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Formaldehyde in Textiles: While Levels in Clothing Generally Appear to Be Low, Allergic Contact Dermatitis Is a Health Issue for Some People

GAO-10-875 Published: Aug 13, 2010. Publicly Released: Aug 13, 2010.
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Formaldehyde--one of the most widely produced chemicals in the world--is used in many products, including disinfectants, pressed-wood, and clothing and other textiles. Exposure to this chemical, which has been linked to adverse health effects for more than 30 years, typically occurs through inhalation and dermal (skin) contact. Formaldehyde can be used to enhance wrinkle resistance in some clothing and textiles, especially those made of cotton. The Consumer Product Safety Commission reviewed formaldehyde in clothing in the 1980s and determined that the levels found did not pose a public health concern. At that time, most clothing sold in the United States was made here--but the market has changed such that most U.S. clothing is now made in other countries. This market change has raised anew questions about the levels of formaldehyde in clothing. In response to a mandate in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, this report provides information on what is known about (1) the health risks of exposure to formaldehyde, particularly from clothing, and (2) the levels of formaldehyde in clothing sold in the United States. GAO analyzed government reviews and the medical literature, as well as studies on levels of formaldehyde in clothing, and had a sample of 180 textiles--primarily clothing--tested for formaldehyde by an accredited laboratory. While illustrative of formaldehyde levels that may be found in clothing, the test results from GAO's sample cannot be projected to all clothing sold in the United States.

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Chemical exposureClothing industryHazardous substancesHealth hazardsProduct safetyPublic healthRisk factorsRisk managementTestingTextile industryToxic substancesFederal regulationsData collection