US study adds to controversy surrounding scented household products

A long-running controversy over the safety of scented household products has flared up once again, with the publication of a US study finding that a range of air fresheners and scented laundry products emit hazardous compounds not mentioned on their labels. 

Anne Steinemann, of the University of Washington in Seattle, says several of the 100 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released by the products she examined are classified as toxic or hazardous by US federal law.  They include ethanol, ethyl acetate, benzaldehyde and acetone. Three compounds that were detected, acetaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane and chloromethane, are classified in the US as ’hazardous air pollutants’ which, if emitted by a factory, would have ’zero threshold’. ’In other words not one molecule of the chemical would be permitted,’ says Steinemann. These regulations do not, however, apply to consumer products. None of the volatiles were listed as ingredients on the products’ labels.

Steinemann won’t say which brands she tested, but they included three types of air freshener comprising a solid disk, a liquid spray and a plug-in device, and three scented laundry products - a ’dryer sheet’ which is put with laundry in a drying machine, a fabric softener and a detergent.

Steinemann concedes her study has limitations. She used gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to measure a lower threshold concentration of 300 micrograms per metre cubed in the ’headspace’ above the product, and accepts that the work gives no direct indication of concentration of the compounds that people would be exposed to.

Risking alarm

John Pickup, a consultant who advises industry on risks of chemicals in consumer products, says the study’s failure to evaluate the risk of the volatile compounds it found makes it potentially more alarmist than of practical use. ’Similar lists of hazardous substances could be compiled by sampling the air in a rose garden or a pine forest,’ he points out. ’If, as the study implies, effects from mixtures of chemicals at very low doses are significant, wouldn’t our daily exposure to natural chemicals also be relevant - or do hazards somehow appear and thus need labelling only when substances are put into a bottle and sold? While there is much to be done to improve the methodologies for risk assessment of fragranced products, this paper will do little to help and may be used to spread needless alarm,’ he adds.

Steinemann, however, justifies her concern by pointing to previously published work on ’multiple chemical sensitivity’ - the controversial idea that chronic, low-level exposures to mixtures of chemicals might be responsible for a variety of symptoms ranging from headaches and fatigue to dizziness and depression. ’Given that people do report effects when exposed to certain fragranced products, further research could help to uncover the sources of risk and the role of ingredient information,’ she says.  

Trace the scent

Her study is not a one-off: it follows a series of consumer warnings and research papers examining fragrance products over the last few years. In one high-profile case in 2004, the European consumers’ organisation BEUC was sued by an air freshener manufacturer and forced to retract claims that air fresheners ’pose a real risk to health’, after it said it had found potentially harmful chemicals in scented consumer products.  

In March 2008 the UK government’s Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT) reviewed current information on air fresheners. It concluded that ’the available data on air freshener emissions establish that VOCs and particulates are released with varying emission rates across (and within) product types. Further, several of the specific VOCs have the potential to cause respiratory effects if sufficient concentrations are reached. The potential for respiratory effects may be heightened among certain individuals (eg children, elderly, people with respiratory conditions or odour/chemical intolerant individuals). However, it is not possible to reach a specific conclusion on this aspect for air fresheners.’

It is unclear whether labelling laundry products with trace levels of VOCs would help buyers make sensible decisions. David Coggon, COT’s current chair, comments: ’For any chemical, the risk of toxic effects depends on the circumstances and level of exposure. The study gives preliminary information that might be used as a starting point when assessing whether there are risks from such products. Which ingredients and contaminants need to be listed on a label is partly a sociological question.’

Simon Hadlington. Additional reporting by Richard Van Noorden.

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