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Toxics Among Common Scents

July 23, 2008

SEATTLE _ The fumes that waft from top-selling air fresheners and laundry products contain dozens of chemicals, including several classified as toxic or hazardous, says a University of Washington study published Wednesday.

None of the chemicals was listed on product labels, nor does the federal government require companies to disclose ingredients in fragrances, said study author Anne Steinemann.

“I was surprised by both the number and the potential toxicity of the chemicals that were found,” said Steinemann, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs.

The health effects of the chemicals are unclear, but Steinemann launched her analysis after years of fielding complaints from people who said air fresheners and other household products made them dizzy, left them short of breath or caused headaches, seizures or asthma attacks.

“After you hear about a hundred of these stories, you realize there’s something going on,” she said.

The report is the latest in a string of unsavory news reports about consumer products, from the presence of lead in children’s toys to the discovery of hormone-disrupting compounds in plastics and baby lotions.

Steinemann’s study focused on six widely used products: dryer sheets, fabric softener, laundry detergent, a liquid spray air freshener, a plug-in air freshener, and a solid disc deodorizer used in commercial-airplane toilets. A contract laboratory sealed each product inside a container, then used two types of instruments to identify chemicals emitted into the air.

Collectively, the six products gave off nearly 100 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including acetone _ the eye-stinging ingredient in nail-polish remover and paint thinner. (VOCs are compounds that vaporize easily, like paint and gasoline fumes. Many VOCs are known to be harmful.)

The study didn’t report the levels of individual chemicals, but all six of the products emitted at least one substance the federal government classifies as toxic or hazardous.

Among them are three chemicals the Environmental Protection Agency considers “hazardous air pollutants” with no safe exposure levels: acetaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, both likely human carcinogens; and methyl chloride, which has been linked to liver, kidney and nervous-system damage in animals.

A spokeswoman for the Fragrance Materials Association of the United States, an industry group, said all ingredients are tested for safety and the results reviewed by independent scientists.

“We are certain that, when used in compliance with standards, these fragrance ingredients are safe and can be used … with confidence,” Cathy Cook said in a written statement.

For most healthy adults, slight exposure to toxic or hazardous chemicals is probably not much of a health concern, said Lance Wallace, a retired EPA scientist who is collaborating with Steinemann. But up to 30 percent of people are sensitive to perfumes and other fragrances, he pointed out.

Studies in Denmark and the United States have confirmed that even healthy male college students report headaches, eye irritation and other effects when exposed to a mix of volatile organic compounds.

When Steinemann and a colleague surveyed more than 2,000 people in 2004 and 2005, they found 20 percent were in some way sickened by air fresheners. For those with asthma, the figures were nearly twice as high: Up to 37 percent reported headaches or trouble breathing.

Studies conducted by the industry-funded Research Institute for Fragrance Materials have generally reported few health effects.

Children are more sensitive to chemical exposure than adults, said Steve Gilbert, founder of Toxipedia.org, a clearinghouse on toxic chemicals. And people are usually exposed to a stew of substances, which may interact in unknown ways.

“At the very minimum, we should have a right to know what is in these products,” said Gilbert, a Seattle toxicologist who was not involved in the study.

Manufacturers are not required to list the ingredients used in air fresheners, laundry products or most other consumer products, Steinemann said in her study, published in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review.

“There needs to be more testing of these products and greater disclosure … so that people know what they’re being exposed to,” she said.

Steinemann wouldn’t name the specific products tested, partly out of fear of industry lawsuits. She also said it would be unfair to single out specific companies at this point. A larger analysis, which looked at 25 different products, found many other brands contain similar chemicals. The second study is under review and will be published next year.

Her advice for people who want to reduce their exposure is to avoid use of air fresheners and buy fragrance-free laundry products.

But even that’s no guarantee, she pointed out. Some products marketed as “unscented” or “fragrance-free” actually contain the same chemicals as scented products _ with the addition of a “masking fragrance” that cancels out the smell.

And many products labeled “natural” or “organic” also contain some of the same chemicals.

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