2008 October 6

male clothing courtesy of www.polo-shirts.co.uk

male clothing courtesy of www.polo-shirts.co.uk

We’re all suddenly aware of melamine in milk and poisoned dog food, but the next big scandal could strike textiles. An American laboratory was prompted to begin investigating children’s clothing for formaldehyde, an agent used in the permanent-press process, finding levels in a handful of items that would be harmful. The research was triggered by a different kind of textile – furniture upholstery. Dimethyl fumarate, is used in furniture manufacture and has affected people across the USA and Europe with severe irritant and allergic reactions. Contact dermatitis is an inflammation caused by contact with a foreign substance – around 3% of people who develop the problem are allergic to permanent-press chemicals. In a study in Texas, they discovered levels ranging from 86 to 136 ppm in three out of 11 boys’ khakis and in one out of 12 dress shirts from Asia and Latin America – and the most disturbing thing of all was that the most expensive trousers also had the highest level of formaldehyde. Japan limits formaldehyde to 75 ppm in items that come into direct contact with skin.

Most people don’t think about a threat from clothing, especially for children, but in many parts of the world hazardous chemicals are used in textile processing – and if the supply chain isn’t clear, or the factories don’t have good health and safety that tests for toxicity they end up on our bodies.

Back to dimethyl fumarate, the ‘problem powder’ that has been found in furniture upholstery, reaction to the powder has affected over 100 people in Finland and hundreds more in Britain, while 400 French families have suffered from their new furniture. And recently, some dimethyl has been found in ‘fun fur’ trimmings on flying jackets and fur bags – high cost fashion items that could give thousands of teens contact dermatitis. And it’s reputed to be used in some Far East factories to plump out the padding on padded jackets and body-warmersthat are sold in discount stores or on eBay.

It’s a real issue because the EU’s chemical industry produces 31% of the world’s chemicals and employs 1.7 million people. Millions of others work in industries such as car production or textiles, which are big users of chemicals. But unless the textile industry can guarantee its supply chains, these kinds of problem will become more common and people will start to lose confidence in their clothing retailers. Good supply chains and clear health and safety guidelines, implemented by trustworthy brands, are going to matter more and more, as the risks of tainted textiles become something that people think about whenever they get dressed.

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