Poison in children's clothing is emerging as the latest health risk from China.
TV3's Target programme will this week detail how scientists found formaldehyde in woollen and cotton clothes at levels 500 times higher than is safe.
It questions why there are no New Zealand safety standards for clothes.
National Poisons Centre spokesman Dr John Fountain told the Sunday Star-Times the testing had highlighted an area where little was known in New Zealand about the effects tainted clothing would have on people.
However, international research supported by the World Health Organisation shows exposure to formaldehyde in concentrations of 20 parts per million (ppm) can cause eye, skin and nasal irritations, respiratory problems, asthma and cancer.
The European Union limits formaldehyde residues in children's clothes to a maximum of 30ppm. The chemical is used to give a permanent press effect to clothes.
Consumers are advised to wash and air all clothes before they are worn for the first time.
Target producer Simon Roy said a variety of new clothes were tested, including a girl's top, school shorts, a Spiderman T-shirt, and pyjamas. Adult clothing was also tested. Roy said the results were so astounding the AgriQuality scientists thought they had made a mistake. "Our results were shocking, ranging from 230ppm to 18,000ppm.
This is almost unbelieveable. Some of the clothes Target tested have a reading 900 times the level that actually causes harm."
But the potential harm wasn't limited to formaldehyde or clothing made in China.
Four children's garments were tested for their ph level, which measures acidity or alkalinity. Levels outside 4 to 7.5 on the scale can damage skin. Two items, a pair of pants and a girl's top, had ph levels above 7.5. Roy said garments made in New Zealand with imported Chinese fabrics also contained chemicals such as harmful dyes that did not wash out or wear off the way formaldehyde did. That included clothes from top-end designer labels. Buying Kiwi-made or expensive brands was no safety net for consumers, he said.
Europe had banned 22 aromatic amine dyes which were known carcinogens. But Target investigations showed 10% of clothes tested in China contained them and, once again, New Zealand had no regulations about what it accepted into the country.
Auckland mother Raewyn Rasch said the findings were horrifying.
She told the Star-Times her son bought four pairs of trousers labelled 100% cotton. But even after washing, each pair caused a rash round his middle. Rasch thought formaldehyde could be a cause after she read about toxins in clothing. "What really annoys me is that, for mothers, kids are always coming up with scratches and marks and rashes. You ask them what they've been eating and where they've been. You wouldn't expect it to be the clothes they're wearing."
New Zealand consumers deserved protection and needed to know about the dangers they and their children were exposed to, she said.
Details of the unsafe clothing and its risks follow a global recall this month of millions of Mattel toys, also made in China and deemed unsafe. Sanitarium is now getting its peanut butter made in Australia rather than China because of consumer concerns, and last month a toothpaste made in China was recalled after it was found to contain a toxin used in anti-freeze.
Green MP Sue Kedgley said New Zealand risked becoming a dumping ground for unsafe imports, some of which China itself regulated against.
"I believe it is so serious it demands a parliamentary investigation of our complete lack of consumer protection for most products in New Zealand. Technically they are supposed to comply with the Consumer Guarantees Act but how would anyone know if it's being systematically breached when no one is looking or doing any monitoring?"
- Sunday Star Times