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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.

Scented Products Carry a Whiff of Danger

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: health, air, scented products, chemicals, regulation, environment, Environmental Health Perspectives, Keith Goetzman,

Flag air freshener

That fresh pine scent may be harming your health and polluting the environment. A study of 25 scented products—from air fresheners and dryer sheets to deodorants, shampoos, and hand sanitizers—found that they collectively emitted more than 100 volatile organic compounds, reports Environmental Health Perspectives.

Specifically, University of Washington researchers found 133 VOCs in the 25 products, according to EHP, with the most common chemicals being the familiar limonene (citrus) and pinene (pine) scents. They also found lots of ethanol and acetone, which are used as carriers for fragrance chemicals.

Here are some of the more surprising findings about the 133 compounds:

• 24 of them are classified as toxic or hazardous under federal law.

• Only one was listed on any product label.

• Only two were listed on any of the products’ material safety data sheets, the more detailed—but hardly comprehensive—disclosure forms required by federal law.

• Some of the products were labeled “organic,” “natural” or “non-toxic.”

So yes: That cleaner with the searing pine scent, the dryer sheet with the cloying perfume smell, the soap with the faux-almond aroma that doesn’t go away even when you rinse your hands—these probably aren’t making your world “fresher” and “cleaner” but rather more polluted and unhealthy.

Lead author Anne Steinemann tells Emily Sohn at Discovery News that scented-product labels can be misleading:

“ ‘Natural’ does not mean no synthetic chemicals. ‘Green’ does not mean safe or healthy. ‘Fragrance-free’ does not mean nontoxic or without fragrance. There are a lot of paradoxes and surprises here.”

Last year, Sen. Al Franken introduced the Household Product Labeling Act, which would have required manufacturers to list all a product’s ingredients on it labels, but the bill didn’t even make it past the committee stage. So no legislative crackdown appears imminent, but in the meantime, one expert contacted by EHP suggests a change in our mindset: 

Steinemann’s study “strongly suggests that we need to find unscented alternatives for cleaning our homes, laundry, and ourselves,” says Claudia Miller, an allergist and immunologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Source: Environmental Health Perspectives, Discovery News 

Image by functoruser, licensed under Creative Commons. 

h. utz
8/15/2011 11:23:35 AM

Thanks, Keith and Utne, for getting this really important information out there. I've been getting ill from others' scented products for more than 10 years now and try to avoid them whenever possible. People just have no idea that they're slathering themselves with petrochemicals. I really appreciate your effort in publishing the hard facts. I've been researching this topic for many years and recently reposted an article I wrote about it on my blog. For more info, see:http://utzling.blogspot.com/2011/08/perfumes-and-fragrances-not-just.html