Contact: Hannah Hickey
University of Washington
Toxic chemicals found in common scented laundry products, air fresheners
A University of Washington study of top-selling laundry products and
air fresheners found the products emitted dozens of different
chemicals. All six products tested gave off at least one chemical
regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws, but none of those
chemicals was listed on the product labels.
"I first got interested in this topic because people were telling me
that the air fresheners in public restrooms and the scent from laundry
products vented outdoors were making them sick," said Anne Steinemann,
a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and of public
affairs. "And I wanted to know, 'What's in these products that is
causing these effects?'"
She analyzed the products to discover the chemicals' identity.
"I was surprised by both the number and the potential toxicity of
the chemicals that were found," Steinemann said. Chemicals included
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," Steinemann said.
Her study was published online today 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.
Because manufacturers of consumer products are not required to
disclose the ingredients, Steinemann analyzed the products to discover
their contents. She studied three common air fresheners (a solid
deodorizer disk, a liquid spray and a plug-in oil) and three laundry
products (a dryer sheet, fabric softener and a detergent), selecting a
top seller in each category. She bought household items at a grocery
store and asked companies for samples of industrial products.
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."
This study does not address links between exposure to chemicals and
health effects. However, two national surveys published by Steinemann
and a colleague in 2004 and 2005 found that about 20 percent of the
population reported adverse health effects from air fresheners, and
about 10 percent complained of adverse effects from laundry products
vented to the outdoors. Among asthmatics such complaints were roughly
twice as common.
Manufacturers are not required to list the ingredients used in
laundry products and air fresheners. Personal-care products and
cleaners often contain similar fragrance chemicals, Steinemann said.
And although cosmetics are required by the Food and Drug Administration
to list ingredients, no law requires products of any kind to list
chemicals used in fragrances.
"Fragrance chemicals are of
particular interest because of the potential for involuntary exposure,
or second-hand scents," Steinemann said.
"Be careful if you buy products with fragrance, because you really
don't know what's in them," she added. "I'd like to see better
labeling. In the meantime, I'd recommend that instead of air fresheners
people use ventilation, and with laundry products, choose
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.
"I hope this study will raise public awareness, and reduce exposures to potentially hazardous chemicals," said Steinemann.
For more information, contact Steinemann at (206) 616-2661 or [email protected].