Chew on this: Scented products hide toxic secrets
August 19, 2008
A University of Washington study of top-selling laundry products and air fresheners found the products emitted dozens of different chemicals. All six products tested gave off at least one chemical regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws, but none of those chemicals was listed on the product labels.
UW engineering professor Anne Steinemann’s analysis of some of these popular items found 100 different volatile organic compounds measuring 300 parts per billion or more—some of which can be cancerous or cause harm to respiratory, reproductive, neurological and other organ systems.”I first got interested in this topic because people were telling me that the air fresheners in public restrooms and the scent from laundry products vented outdoors were making them sick,” said Anne Steinemann, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs. “And I wanted to know, ‘What’s in these products that is causing these effects?'”
She analyzed the products to discover the chemicals’ identity.
“I was surprised by both the number and the potential toxicity of the chemicals that were found,” Steinemann said. Chemicals included acetone, the active ingredient in paint thinner and nail-polish remover; limonene, a molecule with a citrus scent; as well as acetaldehyde, chloromethane and 1,4-dioxane.
“Nearly 100 volatile organic compounds were emitted from these six products, and none were listed on any product label. Plus, five of the six products emitted one or more carcinogenic ‘hazardous air pollutants,’ which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to to have no safe exposure level,” Steinemann said.
Some chemicals are categorized as hazardous or toxic by federal regulatory agencies. But the labels tell a different story, naming only innocuous-sounding “perfume” or “biodegradable” contents.
Industry representatives have denied their products are unsafe.
“Be careful if you buy products with fragrance, because you really don’t know what’s in them,” she added. “I’d like to see better labeling. In the meantime, I’d recommend that instead of air fresheners people use ventilation, and with laundry products, choose fragrance-free versions.”
The European Union recently enacted legislation requiring products to list 26 fragrance chemicals when they are present above a certain concentration in cosmetic products and detergents. No similar laws exist in the United States.