This is like the cosmetic information and gardening issues included in my 'Green Living'series as well.
No one else was doing this.
Now, at long last, the media is providing some clues.
Innocuous-sounding 'perfume' in detergents, air fresheners made with
By LISA STIFFLER, July 23, 2008The scented fabric sheet makes your shirts and socks smell flowery fresh
and clean. That plug-in air freshener fills your home with inviting fragrances
of apple and cinnamon or a country garden. But those common household items are
potentially exposing your family and friends to dangerous chemicals, a
University of Washington study has found.
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.
"Air fresheners, laundry products and other
consumer specialty products are regulated under the Federal Hazardous Substances
Act and subsequently have strict labeling requirements," he said. "Companies
producing products that are regulated under FHSA must name on the product label
each component that contributes to the hazard."
Millions are spent annually to ensure that fragrances in the products
are safe, according to a joint statement from the Fragrance Materials
Association, which represents fragrance manufacturers, and the Research
Institute for Fragrance Materials, which works closely with the association.
Ingredients are routinely tested, and chemicals that are considered
dangerous are present at levels much too low to cause harm, according to the
But there are numerous reports of people -- particularly those with
asthma, chemical sensitivities and allergies -- having strong adverse reactions,
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,
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.
People, Puget Sound at risk?
For Steinemann's research, published Wednesday in Environmental Impact
Assessment Review, she selected a top-selling item from six categories of
products: dryer sheets, fabric softeners, detergents, and solid, spray and
plug-in air fresheners.
Then she contracted with a lab to test the air around the items to
identify the chemicals people could be breathing.
Ten of the 100 volatile organic compounds identified qualified under
federal rules as toxic or hazardous, and three of those -- 1,4-dioxane,
acetaldehyde and chloromethane -- are "hazardous air pollutants" considered
unsafe to breathe at any concentration, according to the study.
The labels gave no indication that the irritating and potentially
dangerous chemicals were present, so Steinemann checked the product's Material
Safety Data Sheets. These technical documents provide ingredient information for
the safety of workers and emergency responders.They, too, disclosed little detail, mostly citing ingredients such as
"essential oils" and "organic perfume."
"It's a reasonable expectation to think that laundry products and air
fresheners would be free of chemicals that can cause cancer," said Erika
Schreder, a staff scientist with the Washington Toxics Coalition.
"But as this UW study shows, it's disturbingly easy to find toxic
chemicals in everyday products like these because companies don't have to say
what's in their products."Cathcart, of the Consumer Specialty Products Association, said the
information's not on the package because the "chemicals are not present in the
products at levels deemed hazardous under the law. Given the limited space on
product labels, it is important to include the relevant information consumers
need to make intelligent use, storage and disposal decisions."The threat isn't limited to people. Steinemann and others worry that the
chemicals in consumer products flow from homes to the outdoors."These chemicals get into our water systems and into Puget Sound," she
said. They are "extraordinarily hard to get out of the environment."
Steinemann's research was paid for using discretionary money awarded to
her as a UW professor; she wanted to avoid any appearance of a conflict of
interest. She has also submitted for publication a study that goes further to
examine ingredients in cleaning and personal-care products.
With fears growing over chemicals in consumer products -- lead in toys,
bisphenol A in plastic baby bottles, phthalates in shower curtains and cosmetics
-- environmentalists and health advocates are calling for stricter regulations
of chemicals in everyday goods. They also want shoppers to have more readily
Manufacturers and trade groups representing consumer products routinely
counter that there's plenty of testing and oversight from within the industries
and from government regulations to ensure safety.In the fragranced-products arena, they point to industry Web sites with
information on product ingredients and suggest contacting companies with
specific questions.Critics maintain that's not enough."There's obviously a loophole," said Michael Robinson-Dorn, a UW law
professor who aided Steinemann's research. "We regulate many of these chemicals
in other circumstances, yet when they're in products that we're in contact with
daily, in some cases, we don't wind up finding out about them."He said the items can slip between regulatory cracks by falling into the
jurisdiction of multiple government agencies, none taking ownership."Any time you have a product that is regulated by many different agencies,
it's easy for them not to react," he said.In the absence of strong laws, the marketplace is starting to regulate
itself.After the Natural Resources Defense Council last fall found troubling
levels of phthalates -- plasticizing chemicals that can potentially harm
developing babies -- in air fresheners, Walgreens pulled the products from its
Last month, NRDC and other environmental groups sued the Environmental
Protection Agency to force manufacturers to test air freshener safety and label
products with a full ingredient list.
Steinemann's study could push the
process along."Consumer demand for less-toxic products will encourage companies to
reformulate their products," she said. "This is a case where a little
information could have a great public benefit."
P-I reporter Lisa Stiffler can be reached at 206-448-8042 or
firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog on the environment at datelineearth.com.
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