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When Smelling Good Stinks…

Many commonly used household products contain hazardous chemicals. And many of these chemicals are added to mask the smell of the other ingredients.

This information came to light in a University of Washington study that analyzed a variety of popular laundry products and air fresheners. The final analysis uncovered the fact that these products released dozens of toxic chemicals into the air.

In fact, every product they tested (six in all) emitted at least one toxic or hazardous chemical according to federal federal regulations even though none of them were included in the ingredient list on the label.

The Nose Knows

If you’ve ever been overwhelmed by the air freshener smell in a public restroom or the odor coming out of your neighbors dryer vent, you’re not alone. Many people report feeling nauseous or having a strong aversion to these odors.

Professor Anne Steinemann of the University of Washington heard so many of these complaints that she decided to find out what was behind them. She wanted to know what these products contained that made some people feel ill.

The study analyzed various products looking for what hidden ingredients they might contain. She was surprised at what she found. The toxic and hazardous chemicals in these commonly used products included:

  • Acetone, the active ingredient in paint thinner and nail-polish remover
  • Limonene, a molecule with a citrus scent, which in addition to use as a scent in cosmetics and cleaning products is also used as a paint stripper.
  • Acetaldehyde, a fruity-smelling substance that is also the cause of hangovers. It is a probable carcinogen.
  • Chloromethane, another scented additive can, when inhaled lead to drowsiness, dizziness, confusion and difficulty breathing. At higher concentrations, paralysis, seizures, and coma can occur. Chronic exposure can lead to birth defects.
  • 1, 4-dioxane is toxic to the nervous system, kidneys and liver and is suspected of being carcinogenic.

These were only a few of the almost 100 volatile organic compounds the study discovered. None of them were included on product ingredient lists. In addition, of the six products they tested, five of them gave off one or more hazardous air pollutants considered to cause cancer by the EPA and which are listed as having no safe level of exposure.

Will They Name Names?

Unfortunately the study didn’t give away the specific products they tested. Later they did a larger study that included 25 cleaners, air fresheners, personal care and laundry products. Many of these had the same chemicals in them.

Companies manufacturing such products aren’t required to list all of the ingredients they contain. This is particularly troubling since many people assume these products are safe to use in their homes around pets and children.

One example of a specific result of the analysis showed that one particular plug-in air freshener had more than 20 different volatile organic compounds in it. And seven of them are regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws. The label showed nothing and the required safety sheet for industrial use listed them as a “mixture of perfume oils.”

The Bottom Line

You might summarize these findings by saying, “If it smells too good to be true, it probably is.” Until manufacturers are required to accurately list ALL ingredients on the label any product you buy that has a strong scent should be suspect.

In the meanwhile by using products made from natural ingredients for cleaning, personal care, laundry and air fresheners you’ll go a long way towards avoiding potential problems. And if you’re sensitive to smells regardless of whether they’re natural or not, consider using fragrance-free versions of products.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • KarenSeptember 23, 2010, 12:50 am

    Nearly all fragrances and chemicals bother me, so I use natural cleaning products whenever possible. Thank goodness for places like Whole Foods!

  • KarenSeptember 23, 2010, 6:34 am

    A friend of mine raised a question about D-Limonene and I found this: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0FDN/is_3_12/ai_n27421819/

    Should D-Limonene really be considered toxic?

  • Dr. BruceSeptember 23, 2010, 7:06 am

    Hi Karen,

    You raise a good point. Among the substances listed in this article, D-Limonene seems to be pretty innocuous. In fact it is approved for food use in the U.S. and is generally recognized as safe by the FDA.

    I’m leaving it in the list for now because there is indication of negative reactions in animal and fish studies, especially when exposed to high dosages. When it’s used in cleaning or scent products, I presume the exposure is not so high as to cause problems for most people.

    At the same time, I always recommend that people pay attention to their unique responses to substances such as this. There is often at least a small percentage of the population that develops adverse symptoms when exposed to one substance or another. As always, user beware is the best approach.

    Dr. Bruce

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