Common Cleaning Products May Emit Dangerous Chemicals: Study

2 min read

Sept. 14, 2023 – Common household cleaning and air freshening products may emit hundreds of dangerous chemicals, but those with “green” features that are fragrance-free are potentially less harmful than their conventional counterparts, according to a new study.

Researchers evaluated 28 glass and multipurpose cleaning products and two air freshener products for volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. VOCs are human-made chemicals used in paints, drugs, refrigerants, and other products, including cleaners that can be emitted as gases into the air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The study, which was peer-reviewed, according to CBS News, was published Tuesday in the journal Chemosphere and done by the nonprofit activist organization Environmental Working Group. 

Researchers found 530 VOCs from the products, of which 193 VOCs are considered toxic by either the state of California or the European Chemical Agency, the authors wrote. VOCs were found in lower concentrations, lower numbers, and emitted at lower rates in products labeled as “green” that were fragrance-free.

The main study did not include a consumer-friendly publication of individual brands tested and the results.

Among the concerns identified in some of the products were potential toxicity when inhaled, potential to cause cancer, and potential toxicity to reproductive systems, such as affecting fertility or an unborn child.

“This study is a wake-up call for consumers, researchers and regulators to be more aware of the potential risks associated with the numerous chemicals entering our indoor air,” lead author Alexis Temkin, PhD, a senior toxicologist at the Environmental Working Group, said in a news release. “Our findings emphasize a way to reduce exposure to hazardous VOCs – by selecting products that are ‘green,’ especially those that are ‘green’ and ‘fragrance free.’”

The researchers defined “green” as products “advertised as healthier, non-toxic, or free from harmful chemicals as well as products with a third-party certification for safety or environmental features.”

The American Cleaning Institute, a trade group representing makers of cleaning products, told CBS News that the criteria for evaluating products in the study was “arbitrary” and that the term “green is a marketing term, not a scientific one."

“The fact is, in California – which is referenced in the study – regulators have placed limitations on the VOCs in most consumer products over the past three decades. Industry has been working with government and regulators for decades to minimize VOC concentrations to keep them below levels that would be considered hazardous," the trade group said in a statement to CBS News. “The proper use of cleaning products contributes to public health and quality of life in homes, offices, schools, health care facilities, restaurants and throughout our communities every single day. Everyone who has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic can certainly recognize this fact.”

The study authors wrote that although “EWG maintains financial relationships with producers of cleaning products; these relationships had no direct or indirect influence on the study.”