When you’ve got a bargain, do you think about who’s paid for it?

When I buy clothing, I ALWAYS ask myself “is the cotton used to make this organic cotton?” If it isn’t organic, I follow up with a series of sub-questions tripping around “what permanently debilitating condition does the farmer who grew this have?” and “which pesticide gave it to him?”…..

Actually – – –  I don’t.

And nor, I suspect, do you.

The source, the origin, whether a farmer has a debilitating condition or if he got paid a fair price for his hard labor…that matters little when I’m clothes shopping. Pesticides?  The last thing on my mind when there is a 75% off sale!!!


Pesticides are toxic chemicals sprayed on crops to kill “pests”…or any other living thing  (humans included). Insecticides kill insects, herbicides kill weeds. So on. So forth.

Hazardous chemicals associated with global cotton production also kill fish and get into the drinking water. Chemicals are known to contaminate freshwater rivers in America, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Australia, Greece and West Africa.

Despite a ban across 62 countries and a pledge by its primary manufacturer, Bayer, to cease its distribution, a ‘persistent organic pollutant’ known as endosulfan is in widespread use on crops from cotton, soy, coffee, tea, and vegetables. Its ban is due to its high toxicity to humans (among other living organisms).

Wendy Richardson needs to blog more often. How else would I have found the U.K.-based Environmental Justice Foundation’s 2007 report, The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton? It’s a 40-pager, which may require more dedication than you currently have, but here is a sampling of the salient points, as outlined in the report’s Executive Summary.

  • Cotton is the world’s most important non-food agricultural commodity, yet it is responsible for the release of US$2 billion of chemical pesticides each year, within which at least US$819 million are considered toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by the World Health Organisation. Cotton accounts for 16% of global insecticide releases—more than any other single crop. Almost 1.0 kilogram of hazardous pesticides is applied for every hectare under cotton.
  • Between 1 and 3% of agricultural workers worldwide suffer from acute pesticide poisoning with at least 1 million requiring hospitalization each year, according to a report prepared jointly for the FAO, UNEP, and WHO. These figures equate to between 25 million and 77 million agricultural workers worldwide.
  • A single drop of the pesticide aldicarb, absorbed through the skin can kill an adult. Aldicarb is commonly used in cotton production and in 2003 almost 1 million kilos was applied to cotton grown in the USA. Aldicarb is also applied to cotton in 25 other countries worldwide.
  • Despite being particularly vulnerable to poisoning, child labourers throughout the world risk exposure to hazardous pesticides through participation in cotton production. In India and Uzbekistan children are directly involved in cotton pesticide application. While in Pakistan, Egypt, and Central Asia child labourers work in cotton fields either during or following the spraying season. Children are also often the first victims of pesticide poisonings, even if they do not participate to spraying, due to the proximity of their homes to cotton fields, or because of the re-use of empty pesticide containers.
  • Hazardous pesticides associated with global cotton production represent a substantial threat to global freshwater resources. Hazardous cotton pesticides are now known to contaminate rivers in USA, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Australia, Greece and West Africa. In Brazil, the world’s 4th largest consumer of agrochemicals, researchers tested rainwater for the presence of pesticides. 19 different chemicals were identified of which 12 were applied to cotton within the study area.

Wendy, herself, speaking at her church in New Jersey, made a product-information tag you’d never find on a T-shirt at Old Navy:

Made of 100% Cotton
Harvested by children as young as 7 in Uzbekistan where unemployment is near 70% and cotton workers are paid less than $7/month.

Children who fail to meet quota or pick poor quality cotton are punished by scoldings and beatings.

The processing of the cotton required 1/3 pound of concentrated pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers and 744 gallons of water.

Cotton fabric was processed with formaldehyde to reduce wrinkles and bleached with chlorine producing dioxin, a known carcinogen. It was then colored blue using chemical dyes that contained toxic heavy metals including chrome, copper and zinc.

Sewn in Cambodia, one of the world’s poorest countries, by Chenda, a 19-year-old seamstress working 80-hour weeks at 5 cents per hour.

The “death-trap” textile factory Chenda worked in was cramped, hot, often over 100 degrees with no fans and very little ventilation. The two doors were kept locked.

This t-shirt will need to be washed frequently at high temperatures and require tumble-drying and ironing. 60% of the carbon emissions generated by this simple cotton t-shirt will come from the approximately 25 washes and machine dryings it will require over its lifetime.



On humans, endosulfan can cause “convulsions, psychiatric disturbances, epilepsy, paralysis, brain oedema, impaired memory and death.” Spend too much time around it – like cotton growers in India and West Africa – and you run the risk of immuno suppression, neurological disorder, birth defects, chromosomal abnormalities, and significantly decreased mental capacity.

Aldicarb, a nerve agent, is one of the most toxic pesticides applied to cotton. A teaspoon on the skin is enough to kill an adult. Yet it is the second most used pesticide in cotton production.

For you and I, there are few if any horrific side-effects to those who wear cotton grown using pesticides, though studies show that hazardous pesticides can be detected in cotton clothing. Instead, a person who works with pesticides in a far flung country will get it in the neck. And in the chest. And in the bowels. And on the skin. And in the blood.

Endosulfan aerially sprayed on cashew nut plantations caused high levels of children born with severe deformities. Kerala, India. Photo Down to Earth Magazine, 2001.

Up to 99% of the world’s cotton growers live and work in the developing world. Cotton is grown as a smallholder crop by the rural poor and few can afford the protective chemical suits pesticide manufacturers say should be used with their products. Even if a suit is acquired, working for ten hours in a field in 40-degree heat and humidity in what is effectively a plastic bag doesn’t make for a happy farmer.

According to the World Health Organisation, 1 – 5 million cases of pesticide poisoning occur every year. Of that, 20,000 agricultural workers die and over a million require hospitalisation. Over 200,000 commit suicide.

Other culprits in the pesticide family include monocotophos and deltamethrin. Disgustingly, the former was withdrawn from the US market in 1989 as it can cause paralysis in children, but is still widely used in developing countries!!!. The latter is another nerve agent used in over half the world’s cotton producing countries. Medical analysis in a South African village near cotton farms found traces of deltamethrin in human breast milk.

Carlitos, child of farmworkers, born with birth defects attributable to pesticides (PBP). Source: Sarasota/Manatee Farmworker Supporters

Your typical $30 t-shirt will earn a non-organic farmer 15 cents, 9 cents of which will have to go towards buying pesticides. Going organic and learning how to manage beneficial insects in the field (the ones who kill the insects nasty to cotton crops) will eliminate the need to spend that 9 cents. These farmers are also encouraged to grow farm system crops that not only help maintain a healthy biodiversity on the farm but offer another means to increase their incomes.

UPDATE: As of 2010 – Bayer has stopped producing Endosulphan.  A statement from Bayer “We stopped the manufacture of endosulfan because it was no longer financially viable. A more efficient, and safer, alternative has emerged and we are focusing on that.”

Which is what……?

“Genetically modified cotton.”