Air fresheners and dryer sheets can make you sick

The EU requires full disclosure of the chemicals contained in common household products.  The U.S. does not require the same disclosure.  The same mega-corporations like Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and Dow Chemical sell these household products in the EU and U.S. but only have to ‘fess up to their contents to European customers.  Americans are left in the dark about what harmful compounds may be on the ingredients list.  Not only that, but the chemical companies have the burden of proving that all ingredients are safe in the EU, unlike the U.S. system where the onus is on researchers and consumers to prove that a chemical ingredient is not safe.  As Chris in Paris writes on Americablog

The chemical industry is not happy because the EU is forcing them to list all chemicals and prove that they are safe rather than the US model where the government has to prove unknown (and unlisted) chemicals are dangerous.  http://www.americablog.com/2008/07/new-study-suggests-household-products.html

Trouble is, a study by scientists at the University of Washington raises new questions about the chemicals in some of these products.

Trouble is, you have no way of knowing it. Manufacturers of detergents, laundry sheets and air fresheners aren’t required to list all of their ingredients on their labels — or anywhere else. Laws protecting people from indoor air pollution from consumer products are limited.

When UW engineering professor Anne Steinemann analyzed of some of these popular items, she 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.

Some of the 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.

“Consumers are breathing these chemicals,” she said. “No one is doing anything about it.”

Industry representatives say that isn’t so.

“Dr. Steinemann’s statement is misleading and disingenuous,” said Chris Cathcart, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Specialty Products Association, in a statement. http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/371779_toxicfragrance23.html

So who do you trust — the scientists or the chemical companies anxious to foist more of these untested products onto the consuming public?  The statement by the industry lobbying group sounds hauntingly like the statements issued for years by the big tobacco companies, long after it was proven that smoking causes lung cancer.

Is the lack of labeling a problem?

There are numerous reports of people — particularly those with asthma, chemical sensitivities and allergies — having strong adverse reactions, researchers said.

That’s a problem when public restrooms in restaurants or airplanes use air fresheners, or when hotels wash towels and sheets in scented laundry supplies. And even when the concentrations are low in individual products, people are exposed to multiple sources on a daily basis.

Aileen Gagney, Asthma and Environmental Health Program manager with the American Lung Association in Seattle, herself an asthma sufferer, has a rule of thumb to help avoid exposure: “If it smells bad, it’s bad; if it smells good, it’s bad.”

But even that won’t always work.

According to Steinemann, even products labeled “unscented” sometimes contain a fragrance and a “masking” fragrance to make them odor-free.

This is a problem for consumers who lack basic information needed to protect themselves from the harmful effects.  In many ways this brings to mind the situation that arose about peanuts.  Several years ago it was noticed that many people were allergic to peanuts — now most food products that might contain even trace amounts of peanuts are labeled in such a way as to alert those who might be affected.

More complete information about the ingredients in these products would help consumers make informed choices about the products they buy.   In some cases, it could keep consumers from getting sick.

Kudos to Dr. Steineman for stepping up to apply rigorous scientific study to “smell good” chemicals that might have deleterious health effects on some consumers.  Then shoppers will be able to apply pressure on the corporations that make  these dryer sheets, fabric softeners, detergents, and solid, spray and plug-in air fresheners.  If there is a regulatory loophole, it should be closed to protect the health of the consuming public.

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One Comment on “Air fresheners and dryer sheets can make you sick”


  1. consumer protection…


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