We’re all aware of the toxins in pesticides that make their way to our dinner table, but toxins in our clothing and footwear is also cause for concern. It’s not, however, a new problem. A humble pair of woollen underpants bought by a doctor in Adelaide in 1931 landed him in hospital close to death, and later in court. He had worn them without washing them first, and this caused a severe allergic reaction to sulphites in the fabric. The doctor won his case against the manufacturer, and those underpants formed the basis of one of Australia’s first consumer law cases.
Today, in stark contrast to a number of other developed countries, little has changed for the better in Australia when it comes to regulating the chemicals in imported textiles, clothing and footwear (TCF). And with more than 90% of the apparel found in our stores imported – and an obsession with what’s been nicknamed “fast fashion” – Australian retailers are under pressure to put more product on the shelves, more often. The downside of this demand, many in the textiles industry believe, is product safety – with the safe use of chemicals a particular concern.
In March 2014, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) recalled two styles of children’s jeans from Rivers Australia, one style of kids’ jeans and one style of denim shorts from Just Jeans, and a pillow case from Pillow Talk, which may have contained potentially harmful azo dyes.
Independent Senator for South Australia Nick Xenophon has called on the ACCC to block imports of dangerous chemicals in clothing following the recall. The senator also called for an urgent audit of garment and bedding imports, saying, “It’s astonishing that there appear to be no laws or rules in place to restrict the importation of products containing azo dyes.”
Who’s looking out for us?
Regulation of the chemicals in imported textiles sits with the ACCC. NICNAS (National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme) is the agency responsible for the expert risk assessment and regulation of industrial chemicals.
The ACCC says it has a number of active programs aimed at identifying and assessing emerging hazards (including chemical hazards), which include expanded consumer protection provisions and a mandatory injury-reporting regime that requires suppliers to report product-related incidents where a death or serious illness/injury has occurred.
ACCC spokesperson Brent Rebecca says the ACCC’s analysis of complaints and injury reports has found a very low number of alleged injuries associated with TCF.