July 25, 2008 -- Fragranced laundry products and air fresheners emit dozens of different chemicals, including some regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal law, according to a new study.
Yet none of the potentially toxic chemicals is listed on the product labels, according to researcher Anne C. Steinemann, PhD, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle. She says consumers should be given more information about such products.
"I didn't find a brand that didn't emit at least one toxic chemical," says Steinemann, who analyzed six different products.
But her research drew protests from representatives of the industry that markets fragranced products; industry spokespeople say the products are safe when used as directed and that the chemicals are present in amounts not known to cause problems.
"This research really lacks a real-world risk perspective," says Brian Sansoni, a spokesman for the Soap and Detergent Association, a trade group. The small number of consumers who may have sensitivity to certain fragrances can simply avoid them, industry representatives suggest.
And Steinemann is careful to point out that the study simply identifies chemicals "known to be hazardous" but did not study a link between exposure and ill effects in people.
Lab Tests of Fragranced Products
Steinemann decided to do the study, she tells WebMD, after receiving more than 200 consumer complaints about side effects from fragranced products.
"I actually witnessed someone having a seizure when exposed to an air freshener," she says. She picked six fragranced products -- laundry detergent, fabric softener, dryer sheets, and air fresheners in solid, spray, and oil form.
In a laboratory, she put each product in an isolated space at room temperature. Then she analyzed the surrounding air for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) -- small molecules that evaporate from the surface of the product into the air. She used advanced methods called gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify the VOCs.
She detected nearly 100 VOCs, all at levels above 300 micrograms per cubic meter -- an arbitrary threshold picked by Steinemann because it is considered high enough to pose potential concern in case of exposure.