Unlabeled toxic chemicals
in common household products
UPdate Fall 2008
A University of Washington study of top-selling laundry products and air
fresheners found the products emitted dozens of different chemicals. All
six products tested gave off at least one chemical regulated as toxic or
hazardous under federal laws, but none of those chemicals was listed on the
I first got interested in this topic because people were telling me that the
air fresheners in public restrooms and the scent from laundry products vented
outdoors were making them sick," said Anne Steinemann, a UW professor
of civil and environmental engineering and of public affairs. "And I wanted
to know, 'What's in these products that is causing these effects?'"
She analyzed the products to discover the chemicals' identity.
I was surprised by both the number and the potential toxicity of the chemicals
that were found," Steinemann said. Chemicals included acetone, the active
ingredient in paint thinner and nail-polish remover; limonene, a molecule with
a citrus scent; and acetaldehyde, chloromethane and 1,4-dioxane.
Nearly 100 volatile organic compounds were emitted from these six products,
and none were listed on any product label. Plus, five of the six products emitted
one or more carcinogenic 'hazardous air pollutants,' which are considered by
the Environmental Protection Agency to have no safe exposure level," Steinemann
said. Her study was published online by the journal Environmental Impact Assessment
Steinemann analyzed three common air fresheners (a solid deodorizer disk, a
liquid spray and a plug-in oil) and three laundry products (a dryer sheet,
fabric softener and a detergent), selecting a top seller in each category.
She bought household items at a grocery store and asked companies for samples
of industrial products.
Laboratory analysis showed 58 different volatile organic compounds above a
concentration of 300 micrograms per cubic meter, many of which were present
in more than one of the six products. For instance, a plug-in air freshener
contained more than 20 different volatile organic compounds. Of these, seven
are regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws. The product label lists
no ingredients, and information on the Material Safety Data Sheet, required
for workplace handling of chemicals, lists the contents as "mixture of
This study does not address links between exposure to chemicals and health
effects. However, two national surveys published by Steinemann and a colleague
in 2004 and 2005 found that about 20 percent of the population reported adverse
health effects from air fresheners, and about 10 percent complained of adverse
effects from laundry products vented to the outdoors. Among asthmatics such
complaints were roughly twice as common.
Fragrance chemicals are of particular interest because of the potential for
involuntary exposure, or second-hand scents," Steinemann said.
Be careful if you buy products with fragrance, because you really don't know
what's in them," she added. "I'd like to see better labeling. In
the meantime, I'd recommend that instead of air fresheners people use ventilation,
and with laundry products, choose fragrance-free versions."
The European Union recently enacted legislation requiring products to list
26 fragrance chemicals when they are present above a certain concentration
in cosmetic products and detergents. No similar laws exist in Canada or the
UPdate, Fall 2008, Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia
You may also be interested in The Guide to Less Toxic Products, www.lesstoxicguide.ca