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Formaldehyde In Clothing

GAO study confirms that levels are low and health risk is likely very small

by David J. Hanson
September 6, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 36

Credit: Shutterstock
Most clothing items tested by GAO were found to have “nondetectable levels” of formaldehyde.
Credit: Shutterstock
Most clothing items tested by GAO were found to have “nondetectable levels” of formaldehyde.

A law passed a couple of years ago to revitalize the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) received a lot of attention because of its tough requirements for toxic materials such as lead and phthal­ates in children’s products. Another section of the law, however, dealt with a less visible issue that potentially affects a lot of people: the use of formaldehyde on textiles.

Used to make fabrics easy to care for, formaldehyde resins can be found on a range of textiles. The presence of the compound, which can cause an allergic reaction in some people, led lawmakers to require as part of the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) perform a detailed study on the presence of and potential health risks from the use of formaldehyde resins on clothing. In response, the investigative agency of Congress reviewed the medical literature on exposure to formaldehyde from clothing and had laboratory analyses performed on a variety of textiles to get a handle on the concentrations of formaldehyde in clothing today.

The resulting report (GAO-10-875) was released late last month. It finds that formaldehyde levels in clothing appear to be decreasing since studies were performed in the 1980s, but that there is a small proportion of the U.S. population that does have allergic reactions to formaldehyde resins on their clothes. The report does not include any recommendations for actions—that was not part of the law’s directive.

“We completed our congressional mandate, and we believe that it fills a data gap on what levels of formaldehyde may currently be found in clothing,” says Christine Fishkin, deputy director of the GAO Division of Natural Resources & Environment. “We believe it is best to put this information out there as we did, very factually, and let the regulators, consumers, dermatologists, textiles industry, and others interpret it and use it as they see fit.”

The worries about formaldehyde in clothing are not new, and neither is the resins’ use on textiles. These resins have been used since the 1920s, according to GAO, to make fabrics easy to care for, particularly to reduce wrinkling in cotton fabrics. CPSC did a study on possible health problems from exposure to these resins as far back as 1973. Then, also at the direction of Congress, CPSC reviewed the data on formaldehyde resins on permanent-press fabrics and any resulting health effects. The agency concluded at that time that the allergic reactions people were having to formaldehyde on clothes did not “affect a significant portion of the population” and did not need to be regulated. In the 1980s, similar analyses of formaldehyde in textiles were performed and a similar conclusion was reached.

The recent GAO study was done primarily at the urging of Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who introduced the relevant amendment to the 2008 bill. Casey repeated his concern about formaldehyde in textiles at an April 2009 hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety & Insurance. “The U.S. trails other nations in responding to the threats of formaldehyde,” he told the committee. Several other countries “have adopted standards for formaldehyde use, particularly in textiles and clothing. We need similar protection in the U.S.,” he said.

GAO’s review, however, does not appear to support the call for U.S. regulations. “While comprehensive data are not available, recent studies suggest that formaldehyde levels in clothing are low and have declined over time,” the study concludes.

Tests performed in those countries that have formaldehyde standards and in the U.S., GAO reports, show that the percentage of items with formaldehyde levels greater than 100 ppm has fallen significantly over the past 25 years. In the textile industry, a formaldehyde concentration of 100 ppm or less is considered low and is thereby the level used as a benchmark in studies. In 1984, 67% of items tested in government studies had levels greater than 100 ppm, but since 2003, GAO reports, less than 2% of items tested show this concentration of formaldehyde. The decline, GAO says, was encouraged by tough workplace exposure standards around the world and by voluntary textile industry actions.

The decline is also a result of the apparel industry’s development of better resins for permanent-press fabrics. Earlier resins, such as formaldehyde urea and melamine formaldehyde, released much more formaldehyde during storage and use because they are less chemically stable, according to GAO. Today, dimethylol dihydroxy ethylene urea and its derivatives are the most commonly used resins, and these release very low levels of formaldehyde.

The main health concern related to formaldehyde in apparel is allergic contact dermatitis, although GAO was not able to find definitive information on just how much of a problem this is. GAO reports that studies have shown that people have allergic skin reactions to formaldehyde, but there are no clear data on just how many people might be sensitive. The number appears to be quite small, however, with maybe 2% of the population able to relate the skin condition eczema to formaldehyde exposure, GAO notes.

