Wearing clothes is not the most dangerous of pastimes: it is not really up there with hang-gliding, off-piste skiing and single-handed ocean yachting. But there are risks associated with wearing clothes, from the contact consumers and workers’ skin has with the chemicals used in production; to potential for strangulation by drawstrings, choking on toggles, and the flammability of some artificial fibres.

There is also the growing concern about the use of nanoparticles in all consumer products and calls from scientists for special assessments of these technologies, which can impart extra strength, suppleness, impermeability and other qualities to fabrics.

EU measures
The European Union (EU) and its institutions have taken a special interest in consumer protection, mindful as they are of the need to prevent dangerous products crossing the 27 member states’ national borders, in what is increasingly a single continental market.

Indeed, EU regulations applying to the content, style, country of origin and other factors involved in the sale of clothing and textiles are likely to be substantially stepped up within a year or so after the European Parliament in May backed a European Commission (EC) proposal. This will simplify the EU’s currently complex set of regulations governing the development and use of new textile fibres, revising EU directives 73/44/EEC, 96/73/EC and 96/74/EC.

In particular the Parliament voted to strengthen origin rules alerting consumers to where a product was made through labelling, in response to public concerns about working conditions, product quality and environmental standards in countries outside the EU.

MEPs also asked the Commission to study the possible health hazards of substances used to manufacture or process textile products, which could lead to new bans or restrictions on synthetic fibres, colourings, biocides, preservatives or nanoparticles used in textile products.

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Also in May the EU surveillance network PROSAFE caused some concern with a report on the safety of children’s clothes with cords and drawstrings, finding that out of 16,000 garments examined over the past two years, one in ten were in breach of European standard EN 14682:2007.

The cords or drawstrings can become entangled in bicycles, doors, car doors, or playground equipment concluded the report, leading to severe injury or death and there had been “a high number of notifications” of such incidents to Brussels’ RAPEX consumer alert service. Hundreds of non-compliant clothes were withdrawn from the market as a result.

EU regulations also ban children’s nightwear that does not meet flammability performance requirements. In 2008, a new European Standard for nightwear extended the flammability requirements for manufacturers (BS EN 14878).

Since September 2003 the EU has banned the production and import of textile and leather products with excessive content (above 30% in the finished article or dyed part) of azo dyes following evidence these can cause cancer. Products defined in the regulation include apparel, beddings, towels, sanitary items, sleeping bags, footwear, gloves, wrist-watches, straps, handbags, brief cases, hair covers and purses, textile and leather garments, yarn and fabrics.

All these European Standards have been directly converted into national standards within EU member states so that the European Code of Practice setting out recommendations for the materials, design and manufacture of children’s clothing, for instance, has become BS 7907:1997 in the UK, for instance.

Detailed information on conformity with the regulations is available at RAPEX, the EU rapid alert system for all dangerous consumer products (except food, pharmaceuticals and medical devices). This shows that in 2009 there were 395 notifications in clothing, textile and fashion items – 23% of the total.

US watchdog
In America, the USA Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) acts as the watchdog when it comes to the safety of garments produced locally and abroad. It polices standards focusing on product flammability and toxicity through the Flammable Fabrics Act (FFA), which has been around since the 1950s, and the more recent Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA).

Under the FFA, the commission strictly enforces flammability levels of clothing and textiles with its most stringent rules covering children’s sleepwear.

Clothing in general is classified into three categories based on the speed lines catch fire, with class three – the fastest burning – being unsuitable for clothing. Classes one and two have a flame spread between 3.5 and seven seconds, while class three covers textiles which have a burn time of less than 3.5 seconds. Children’s sleepwear is monitored more stringently and since the 1970s the fabric used must be flame resistant.

Under the new CPSIA, there is greater focus on contaminants in clothing. Children’s products that contain more lead than 600 parts per million (ppm) have been banned in America since February last year (2009).

Tracking labels are also insisted upon for children’s products – including clothing – which means the end purchaser must be able to determine the name of the manufacturer and the location of production.

According to Ms Nychelle Fleming, a spokesperson for CPSC: “There are multiple ways in which the commission enforces these laws, including random sampling at the point of sale by field investigators. Also, we work with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to stop shipments at the ports (by sampling) before they are placed on retail shelves.”

She adds: “We also monitor the marketplace through media stories, we receive incident report information on hospital emergency room injuries with our in-house database (NEISS – National Electronic Injury Surveillance System) which specifies products, injuries, and incidents that include products under our jurisdiction, and we take hotline reports directly from consumers.

“Finally, firms are required by law to directly report problems that they have received from consumers directly to the CPSC.”

Japanese safety standards
Meanwhile, Japanese safety regulations standards for textiles and clothes are set by the Japan Industrial Standards Committee (JISC) and overseen by the product safety division of the ministry of economy, trade and industry (METI).

However, maybe surprisingly for such a law abiding society, “Most of the standards that relate to clothes and textiles are actually guidelines that aren’t compulsory,” explains Tokuzo Nasu, an advisor at the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO), which promotes international business and investment between the rest of the world and Japan.

“If clothes don’t abide by the JISC rules then they can’t claim to be approved, but it doesn’t stop them being sold,” added Nasu, “though some shops and brands use the ‘JISC approved’ mark as a kind of sales promotion tactic.”

“Other than the usual international standards, such as those restricting the use of formalin and toluene for underwear or other clothes that come into direct contact with skin, we have no specific rules on imported material regarding flammability or choking hazards,” said Nasu.

Formaldehyde levels are restricted to 75 ppm (parts per million) for clothes that are in direct contact with skin, and to 20 ppm for clothes for infants up to 2 years-old.

“Under the Product Liability Law, responsibility for safety is ultimately with the importer, although if a major retailer is actually doing the importing itself and just using a shipping company, then it becomes responsible,” said Nasu.

By Alan Osborn in London; Karryn Miller in Washington DC; Gavin Blair in Tokyo; and Keith Nuthall.