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So, you can take clothing off the list of stuff that’s safe to get from China. And armchairs. And children’s car seats. And oh, it’s not just stuff from China; it’s Latin America too.

According to the new Institute for Textile and Apparel Product Safety at Philadelphia University (formerly Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science), a number of these products contain chemicals which can cause skin irritation and other health problems.

Formaldehyde is a carcinogen which at levels above 0.1 parts per million, can cause coughing, skin rashes, headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and nosebleeds. It is also used to manufacture permanent press garments.

In analyzing children’s clothing for formaldehyde, researchers at the Institute detected between 86 and 136 parts per million in 3 out of 11 boys’ khakis and in 1 out of 12 boys’ dress shirts from Asia and Latin America. (Interestingly enough, the most formaldehyde was found on the most expensive pair of khakis, bought in a specialty boutique.) While the United States has no law about acceptable formaldehyde limits in products that come into direct contact with skin (why, I’m not sure), Japan has set limits at 75 parts per million.

In imported children’s car seats, Philadelphia researchers have also found disturbingly high levels of flame retardants, many of which are suspected to disrupt proper hormone function, adversely affecting developing brains and reproductive systems.

Institute experts are also testing textiles for a mold preventative called dimethyl fumarate, which has caused a rash of horrible skin reactions to spread across Europe and Canada. After coming into contact with armchairs and other furniture manufactured in China which contained this chemical, hundreds of people have developed severe allergic reactions in the form of chronic skin itching, burning, redness, and blisters.

In Philadelphia, these preliminary findings have prompted US Senator Bob Casey (D., Pa.) to introduce an amendment that would require the Consumer Product Safety Commission to test for and regulate textile formaldehyde levels. The compromise measure that was eventually signed into law this summer, as part of a larger consumer-product bill, only asks that the Government Accountability Office casually look into the issue.

Casey says he is nevertheless determined to keep fighting against textile toxins. Readers, please don’t hesitate to contact your Congressperson about supporting his efforts.

In the meantime, what do we do about textile toxins?

If it’s furniture that’s causing an allergic reaction, you might just have to get rid of it. The irritant may not be simply on the surface, but imbedded in the stuffing.

As far as clothing is concerned, by all means wash everything you buy before you or your children wear it. The same goes for sheets and other textiles that will come into contact with skin. If you can, choose organic, American-made products.

A website called, based on research from the Ecology Center, discusses and compares levels of potentially harmful chemicals in different car seats.

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