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'
"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
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
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
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,"