By  on October 16, 2007

Philadelphia University is trying to determine whether dangerous levels of toxic chemicals are used in imported apparel and home textiles after recalls of contaminated jewelry, toys and food that have mobilized Congress and the Bush administration.

The university, which has an established textile program and apparel research center, has set up an institute to test whether potentially hazardous textile chemicals, dyes and finishing agents are present in imported clothing. It also will help establish protocols for testing and evaluating imported apparel items, said David Brookstein, dean of the School of Engineering & Textiles, executive director of the Institute for Textile & Apparel Product Safety.

"We want to get to the bottom of what is being imported and what American consumers are being exposed to," Brookstein said. "We may find out that there is no problem there, although a lot of [evidence] suggests otherwise."

Brookstein is lobbying lawmakers to include scrutiny of apparel and textile imports in the increased oversight of product safety laws that has led to several legislative proposals, including an overhaul of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, new regulations, increased inspections and higher penalties for U.S. companies.

The House took the first action regarding product safety legislation, passing a bill last week to increase maximum fines to $10 million from $1.83 million.

The exposure is significant for apparel importers — many already adhere to their internal restricted substance lists — that brought in $31.3 billion worth of clothing and textiles from China for the year ended July 31.

Brookstein said the institute will focus on restricted chemicals that companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. monitor and test for in apparel and textile imports. The list includes formaldehyde, azo dyes, flame retardants, disperse dyes, pesticides, phthalates and cadmium.

Apparel importers must already obey strict regulations governing flammable fabrics and drawstrings administered by the safety commission. Many of the chemicals and finishing agents the institute plans to test are used in permanent press and wrinkle-resistant clothing and some are used to prevent flammability in fabrics. Brookstein argued that no national law or regulation exists to limit the amount of many of the chemicals, such as formaldehyde, although some states have passed limits.A spokeswoman for the CPSC said, "We haven't seen formaldehyde present itself as an issue to consumers in decades."

Under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, companies are required to use warning labels on products that contain 1 percent or more of formaldehyde and have a certain level of exposure.

"Frankly if you had 1 percent [of formaldehyde] on the clothing, you could not wear it," the spokeswoman said. "It is an irritant and it would bother you."

She also said there are "strict guidelines" for flame retardants under the FHSA in terms of how and where they can be used in clothing. In addition, she said clothing manufacturers have moved away from using flame retardants in children's sleepwear and invested in using "inherently flammable resistant" material such as nylons and polyesters.

Brookstein, pointing to an article in a scientific journal linking the presence of formaldehyde in clothing to an outbreak of rashes and dermatitis, said importers don't always comply with safety regulations. He plans to buy a large sampling of apparel from specialty stores, discounters and department stores and have them tested for restricted substances. The institute will publish the findings in the next three months.

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