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Common Scented Products are Toxic

Jul 24, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP A recent study conducted by the University of Washington (UW) has revealed that not only are some top-selling laundry products and air fresheners emitting dozens of chemicals, but of the six products tested, each gave off at least one chemical regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws.  Worse, none of those toxic and hazardous chemicals was listed on the product labels.  "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 of public affairs. "And I wanted to know, 'What's in these products that is causing these effects?'"  Consumer product manufacturers are not required to disclose ingredients.

"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; and 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 (EPA)  to have no safe exposure level," Steinemann said.

Steinemann’s study was published online yesterday by the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review.  Although Steinemann did not  disclose the brand names of the six products, a larger study of 25 cleaners, personal care products, air fresheners, and laundry products—now submitted for publication—revealed that many other brands contained similar chemicals.

Steinemann analyzed three common air fresheners—a solid deodorizer disk, a liquid spray, and a plug-in oil—and three laundry products—a dryer sheet, a fabric softener. and a detergent and chose the top seller in each category.  The products were tested in an isolated space at room temperature.  The air was then analyzed for volatile organic compounds, small molecules that evaporate from the product's surface into the air.  Here’s what the tests revealed:  58 different volatile organic compounds above a concentration of 300 micrograms per cubic meter, many of which were present in more than one of the products.  This means that a plug-in air freshener contained over 20 different volatile organic compounds.  Of these 20, seven are regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws.  Shockingly, the product label lists no ingredients, and information on the Material Safety Data Sheet—required for workplace handling of chemicals—simply lists the contents as a "mixture of perfume oils."

Although this study does not discuss links between chemical exposure and health effects, two national surveys published by Steinemann and a colleague in 2004 and 2005 found that about 20 percent of the population reported adverse health effects from air fresheners, 10 percent complained of adverse effects from laundry products vented to the outdoors, and asthmatics’ complaints were about twice as common.

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