Prof. Anne Steinemann of the University of Washington recently performed a study of top-selling laundry products and air fresheners. She found the products emitted dozens of different chemicals; in fact, all six products tested gave off at least one chemical regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws.
Oddly enough, those chemicals were not listed on the product labels!
"People were telling me that the air fresheners in public restrooms and the scent from laundry products vented outdoors were making them sick," said Prof. Steinemann, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering. "And I wanted to know what is causing these effects.'"
It was then that she discovered a surprising number of potentially toxic chemicals, including 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 at all," Steinemann said.
Her study was published online last week by the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review. Steinemann chose not to disclose the brand names of the six products she tested. In a larger study of 25 cleaners, personal care products, air fresheners and laundry products, now submitted for publication, she found that many other brands contained similar chemicals.
Manufacturers of consumer products are not required to disclose their ingredients. All these items were household items purchased at a grocery store, in addition to samples of industrial products that were requested of supplier companies.
In the laboratory, each product was placed in an isolated space at room temperature and the surrounding air was analyzed for volatile organic compounds, small molecules that evaporate from the product's surface into the air.
Results 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 perfume oils."
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 the United States.