While we all know about toxins in pesticides, what about those in your clothes?
In this article we take a look at:
For more information about product safety, see General health.
Problems with toxic clothing in Australia can be, in some ways, traced back to a humble pair of woollen underpants bought by a doctor in Adelaide in 1931. He wore them without washing them first, and this caused a severe allergic reaction to sulphites in the fabric that landed him in hospital close to death and, sometime later, in court.
The doctor won his case against the manufacturer, who was found not to have provided due care that the garment in question should be fit for the purpose for which it was intended. Those underpants formed the basis of one of Australia’s first consumer law cases.
In 2012, in stark contrast to a number of other developed countries, little has changed for the better when it comes to regulating the chemicals in imported textiles, clothing and footwear (TCF) in Australia. And with more than 90% of the apparel found in our stores imported – and an obsession with what’s been nicknamed “fast fashion” – Australian retailers are under pressure to put more product on the shelves, more often. The downside of this demand, many in the textiles industry believe, is product safety, with the safe use of chemicals a particular concern.
Where’s the regulation?
While product safety is a hot legislative topic in other countries, it isn’t in in Australia. Product safety regulations here are narrow compared with other countries, particularly those in Europe, which have had rigorous product safety legislation regulating the use of harmful chemical substances since the mid-1990s.
Regulation of the product safety of chemicals in imported textiles sits with the ACCC. NICNAS (National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme) is the agency responsible for the expert risk assessment and regulation of industrial chemicals.
The ACCC says it has a number of active programs aimed at identifying and assessing emerging hazards (including chemical hazards), which include expanded consumer protection provisions and a mandatory injury-reporting regime that requires suppliers to report product-related incidents where a death or serious illness/injury has occurred.
ACCC spokesperson, Brent Rebecca says the ACCC’s analysis of complaints and injury reports has found a very low number of alleged injuries associated with TCF.
How does Australia compare?
Products that are made in China for the Australian market could not even be sent back to China, as many of them would not meet the Chinese product safety standards but are acceptable here.
- Andreas Schimkus,TFIA
The current European Union legislation (called EU REACH) now requires all TCF brands and retailers selling into the EU market to manage more than 300,000 harmful substances in their products. This program also sets maximum limits for TCF products that come into contact with human skin.
While the basic structure and function of EU REACH program and the Australian equivalent NICNAS are fundamentally the same, in that they provide a list of harmful chemical substances that apply to all sectors of our economy, this is where the similarity ends. NICNAS only lists about 50,000 chemical substances and limits its role to notification and assessment of the use of these chemicals.
There are no legally prescribed limits on the use in textiles of any of these chemicals. So while it would be impossible to import some of these chemicals to use in Australia, there would be no problem having the very same chemicals arrive in an order of T-shirts from overseas.
Australians consumers are unaware of the potential toxicity to be found in TCF products. The experts we spoke to say the EU approach stands out as the model other countries are adopting to ensure consumers are protected. From an extensive list of restricted substances, there are “substances of very high concern” that the EU regulates more closely as potentially harmful to human health.
Andreas Schimkus, the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia's (TFIA) senior industry adviser, spent four years in Hong Kong supplying footwear to the EU market and says he was shocked by the lack of active regulation in the Australian market when he first arrived here.
“Products that are made in China for the Australian market could not even be sent back to China, as many of them would not meet the Chinese product safety standards but are acceptable here.”
Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, senior adviser to the National Toxics Network and IPEN (the international public interest NGO on harmful substances), says she has heard about a number of incidents relating to clothing and shoes that can be the result of everything from DMF, formaldehyde and dyes.
“The most dangerous way for a toxin to enter the body is not through the digestive system, but through the skin,” says Schimkus.
“We have strong regulation and monitoring of imported food but we’re not even thinking about regulating the levels of chemicals being used in clothing processes such as fabric treatments, dyes and printing or in the creation of synthetic fibres derived from petroleum-based feed stocks.”
And while consumer reactions to clothing and footwear aren’t rife, there are industry concerns that an issue that shouldn’t exist at all is growing.
Where to next?
According to the ACCC, suppliers of consumer goods are responsible for ensuring they comply with the law and are fit for purpose and safe use.
Under the Australian Consumer Law, suppliers are also obliged to report any serious injuries associated with the use of products they supply to the ACCC.
This enables actions to be taken to protect consumers where unsafe goods are identified.
However, members of the TFIA project safety group say this isn’t enough and that change is required.
Lloyd-Smith believes there needs to be a clear regulatory system that restricts or bans the use of many of the most hazardous chemicals (starting with the industrial ones banned elsewhere) and limits imports of products treated with them..
“Unless the regulations are there, companies chasing profits will not move,” she says.
“But one thing is clear – the ACCC is far from adequate to address this problem, and NICNAS does not regulate products. It’s woefully underfunded to assess even the priority chemicals, and too many are too many are simply falling through the cracks.”