Those in the apparel industry believed that the problem of allergic contact dermatitis was resolved back in the 1980s. “Basically, this has not been a problem for years,” says Phillip Wakelyn, a fabric consultant in Washington, D.C., who worked for many years in the apparel and cotton industry. “I have dealt with this issue since the Occupational Safety & Health Administration was working on a standard for formaldehyde in the early 1980s. And because we do not have a formal standard for formaldehyde in clothes as do some other countries, people worry that imports from some nations such as China could be a problem.”

According to the American Apparel & Footwear Association, a national industry trade group, 13 countries have regulations for formaldehyde in apparel and home textiles at some level. These countries are Austria, China, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Russia, and South Korea.

Wakelyn makes the point that the worry over formaldehyde in clothes may come from recent reports on the potential risk of cancer from airborne exposure to formaldehyde. “The risk from formaldehyde from airborne exposure is not the same” as the risk involved with clothes, he tells C&EN. Today, almost no formaldehyde is released into the air from treated fabrics, and, Wakelyn says, very little is transferred from the fabric to the skin. “What is transferred reacts with the outer layers of the skin and does not penetrate into the body.”

Some of the public confusion may come from the analytical tests used to measure formaldehyde in textiles. They can give very high numbers relative to what people hear as the acceptable values for airborne formaldehyde exposure. But the airborne levels and the textile concentrations are not comparable. The OSHA workplace standard for formaldehyde in the air is 0.5 ppm averaged over eight hours. The textile tests present much higher levels, but they are measuring total formaldehyde in the material, in terms of micrograms of formaldehyde per gram of material—not what is in the air or what a person will be exposed to.

One of these tests is approved by the American Association of Textile Chemists & Colorists. It gives the highest range of readings because, according to GAO, the AATCC test measures total formaldehyde concentration from a material that is available for contact exposure during extended storage and under hot and humid ­conditions.

The more commonly used method, however, is the Japanese Industrial Standard L 1041 test. This test is used for setting many international formaldehyde standards and in most studies analyzing formaldehyde levels in textiles. GAO describes this as a simpler test that measures only the amount of formaldehyde that could be released by clothes that come into contact with the skin. Its values are somewhat lower than the AATCC values.

As an example to contrast the two common tests, GAO had a pair of 100% cotton khaki slacks tested for formaldehyde by both methods. The AATCC reading came back at 43.2 ppm, and the Japanese test came back at 23.7 ppm. These values are well below the regulatory standards set for formaldehyde by all nations.

It’s important for the public to keep in mind that “the tests measure the total amount of formaldehyde that is in the fabric,” Wakelyn says, and the results do not represent the amount that is actually released into the environment. “Studies done over the past 20 years show that you would need a concentration of about 300 ppm on the fabric before dermatitis is likely to a problem,” he says. “There is no correlation between airborne levels of formaldehyde and what is on the surface of the textile.”

For its recent investigation, GAO had a total of 180 pieces of clothing and other textiles analyzed for formaldehyde. The formaldehyde levels found in almost all the samples were below the standards other nations have set, and most of the results came back as “nondetectable,” which is defined as concentrations lower than 20 ppm.

According to the report, the levels of formaldehyde in clothing depend “largely on the variability in the way the manufacturing process is conducted. For example, formaldehyde levels in fabric can vary among the same type and make of clothing because of, among other things, differences in the type of resin used and the ways it is applied.” The amounts of formaldehyde released from the fabric will vary under different conditions, especially under conditions of high heat and humidity.

“We recognize that this information represents a snapshot in time,” GAO’s Fishkin says. “It’s the results from a set of samples taken at one particular point, and there are many factors and situations that can change the formaldehyde levels that may be in clothing at different times.”

The GAO report now goes to the members of the Commerce Committees in the House and the Senate for their consideration. The low concentrations of formaldehyde found will likely not result in any push for legislation to regulate formaldehyde levels. And because the low levels confirm earlier CPSC conclusions about the negligible health risks from treated textiles, that agency will likely leave the issue alone as well.


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