A study that hit the news this past week has caused a bit of a stir in the fragrance industry. Researcher Anne C. Steinemann, PhD, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle, revealed that common fragranced products such as laundry detergent/fabric softeners and air fresheners emit dozens of different chemicals, some of which are regulated as toxic or hazardous under US law.
Not only that but NONE of these chemicals appear on the labels of such products so consumers are completely in the dark about the toxins they may be filling their homes with.
Under US law (and in many other countries outside Europe) there is no requirement for manufacturers of fragranced products to list all of the chemicals in a particular product, even if an ingredient if officially classed as hazardous. All manufacturers need to do in such cases is put a warning label on the packaging such as 'Don't Inhale'.
In the study Steinemann analyzed six different products and says she didn't find a single brand which didn't emit at least one chemical classed as toxic. She is now calling for ingredients lists to be required for all fragranced products.
Steinemann selected six commonly used fragranced products -- laundry detergent, fabric softener, dryer sheets, and air fresheners in solid, spray, and oil form. In the laboratory, she put each of these in an isolated space at room temperature and analyzed the surrounding air for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) using advanced methods -- gas chromatography and mass spectrometry.
Almost 100 VOCs were detected, all at levels above 300 micrograms per cubic metre. This is a level picked because it is considered high enough to pose potential health concerns in the event of exposure.
Ten of the VOCs Steinemann identified are regulated as toxic or hazardous under US law. Three are even classified as hazardous air pollutants --acetaldehyde, chloromethane, and 1,4 dioxane.
Most of the products tested gave off at least one toxic VOC. The worst offender was the plug-in air freshener, which emitted 20 different VOCs, including seven regulated as toxic or hazardous under U.S. federal laws.
Steinemann's study is far from the first to identify fragranced products as a source of potentially hazardous chemicals. A few months ago a study by Japanese scientists found that such products contribute significantly to indoor air pollution and advised that people seek alternatives where possible. It has been suggested that because of the widespread use of fragranced products the air in our homes is now more polluted than the air outside, even in cities.
The Fragrance Industry Response
Not surprisingly, the Steinemman study provoked a quick response from the fragrance industry. The Fragrance Materials Association of the United States (FMA), an industry group made up of fragrance product manufacturers, released a statement putting forward their views on the study.
The statement comes across as well thought out and logical. It even had me thinking they might have a point for a second! However, there are some issues I'd like to point out which illustrate the fact that the fragrance industry.... either doesn't get it or is putting profit before safety.
"The amounts of VOCs in fragranced products are too low to be toxic" - that may (or may not) be the case for an individual product but the industry all too often seems to conveniently ignore how these products are being used in the real world. Although a single product may expose people to levels of chemicals that won't cause any problems (for most), how many people or households only use a single fragranced chemical product at a time.....probably NONE! After getting up in the morning the average Joe might take a shower and use fragranced soap, shampoo and conditioner. He will then no doubt use fragranced deodourant and perhaps fragranced hair styling products. In the average household at any one time there may be VOCs in the air from laundry detergent and fabric softener, cleaning products, and air fresheners. So FMA, even if each individual product does not pose a substantial risk, when you add them all together then things start getting a lot more dangerous. Frighteningly, nobody has any idea what happens to all of these fragranced chemical products when they are mixed together. Potentially even more toxic compounds may very well be created. As the Japanese researchers mentioned earlier point out, these products only add to the indoor air pollution which is already high due to 'offgassing' of toxic VOCs from modern building materials and furnishings.
"We recognize that a small number of individuals may experience sensitivity to certain materials in the environment, both natural and man-made. People who experience such sensitivity to consumer products can choose to avoid using the products." - Although commendable to acknowledge that some people do experience negative effects from fragranced products, the FMA may be substantially underestimating how many such people there are! A number of studies over the past decade or so have sought to ascertain the proportion of the population affected by chemical sensitivities (adverse reactions to minute amounts of fragrances/VOCs). The results of these studies suggest that 5%-20% of the populations of developed nations suffer from a variety of symptoms when exposed to fragranced products and other sources of VOCs. This is clearly not an inconsequential number of people. Up to 1 in 5 people is adversely affected by products produced by members of the FMA. As for those like myself who are chemically sensitive being able to choose not to use fragranced products....what good does that do us?! We can choose not to use them ourselves, yes, but we can't choose for everybody else to not use them. Essentially then the only real choice we have is to hide ourselves away from public areas and other people or wear protective face masks when we venture out. When you suffer from severe multiple chemical sensitivity these really are the only options you have.
I can't help thinking that if the fragrance industry put as much effort into making products based on less toxic ingredients as it does into criticising scientific studies which raise vaild points everyone would be a lot better off!
About: Matthew Hogg ("Maff")
Diagnosed with M.E./chronic fatigue syndrome aged only 11 years old and subsequently associated illnesses including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Despite his own struggles he has constantly sought to educate and support others suffering from such "invisible illnesses" through his website, The Environmental Illness Resource. He fully recovered from MCS using his own approach and holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nutritional Health.