Formaldehyde tests under scrutiny

By Phil Taylor

Government testing of formaldehyde in clothing prompted by a television expose will use a different method to that which produced the high readings shown in the programme.

The Government is using the textile method which tests for free formaldehyde. This is the method applied around the world and used in guideline standards.

Formaldehyde is used to prevent creasing in clothes and fabrics but is also linked to health problems ranging from skin complaints to cancer. It is normally applied to clothing in a resin where it is bound with other compounds to the clothing. It is free formaldehyde that is considered potentially dangerous. To test this, a garment is shaken in cold water for an hour and a spectrophotometer used to measure the formaldehyde that comes free from the garment.

The testing for TV3 show Target was carried out by Agriquality using a method that measures a garment's total formaldehyde. This produces far higher figures than tests for free formaldehyde.

Although Target declared it tested for total formaldehyde, it appears then to have compared these to the recommended levels relating to free formaldehyde. As a result it has been reported in some media that the chemical was detected in clothing tested at up to 900 times the recommended level.

Agriquality's business manager Simon Leathem said the total formaldehyde test was used because Target's makers requested the formaldehyde level rather than the free level.

Agriquality is now carrying out tests requested by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs as a result of the Target programme.

Target's executive director Laurie Clarke said the programme had investigated a skin reaction that resulted from a man wearing pants made in China.

Testing total formaldehyde seemed the most appropriate measure because the chemical continued to leak over time. Mr Clarke wasn't immediately able to confirm whether the recommended level (20ppm) Target's results were compared to was for free or total formaldehyde.

Consumer Affairs general manager Liz MacPherson said tests of 100 garments would begin today.

"Target's tests measured total formaldehyde, meaning free and bound combined. They then compared this with the standards that are set for free formaldehyde only. The Ministry of Consumer Affairs will be using the internationally recognised ISO approved testing methodology for testing formaldehyde in textiles."

The tests will take several weeks to complete.

AgResearch has tested more than 50 garments from New Zealand clothing companies for free formaldehyde since Target aired, with one garment exceeding 20ppm, with a reading of 50ppm.

New Zealand does not set guidelines for formaldehyde.


* The Target programme tested clothing for formaldehyde using a method that detects total formaldehyde.

* Tests being done for the Government are using the "textile" method that detects free formaldehyde only. This is the standard used internationally, including in guidelines.

* The testing method used by Target will produce far higher readings than the textile method.

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