Researchers have found elevated levels of hazardous chemicals in samples of children's clothing made overseas, prompting new concerns about the safety of imported products.

Early tests carried out at Philadelphia University's Institute for Textile and Apparel Product Safety have found heightened levels of formaldehyde - which is commonly used as a permanent press agent - in samples of blouses and khaki pants.

"Although we are still in the preliminary stages of testing, we are concerned that the levels of formaldehyde we are starting to find are known to have health consequences, especially for children," said the Institute's director David Brookstein.

The Institute for Textile and Apparel Product Safety (ITAPS) was established in September in the wake of growing government and public concern about the safety of a wide range of consumer items, particularly lead-tainted toys.

Its research is trying to determine if potentially toxic chemicals are present in imported clothing and other textile products, identify which toxic chemicals and agents are being used and the extent of their use and help establish protocols for testing and evaluating imported items.

At present there are few US regulatory standards for imported clothing or textiles, although new legislation recently introduced in Congress proposes substantial reforms to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

"It's time for our legislators to consider the serious toxic agents that are found on the clothes we wear, the mattresses we sleep on and the car seats our children sit in," Brookstein said.

For the year that ended 31 July, more than $93bn in textiles and apparel were imported to the US from around the globe.

Public concern about imports has been growing in response to highly-publicised incidents involving Chinese-made toys and toothpaste this summer.