldehyde. Many of these are known or suspected carcinogens and some are poisonous. Almost all of them can cause allergic reactions in some individuals. It may take three to five washings to remove the majority of these chemicals.

The environment too takes a hit from cotton material production when wastewater from these treatments is discharged into the environment.

Advantages of Organic Cotton.

I began to think that, considering the harm that conventional cotton does to the environment and to humans, I should boycott cotton altogether. I was sure that the cotton industry as a whole wouldn’t miss my meager contribution but as a responsible citizen I felt that I should not be contributing even small amounts to such a harmful industry.



Then I began to learn about Organic Cotton.

Organ Cotton is grown without the use of any toxic or persistent insecticides or synthetic fertilizers. The use of genetically modified seeds is prohibited. There are strict standards for the production of organic cotton clothing. Toxic chemicals are not allowed in any part of the production process of organic cotton clothing and there are extensive guidelines that must be followed – all cotton sold in the United States as Organic must meet strict federal regulations and is overseen by third party organizations such as the Organic Trade Association. While the environmental impact of organic cotton farming and clothing production is not zero it is far below that of conventional cotton production and the benefit to the consumer is better health.

I am relieved to know that there is a way that I can continue to use cotton without doing harm to myself or to the environment. Knowing what I know now it seems that the switch to Organic Cotton makes perfect sense.