Toxic fragrances in household products

The 6 sampled products together emitted nearly 100 different Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). 10 of these VOCs turned out to be restricted or regulated by US laws because they are toxic: chemicals such as ethanol, 1,4-dioxane, ethyl acetate, alpha­pinene, 2-butanone, acetaldehyde, and chloromethane.

There are over 3,000 chemicals used in the manufacture of fragrances in common household products, and they might be affecting more of us than we think. That’s the conclusion of a researcher from the University of Washington. (Steinemann A. “Fragranced consumer products and undisclosed ingredients”, Environmental Impact Assessment Review Online, 10 July 2008).
She looked at 3 common air fresheners (a solid deodoriser disk, a liquid spray and a plug-in timed spray), and 3 laundry products that used chemical fragrances (a fabric softener, a detergent and a dryer sheet. Using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, she tested the products for concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — chemicals released by the products into the surrounding air.

Plenty of research has shown that about 20% of the population is allergic or sensitive to chemical fragrances — they may get a skin rash, hay fever, asthma, migraine, nausea, dizziness, or fatigue and difficulty concentrating. But there hasn’t been much research looking at long-term effects of these chemicals, such as cancer, birth defects or deficiencies of the immune system.

Some of the VOCs used in these products are known to be harmful to animals in lab experiments (causing cancer and birth defects), and are strongly suspected of being harmful to humans. Evidence from epidemiological studies, particularly in the US and Europe, suggests long­term exposure to these chemicals may cause more serious illnesses in humans too, aside from an immediate sensitivity reaction.

Until we know more about perfumes and fragances, even if you don’t suffer from a reaction to them, it might be a good idea to reduce your exposure to them. Choose scent-free products, such as unscented toilet paper. Fresh flowers and herbs are good ways to naturally scent your home. Avoid air fresheners by getting rid of the source of bad smells and ventilating the home instead.

Source: CHOICE Health Reader, December 2008