Almost all anti-felting (the process that stops wool from shrinking) is accomplished today using what is known as the Chlorine-Hercosett process.
The process removes the scales of the natural wool fibers and creates a modified smooth synthetic-type fiber by using a strongly acidic chlorine solution followed by a polymer resin.
This method has two dimensions that concern us: individual health risks and environmental degradation. In addition, the textile industry consumes a high level of water for their various processes.
Personal Health Risks
Chlorine is recognized worldwide as a hazardous chemical, and has been linked to cancer, lung disease, and heart disease for years. People with pre-existing lung or heart disease may be particularly sensitive to the effects of chlorine.
Usually combined with other chemicals, chlorine is used to disinfect water, purify metals, bleach wood pulp, and modify wool fibers. Exposure to chlorine gas can come in the form of out gassing from wool products that have been treated with a chlorine process.
The body absorbs chlorine gas when small amounts pass through the skin and lungs. Chlorine levels in the range of 0.01-0.019 parts per million can be discerned by most noses, but it is our opinion that risks from inhalation are present when even low-level, long-term exposures are considered.
As stated by OMI president Walt Bader in his book Sleep Safe in a Toxic World, our philosophy has always been to avoid as many products as possible that cause potential chemical exposure.
Waste water from wool plants using the Chlorine-Hercosett process has high levels of absorbable organic halogen compounds (AOX). AOXes can be volatile substances such as trichloromethane (chloroform), chlorophenols, chlorobenzenes, or complex organic molecules such as dioxins or furans. However, most AOXes are chlorine-containing molecules, and it is generally accepted that chlorinated chemicals within the AOX family are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms at low concentrations.
Machine-washable wool may sound great, but we have seen no consumer information that establishes that long-term exposure to these products is without risk.