Environmental activists have urged parents to avoid children's clothes that contain heavy dyes and plastic prints - including those from big fashion brands - because they are likely to contain potentially harmful chemicals.
Greenpeace said yesterday it had found nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPE) in children's clothing from all 12 brands sold in 25 countries it tested last year, including Gap, Adidas, Burberry and Disney.
The group said it had previously found the chemicals, which can interfere with the body's hormones and may affect the reproductive and immune systems, in adult clothing. It said the discovery in childswear was more serious, as young children might chew on their clothing.
Greenpeace Hong Kong campaigner Kate Lin Pui-yee said use of the chemicals in industrial products was restricted in the European Union and the US, and mainland governments were working on their own limits, but Hong Kong had no such policies.
Four of the NPE-containing items were sold in Hong Kong, with prices ranging from HK$79 to HK$2,000. They are a type of Adidas sports shoes, a Burberry jacket, a Disney jacket and a Gap T-shirt.
"Children are in the stage of growing up and they may chew on their clothes," Lin said. "The results this time are even more shocking to us [than the adult survey]."
But Leung Ka-sing, a visiting associate professor at Polytechnic University's department of applied biology and chemical technology, said after reading the report that the health impact from bodily contact with the chemicals at the levels found would be small.
It would stem mainly from their contamination of the environment, affecting humans in other ways such as through the food chain.
Contamination might come from manufacturing, washing or disposing of the products, he said.
Of 82 items from the 12 brands tested, 60 per cent contained NPE.
Though few scientific studies have been done on the extent of health effects of these chemicals, Greenpeace called on the government to restrict their use, and clothing manufacturers to replace them with safe materials.
The group listed other potentially harmful features: dyes, plastic prints, water and oil repellent materials, antibacterial and deodorising materials and Dacron fabric.
Plastic prints might contain phthalate plasticisers, while perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are usually found in materials designed to repel oil and water.
These two chemicals and NPE might interfere with the hormone system and affect reproductive and immune systems, Lin said.
Leung said the risks from skin contact with plasticisers were not significant.
Disney said in a statement that the jacket in question was no longer being sold. Its products had passed the safety tests and checks required by the Hong Kong government.
The Customs and Excise Department said it would look into the matter.