Have you ever walked down the cleaning and laundry soap aisle in your local grocery store and been assaulted with so many fragrances you wanted to run the other way? All of those concentrated chemical scents are pretty hard to take – especially if you suffer from allergies – and it isn’t just an assault on your nose.
Fragranced consumer products in the form of soaps, cleaners, air fresheners, hand sanitizers, laundry detergents, and personal care products are widespread in society. Studies have repeatedly shown that the synthetic fragrances and other toxic chemicals included in these products are causing a range of health problems for humans. They’re also harming wildlife and contributing to environmental pollution.
Carcinogens Found in Popular Laundry Products & Air Fresheners
Professor Anne Steinemann from the University of Washington (UW) in the U.S. studies the impact of synthetic fragrances on health. She became interested in the problem when people started suggesting to her that the air fresheners in public restrooms and the fragrances coming from laundry and cleaning products were making them sick. Through a series of investigative studies over a period of several years, Steinemann and her colleagues discovered that synthetic fragrances were just the tip of the iceberg causing health problems for people.
In 2008, Steinemann and a team of researchers at UW investigated six of the top-selling laundry products and air fresheners. They wanted to discover what exactly they contained that might be contributing to health issues. Because the manufacturers who create these products are not required to disclose the ingredients, each product was separately analyzed to determine what was in them. What they found was alarming…
Of the six products, almost 100 chemicals were found, some of them identified as toxic or hazardous under federal law. None of the ingredients were listed on the product label, and there were no warnings. According to Steinemann, five of the six products released one or more carcinogenic “hazardous air pollutants,” which are considered by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to have NO safe exposure level.
Could Your Dryer Vent Be Making You Sick?
In 2011, the same team of researchers performed a controlled study investigating the emissions from washing machines and dryers. The emissions were sampled from two residential dryer vents during the use of:
- no products
- detergent with fragrance
- detergent and dryer sheets, both with fragrance
The researchers found more than 25 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were emitted from dryer vents, with high concentrations of the chemicals acetaldehyde, acetone, and ethanol. Seven of these VOCs were classified as hazardous air pollutants and two as carcinogenic (acetaldehyde and benzene).
Toxic Chemicals Affect 99% of the U.S. Population
In 2016 Prof Steinemann wrote an article that was published in the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health. The article reported results from a national population survey of Americans looking into the range of exposures and effects associated with the emissions from fragranced products. Steinemann reported:
Collectively, 99.1% of the population are exposed to fragrances at least once a week from their own use, others’ use, or both.
An astounding 34.7% of the population reported health problems attributable to this exposure, including:
- respiratory difficulties
- neurological problems
- asthma attacks
- migraine headaches
A worrying 15.1% of the population lost work days or even their job due to the effects from fragranced product exposure on the job.
The Worst Chemical Offenders in Cleaning Supplies
The toxic chemicals routinely being included in laundry detergents, air fresheners, and other cleaning products can affect not only our personal health but also the environment. These chemicals are emitted into the air and contribute to air pollution. They go down the drain and into bodies of water and create havoc in our waterways and streams. The animals that drink this water are adversely affected. The fish that swim in this water are also under stress.
Some of the most damaging chemicals found in cleaning supplies are:
Synthetic fragrances – A fragrance in a product is typically a mixture of several dozen to several hundred chemicals, most of which have not been evaluated for their safety. The combination of the chemicals used can be carcinogenic if inhaled or worn close to the skin – which is of course what happens.
Stabilizers – Included to help stabilize the formula for longer shelf life. Examples include ethylene oxide or polyalkylene oxide, linked with eye, skin, and lung irritation, as well as rashes and dermatitis.
Surfactants – Included to help the product clean better. Examples include sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), which has a long list of health concerns including organ toxicity, developmental and reproductive problems, neurotoxicity, possible mutations, and cancer; diethanolamine (DEA), linked with eye and skin irritation and possibly liver problems; quaternium-15, known to release formaldehyde, a known carcinogen; linear alkyl benzene sulfonates (LA), linked with eye and skin irritation and toxic to aquatic life; benzene, a known carcinogen; petroleum distillates, linked to lung damage and cancer.
1,4 dioxane – A by-product of sodium lauryl sulfate linked to respiratory problems, allergies, hormone disruption, kidney disease, nervous system disorders, brain toxicity, liver disease, and immune system impairment.
Bleach: Either separately or included in a detergent formula, bleach is a known skin, eye and lung irritant. Worse, when it combines with waste water, toxic organic compounds are formed that are known to cause respiratory problems as well as kidney and liver damage.
Phosphates and EDTA: Included in formulas to soften hard water, remove grease and dirt, and suspend dirt so that it doesn’t settle back on clothes or dishes during the wash cycle. Phosphates have long been associated with environmental damage – especially in waterways – causing algal blooms that cause widespread damage to ecosystems. Many detergent manufacturers have eliminated phosphates, but the replacement, ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) is not much better. It does not readily break down in the environment (biodegrade), and animal studies have found it to be toxic.
Optical Whiteners: Chemicals that remain on the surface of fabric to absorb UV light and help clothing appear brighter, whiter, and more vibrant; an optical illusion. Optical brighteners are linked with contact dermatitis and possible genetic mutations in aquatic life, according to one Swedish study. They are not biodegradable.
There are many other chemicals in cleaners and other household products – these are just the worst offenders. As a direct result of the presence of these chemicals in the average home, the EPA has reported that the air inside these homes is two to five times more polluted than the air immediately outside them!
Why Doesn’t the Government Protect Us?
The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, the regulating body for laundry products, air fresheners, and cleaning supplies in America, does not require manufacturers to disclose any of the ingredients on the product label. That also holds true for the inclusion of fragrances in personal care products, which are overseen by the United States Food and Drug Administration.
Many of the chemicals used in cleaning products have not been tested for safety, particularly in combination with other chemicals. Frustratingly, some chemicals proven beyond a shadow of doubt to be harmful are still being used. It appears that only once it has been decided by the regulatory agency responsible for a particular chemical type that it could present an “unreasonable risk to human health or the environment” can that chemical be banned. This “innocent until proven guilty” approach to toxic chemicals is nowhere near good enough to protect us.
In 2009, U.S. Senator Alan Franken sponsored a bill entitled The Household Product Labeling Act, which would have required manufacturers to label consumer products with all ingredients, including fragrances. Unfortunately, the bill was not passed.
As usual, it is up to us as health-conscious consumers to educate ourselves on the hazards of common household cleaners and products and to make better, wiser choices. Unfortunately you’ll need to do your research carefully as even some self-proclaimed “green” or “natural” cleaning products contain health-harming ingredients.