If you thought the last time you were in contact with formaldehyde was when you dissected a frog in your elementary school science class, think again.
A recent study by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, shows that a broad range of clothing and household products are treated with a resin that releases formaldehyde. The purpose? Think wrinkle-free shirts and chinos, and yes, even wrinkle-free pillowcases, sheets and crib sheets.
Formaldehyde may be all around you
In fact, according to an article in The New York Times, formaldehyde can show up pretty much in any room in your house. Upholstery fabrics, draperies, children’s baseball caps, and personal care products including some shampoos, lotions and make up are all on the list of potential culprits.
But why? “Formaldehyde basically keeps the fabric’s fibers in place after a spin in the washing machine. Without it, the fibers become wrinkled or creases may fade,” The Times article explains.
Formaldehyde in clothing is not a new phenomenon. Manufacturers have added it to clothing and other products for years; it also serves as a preservative and to prevent mildew while clothes and other items transit from factory to store.
“From a consumer perspective, you are very much in the dark in terms of what clothing is treated with,” David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, told The Times. “In many ways, you’re in the hands of the industry and those who are manufacturing our clothing. And we are trusting them to ensure they are using the safest materials and additives.”
No formaldehyde regulations for clothing
“The United States does not regulate formaldehyde levels in clothing, most of which is now made overseas. Nor does any government agency require manufacturers to disclose the use of the chemical on labels,” The Times reports. “So sensitive consumers may have a hard time avoiding it (though washing the clothes before wearing them helps).”
Although the study — which was carried out by the GAO as required by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 — maintains that most consumers will never be affected by exposure to formaldehyde in fabrics, and claims that contact dermatitis (an allergic reaction that can causing itching, redness and blisters) is the worst case scenario, formaldehyde can pose serious health consequences for people who work with it in factories.
Formaldehyde levels on the decline in factories
There has been a decline formaldehyde levels in factories over the last several decades, says The Times “largely as a byproduct of regulations protecting factory workers at risk of inhaling the chemical and improved resins.” After all, formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.
So why would we want it touching our skin? In the very least, manufacturers should clearly label products containing formaldehyde. And “some critics are calling for more studies on a broader range of textiles and clothing chemicals, as well a closer look at the effects of cumulative exposure,” The Times says.
“Given all of the things we buy new that can release formaldehyde in our house, all of those things contribute,” Urvashi Rangan, director of technical policy at Consumers Union told The Times, also noting that the Environmental Protection Agency is currently developing formaldehyde emissions regulations for pressed-wood products. “Over all, minimizing your exposure is a good idea.”
And as for wrinkles, do we really need chemicals to smooth them away? What’s wrong with a good, old-fashioned iron?
Photo by: Rev Stan