Saturday, August 09, 2008

Toxic Chemicals Found in Common Household Products

This article is from a Health Alert e-mail that I received today. To the health savvy person this should not come as a big surprise. However, the fact that it is being publicized is news. Moreover, it is worthy of note.

Toxic Chemicals Found in Common Household Products

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.

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."

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.

"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 fragrance-free versions."

This article seems to indicate that there is a more recent study being submitted for publication, although it is not clearly stated. The 2004 study is available at Human exposure, health hazards, and
environmental regulations
as a PDF file. It is worth the time to examine.

Steinemann’s comment should be taken seriously, but with a slight modification. Those who are concerned about what things affect their physical and mental health should truly be careful about everything that they buy. Our government is allowing many harmful ingredients to be used in the everyday products that most people trust and use. Especially such things as fragrances should not only be treated with caution on account of not knowing what may be in them, but especially because honest labels will not hide behind such labels as “fragrance” but will actually include the full listing of ingredients. If a product’s label does not give full disclosure, the assumption should be made that something is being hidden, for indeed it is. And if it is being hidden, why is it being hidden? A person can be certain that non-disclosure of ingredients is for nefarious reasons.

By the way, many natural products are available that accomplish the same results as the toxic substances, and often even more effectively. However, natural products do sometimes cost more and may have a shorter shelf life. But isn’t good health worth a bit of investment in both effort and money?

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