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14th Nov 2021

Baby clothes from Shein and AliExpress have dangerous levels of harmful chemicals

Trine Jensen-Burke

Baby clothes from Shein and AliExpress have dangerous levels of harmful chemicals

A fan of fast fashion from China?

Online retailers like Shein and AliExpress have become extremely popular with bargain hunters looking for on-trend clothing for next to nothing.

The problem? Fast fashion is not only bad news for the environment, but can also, in fact, be rather damaging to our health.

A recent investigation by Canadian consumer magazine Marketplace found that out of 38 samples of children’s, adult’s and maternity clothes and accessories, one in five items had elevated levels of chemicals — including lead, PFAS and phthalates — that experts found concerning.

“People should be shocked,” explains Miriam Diamond, an environmental chemist and professor at the University of Toronto who oversaw the lab testing that Marketplace commissioned.

Among one of the several shocking discoveries Diamond’s team made, was that a jacket for toddlers, purchased from Chinese retailer Shein, contained almost 20 times the amount of lead that Health Canada says is safe for children.

As well as the toddler jacket, a red handbag, also from Shein, had more than five times the threshold.

“This is hazardous waste,” Diamond stated to CBC News.

“I’m alarmed because we’re buying what looks cute and fashionable on this incredibly short fashion cycle. What we’re doing today is to look [for] very short-lived enjoyment out of some articles of clothing that cost so much in terms of our … future health and environmental health. That cost is not worth it.”

‘The final product isn’t safe’

Marketplace looked at clothing from three fast-fashion retailers: Zaful, AliExpress and Shein, all known for their daily style updates at bargain-basement prices. And worryingly, all three retailers were found to sell clothing, shoes and accessories containing elevated levels of chemicals.

One of the main problems was the occurrence of lead – a substance that in any elevated levels can cause damage to the brain, heart, kidneys and reproductive system.

Especially concerning considering the findings in children’s clothing, is that children and pregnant people are more vulnerable, and infants and children are the most at risk when it comes to lead poisoning.

According to product environmental impacts expert Joël Mertens, lead is a naturally occurring element that can be found throughout the environment. However, the levels found in the clothing Marketplace analysed were beyond environmental contamination, or the small amounts clothes are exposed to unintentionally during the manufacturing process.

“There were clearly products that were intentionally using lead and intentionally using it in a way that was well above what should be considered responsible  — or even safe,” Mertens explained.

He explained that lead can be used to dye textiles, but that there are safer alternatives that can achieve the same results – both for the safety of the consumer, but also for the safety of the entire supply chain, from the textile workers involved in making these clothes to the people handling the packaging, photographing and shopping these clothes.

“If the final product isn’t safe for me, it’s definitely not safe for the workers that are handling these chemicals to make it,” Diamond explains.

To be fair, Marketplace did contact the three companies involved, and Shein, which sells products both under its own brand and from third-party suppliers, sent an emailed statement back saying it had removed the purse and jacket in question from its app, and would stop working with relevant suppliers until the issue was resolved.

“We are committed to continuous improvement of our supply chain,” the company said.