"She wore those things years ago. It's already touched her skin. Will she get cancer?"
The question was asked by Sheila Lamere of Lanram about her 7-year-old daughter, who like millions of other children, may have worn sleepwear made flame-retardant with a chemical called Tris, which was banned yesterday because of fear it can cause kidney cancer.
Like so many questions, in so many similar situations over the last few years, no one knows if the Lameres' daughter will get cancer from the sleepwear.
"The sleepwear labels don't say what the flame-retardant chemicals are," said William Lamere. "We have no way of telling what they've been treated with."
According to the government, if the label on a child's pajamas says they are made from polyester, acetate or tri-acetate, the chemical Tris may be present. Only the manufacturers, and sometimes the distributors, seem to know for sure.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which banned the sleepwear, was divided on whether laundering removes enough loose Tris to eliminate the possible cancer hazard.
Consumers who own unwashed Tris-treated garments - worn or unworn - are entitled to automatic refunds and to reimbursement for the garments.
Locally, consumer reaction appeared muted yesterday, with most childrens' wear outlets reporting few calls or requests for refunds, with some exceptions like Garfinckel's department store.
"There's been a flood of calls for the last three dsays from customers and consumer groups about what items of ours contain Tris," said Susan Morris, childrens' wear buyer for Garfinckel's.
Morris said Garfinckel's took off the shelves all children's clothing containing Tris in late February, anticipating the government decision. She said the clothing amounted to about 5 per cent of the stock in the infant wear division.
Morris said Garfinckel's, like other stores, was accepting all children's items customers wanted to return. She said that at the Montgomery Mall store one customer returned 20 garments, some of which were quite worn. She said another customer brought in 50 garments to ask which ones had been treated with Tris.
Larry Abraham, manager of Ida's Department Store on Georgia Avenue iN Washington, said "We haven't had one call today about it and no returns at all. I alerted our salespeople about giving refunds, but nobody's come in." Abraham said he expected to begin getting inquiries next week.
Only four people called the Kid's Wear Outlet in Fairfax to inquire about the chemicals in their children's sleepwear, store manager Beverly Garvey said.
Stephan Shifferf, manager for the BoPeep Shop children's apparel chain, recalled that one woman Wednesday brought her child's garments into the store and "went into hysterics yelling that we were killing her child. We took back all of the garments, of course," Shifferf said.
Shifferf said he wasn't certain what to tell customers who asked whether washing the garments removes Tris. "We don't know what to say because that's a controversial question."
Commission officials and officials of the Environmental Defense Fund are at odds over effectiveness of laundering the items.
The commission in the Federal Register cited removal of more than 95 per cent of surface Tris by three washings of two samples of polyester fabric. The notice also quoted data showing that a single laundering removed 21 per cent to 82 per cent of surface Tris from polyester fabrics and up to 85 per cent from acetate fabrics.
A spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission said the number of calls received at its national toll-free hotline (800-492-2937) offices yesterday were "just uncountable." She said callers had kept the offices's seven lines continually busy from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.