The New York Times reported over the weekend on a formaldehyde-and-clothing study released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this year.
The GAO study contained some good news: The use of formaldehyde (a chemical perhaps best known as an embalming fluid) to keep clothing wrinkle-free has been on the decline since the 1980s.
That drop appears to be because the clothing industry itself is setting limits on the levels of formaldehyde in its products. Among the reasons for this decline are stricter regulations protecting factory workers from inhaling the chemical. (Inhalation has been linked to an increased risk of cancer.) But undoubtedly another impetus to the clothing industry’s voluntary actions is the fact that 13 countries — although not the United States — now have laws regulating or limiting the amount of formaldehyde in clothing.
Still, some 5.5 percent of the 180 items (including some non-clothing items, such as bed linen) tested by the GAO in its study contained levels of formaldehyde that exceeded the strict standards set by other countries — specifically, 75 parts per million for products that touch the skin. As the Times reports, “[l]evels must be undetectable, or less than 20 parts per million for children under 3 years, and can be as high as 300 parts per million for products like outerwear that do not come into direct contact with the skin.”
For some, a significant irritant
For some people, formaldehyde — even at levels as low as 30 parts per million — can be a significant irritant, causing a persistent and often difficult-to-treat skin condition known as contact dermatitis.
Many environmental experts are also concerned about the potential cumulative effects of formaldehyde exposure on our health. The chemical is used in a wide variety of other everyday products here in the United States, including personal-care products (shampoos, makeup and so on) and building materials. (Formaldehyde was what made so many displaced Katrina victims ill when they moved into brand-new government-provided trailers.)
Formaldehyde’s use in consumer products has been banned in the European Union, and is tightly controlled in Japan, Sweden, Canada and other countries.
The experts in the Times article recommend washing all clothing and bed linen before using clothing or linen. “Some of the highest occurrences were with men’s shirts,” John Stephenson director of environmental protection issues at the GAO told the Times. “That was an eye opener because I wear, almost exclusively, non-iron shirts.”
He now washes his new shirts before wearing them — at least twice.
You can read the Times article here.
While we’re on the topic of formaldehyde …
Last week, Health Canada (that country’s federal department of health) banned 10 professional-grade hair-straightening products due to excessive levels of formaldehyde.
Meanwhile, here in the States, our Food and Drug Administration continues its investigation into exactly how much formaldehyde is contained in such products, particularly the very popular Brazilian Blowout (which Canada took off its shelves a couple of months ago).
The manufacturer of Brazilian Blowout didn’t disclose at first that its product contained any formaldehyde. Now they claim the levels are safe. Independent testing, however, has turned up levels of formaldehyde in the product that would require the manufacturer to not only report the ingredient on its label in the United States, but to also include a safety data sheet about its use in the workplace.
As I noted here in October, some hairdressers have reported nosebleeds and persistent flu-like symptoms, including sore throats and chest pain, from using Brazilian Blowout. Many salons have stopped offering it, but, as the latest actions from Canada indicate, it’s unclear if substitute products are any safer.