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The iron, that relic of households past, is no longer required to look neat and freshly pressed. Why bother when retailers like Nordstrom offer crisp “wrinkle-free finish” dress shirts and L. L. Bean sells chinos that are “great right out of the dryer.”
Though it is not obvious from the label, the antiwrinkle finish comes from a resin that releases formaldehyde, the chemical that is usually associated with embalming fluids or dissected frogs in biology class.
And clothing is not the only thing treated with the chemical. Formaldehyde is commonly found in a broad range of consumer products and can show up in practically every room of the house. The sheets and pillow cases on the bed. The drapes hanging in the living room. The upholstery on the couch. In the bathroom, it can be found in personal care products like shampoos, lotions and eye shadow. It may even be in the baseball cap hanging by the back door.
“From a consumer perspective, you are very much in the dark in terms of what clothing is treated with,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization. “In many ways, you’re in the hands of the industry and those who are manufacturing our clothing. And we are trusting them to ensure they are using the safest materials and additives.”
“Many of the retailers do commit themselves to those standards, but not everybody does,” said David Brookstein, executive dean for university research at Philadelphia University, and a textile engineer who has conducted his own formaldehyde tests. “As a scientist, I think it would be good if there was a strong part of the label that said, ‘Wash before wearing.’ ”