TEXTILES imported from China may be exposing people to toxic levels of carcinogenic chemicals. Yet the importations are going unchecked because Australia is one of the few developed countries with no mandated upper limit for substances such as formaldehyde.
In a report obtained by the Herald, one brand of blanket imported from China and widely distributed was found to have almost 10 times the amount of formaldehyde permissible under international standards.
The product, Sheridan’s “Indulgence” blanket, was found by the Australian Wool Testing Authority to contain 2790 parts per million of formaldehyde, a chemical classified by the World Health Organisation in 2004 as a human carcinogen which even at very low levels can cause skin and respiratory irritations.
The blanket is distributed through Sheridan’s commercial arm, Actil, a supplier to hospitals, aged-care centres and hotels. In a separate report an American laboratory found the blanket contained 1167 parts per million, prompting a large US textile company to abandon its plans to import the product.
A Sheridan spokesman, Matthew Mahon, said the blanket was sold to commercial customers, such as hotels, and was not available to the retail consumer market.
He said Sheridan conducted independent testing of all products at its Adelaide factory, accredited by the Australian Standards Association, and had had no complaints from customers on the issue.
Formaldehyde is used by Chinese manufacturers to soften coarse synthetic fibres for bedding, children’s clothing and plush toys; as an anti-creasing and anti-shrinking agent, or to improve colour fastness.
Its link to cancers including leukaemia and lung cancer has resulted in strict limitations to the chemical’s use in textiles in dozens of countries.
The US and the European Union have fixed limits ranging from 30 ppm for infants’ bedding and clothing to 330ppm for general purpose textiles. In Japan the limit for infants’ textiles is 15 ppm.
The dangers associated with formaldehyde have been recognised by the Australian Government through its restriction of the chemical in building materials such as particle board. But no regulations govern textile manufacturing, largely because use of the chemical is rare and the industry has shrunk dramatically.
The Australian Wool Testing Authority has refused to discuss its analysis of the imported blankets, saying the report is commercial-in-confidence.
James Horsefield, the managing director of the independent textile tester and auditor Qualspec Australia, said that although there were cost-effective and expedient ways for importers to monitor and control the level of potentially harmful chemicals in products manufactured in China, there appeared to be little moral or ethical imperative to do so. “In all things to do with quality assurance … Australia is not as rigorous as Europe or America,” he said.
Peter Dingle, associate professor at Murdoch University’s school of environmental science, described the level of formaldehyde in textiles imported from China as “ridiculously and dangerously high”.
“While the rest of the developed world created standards years ago, there are still literally no standards or guidelines here,” Dr Dingle said.
This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 21-May-07. For more information about the textiles industry and organic alternatives, visit ecoLinen’s minis-site and ask Jenny and Tim your question. ecoLinen are proud sponsors of Nourished Magazine.
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Consumer Affairs Report for the Sydney Morning Herald