By  on August 21, 2007

New Zealand's Consumer Affairs Ministry said Monday that it launched an "urgent investigation" of apparel imports after the disclosure that as much as 900 times the safe level of formaldehyde was found in goods from China.

Formaldehyde is a common chemical used in wrinkle-free apparel, although too much exposure can cause skin rashes, severe allergic reactions and possibly cancer. It is not clear how much exposure U.S. companies would have to such allegations. It is frequently used as a preservative.

The government took the step after the chemical level was revealed by the New Zealand watchdog TV show "Target'' on TV3.

Julie Allan, senior communications advisor in the Ministry of Economic Development, told WWD that the "urgent investigation" would test apparel for both adults and children made in a range of markets.

"We'll be developing a test methodology and going and purchasing the garments as soon as possible," Allan said. "We'll be working with a laboratory that will be doing the testing regimes."

It is too early to say what action the government might take if the tests turn up a problem. Allan said possibilities include banning products or imposing a safety standard.

The investigation is the latest in a growing number of safety concerns about goods made in China. Chinese imports, from cat food and toothpaste to toy trucks, have come under scrutiny. Last week, Mattel recalled 436,000 toy trucks after it discovered a subcontractor had inappropriately used lead paint. Until now, apparel has not been a focus. New Zealand's TV3 said the government was also looking into reports that kids' pajamas made in China pose a fire risk.

China and the fashion industry have become intertwined. With a large pool of low-cost workers, a ready supply of raw materials and an infrastructure geared toward shipping abroad, China has snatched up 32.4 percent of the U.S. apparel import market.

Some companies do not allow formaldehyde in their apparel.

"J.C. Penney has a banned substances list on our supplier Web site and we don't permit formaldehyde to be used in the manufacturing of our garments," said Peter McGrath, chairman of purchasing for J.C. Penney Purchasing Corp.

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