About That Clean, Fresh Scent . . .

(Photo Illustration By Amanda Raymond -- Tacoma News Tribune Via Mct)
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By Sandi Doughton
Seattle Times
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The fumes that waft from top-selling air fresheners and laundry products contain dozens of chemicals, including several classified as toxic or hazardous, according to a recent University of Washington study.

None of the chemicals was listed on product labels, nor does the federal government require companies to disclose ingredients in fragrances, said study author Anne Steinemann.

"I was surprised by both the number and the potential toxicity of the chemicals that were found," said Steinemann, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs.

The health effects of the chemicals are unclear, but Steinemann launched her analysis after years of fielding complaints from people who said air fresheners and other household products made them dizzy, left them short of breath or caused headaches, seizures or asthma attacks.

"After you hear about a hundred of these stories, you realize there's something going on," she said.

The report is the latest in a string of unsavory news reports about consumer products, from the presence of lead in children's toys to the discovery of hormone-disrupting compounds in plastics and baby lotions.

Steinemann's study focused on six widely used products: dryer sheets, fabric softener, laundry detergent, a liquid spray air freshener, a plug-in air freshener and a solid disc deodorizer used in airliner toilets. A contract laboratory sealed each product inside a container, then used two types of instruments to identify chemicals they emitted.

Collectively, the six products gave off nearly 100 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including acetone, the eye-stinging ingredient in nail-polish remover and paint thinner. (VOCs are compounds that vaporize easily, like fumes from paint and gasoline. Many VOCs are known to be harmful.)

The study didn't report the levels of individual chemicals, but all six of the products emitted at least one substance the federal government classifies as toxic or hazardous.

Among them are three chemicals the Environmental Protection Agency considers "hazardous air pollutants" with no safe exposure levels: acetaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, both likely human carcinogens; and methyl chloride, which has been linked to liver, kidney and nervous-system damage in animals.

A spokeswoman for the Fragrance Materials Association of the United States, an industry group, said all ingredients are tested for safety and the results reviewed by independent scientists.

"We are certain that, when used in compliance with standards, these fragrance ingredients are safe and can be used . . . with confidence," Cathy Cook said in a written statement.

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