By Dr. Mercola
The scent is unmistakable. Anyone who's ever taken a stroll through their neighborhood has picked up the familiar scent of laundry products wafting from dryer exhaust vents everywhere.
But have you ever wondered what's in these common laundry products?
The familiar "clean" scent of fabric softeners actually comes from a deceptively toxic blend of chemicals that have escaped regulation and are silently contributing to a number of health problems for unsuspecting consumers.
Thanks to the work of a few concerned scientists, the dangers of these products are finally beginning to see the light of day.
First, gas dryer exhaust contains carbon monoxide, an odorless gas posing well-known health dangers, depending on the concentration in which it's inhaled. Consider this if your child's bedroom window is close to your dryer vent.
But detergents and fabric softeners are commonplace as well, and as your clothing dries, these vapors are released into your house—and out into the neighborhood—in a chemical cloud.
The effects to humans and the environment are largely unknown.
The problem is, you are not exposed to single chemicals—you're exposed to blends of chemicals. We have no knowledge of the toxic effects of these mixtures.
One Research Scientist Sniffs Out the Truth
One University of Washington scientist is attempting to educate the public about the hazardous substances coming out of their dryer vents. Dr. Anne Steinemann, professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs, has done a large amount of research into what chemicals are released by laundry products, air fresheners, cleaners, lotions and other fragranced consumer products.
Her latest study, the first of its kind, focuses on chemicals emitted through laundry vents during typical use of fragranced products, and was published in Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health, 2011. Steinemann found the following dryer vent emissions from 25 of the most common brands of scented laundry products:
- More than 600 VOCs (volatile organic compounds) were emitted, and only two of those compounds were listed on any associated MSDS. Not one of those chemicals was listed on any of the 25 product labels.
- Two of the VOCs are considered by the EPA to be carcinogenic (acetaldehyde and benzene) and unsafe at ANY exposure level.
- Seven of the VOCs are classified as "hazardous air pollutants."
- The highest concentration of emitted VOCs was acetaldehyde, acetone and ethanol.
- Only 25 percent of the VOCs were classified as toxic or hazardous under federal laws.
Virtually none of the VOCs detected were listed on product labels or the product MSDSs (material data safety sheet). Instead, labels listed only general categories, such as "biodegradable surfactants," "softeners," or "perfume." So there is no way for you to know which of these toxic chemicals are present. Even more disturbing, the "greener" products were just as bad, if not worse, than the conventional products. In her work, Dr. Steinemann has found many other dangerous compounds emitting directly from dryer sheets:
✓ Limonene (citrus scent)
✓ Beta-pinene (pine scent)
✓ Carbonyl sulfide
✓ Isopropyl alcohol
In her radio interview (linked above), Steinemann explains that some chemicals are actually being shown to be more dangerous to humans at lower levels than at higher levels, a phenomenon that is turning our understanding of toxicity upside down. Other chemicals found in popular laundry products include the following:
✓ Linalool: A narcotic that causes central nervous system disorders
✓ Benzyl Acetate: Linked to pancreatic cancer
✓ Benzyl Alcohol: Upper respiratory tract irritant
✓ A-Terpineol: Can cause respiratory problems, including fatal edema, and central nervous system damage
✓ Ethyl Acetate: A narcotic on the EPA's Hazardous Waste list
✓ Camphor: Causes central nervous system disorders
✓ Chloroform: Neurotoxic, anesthetic and carcinogenic
✓ Pentane: A chemical known to be harmful if inhaled
✓ 1,4-dioxane: A recognized carcinogen
✓ Chloromethane: A developmental toxin
✓ 2-Butanone: A suspected toxicant
✓ O, m, or p-cymene : A suspected toxicant
✓ Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS/SLES), and ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS)
✓ Nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE): Hormone disruptor
✓ Phosphates: Major environmental health hazard
✓ Optical brighteners
How Can Product Manufacturers Get Away with This?
Simple… It's still very much an unregulated market. Manufacturers are not required to disclose any ingredients in cleaning supplies, air fresheners or laundry products. The fragrance industry is actually allowed to regulate itself through a trade association known as the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). This association is responsible for conducting safety tests to determine the ingredients safe for use for their own industry. Typically, substances are tested on healthy adults, and only skin reactivity is tested—not neurotoxicity, immunotoxicity, or anything else.
Of the more than 5,000 different ingredients used by the fragrance industry, only about 1,300 have actually been tested and evaluated for safety. As Dr. Steinemann says,
"If they're coming out of a smokestack or tail pipe, they're regulated, but if they're coming out of a dryer vent, they're not."
But what about the MSDS—can't you just look at a product's MSDS and see everything that's in it?
No, the MSDS is unreliable.
Companies and consumers mistakenly believe that MDSDs are the authoritative documents on ingredients. But the truth is, there's no requirement for a manufacturer to disclose all ingredients on an MSDS—and fragrance mixtures are exempt from disclosure.
Fabric Softener Chemicals are "Built to Last"
Fabric softeners are designed to reduce static in synthetic fabrics. They work by leaving a residue on the fabric that never completely washes out. In fact, companies design these fabric softeners to BE tenacious and long lasting in clothing, especially the fragrances. They even have a name for it: "fragrance substantivity."
Are these chemical agents as persistent in your body as they are in your clothing? It's anyone's guess, because the health effects haven't been studied. This tenacious residue can cause allergic reactions through skin contact (contact dermatitis) and inhalation. When exposed to hot water, or heat from dryers, or ironing, vapors from product residues are emitted that can be inhaled, increasing their effects in your body. But the long-term effects are simply not known.
In the featured video interview, Dr. Steinemann explains that even if a product is labeled "fragrance-free," it's not a guarantee of safety because sometimes chemicals are added to mask the smell of the other ingredients.
One in 10 People Have Chemical Sensitivities—Are You One of Them?
The prevalence of chemical sensitivity is a larger problem than you might think. Two national surveys of more than 1,000 people each found multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) affects 11.4 percent of the population in the U.S., and is twice as high for asthmatics. It's not surprising then that Dr. Steinemann found 10.9 percent of the population reports adverse health effects related to scented laundry products vented outdoors.
These chemical reactions are so profound that some people can't function, citing symptoms like headaches, seizures, asthma attacks, and even loss of consciousness.
According to the Guide to Less Toxic Products by the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia, fabric softeners often contain quaternary ammonium compounds, or "quats," and imidazolidinyl, both of which are known to release formaldehyde. Formaldehyde can cause joint pain, depression, headaches, chronic pain, and a variety of other symptoms. Laboratory studies suggest formaldehyde can damage your DNA and may even lead to cancer. For about five percent of people, quats are an extreme sensitizer that can cause a variety of asthma-like symptoms, and even respiratory arrest.
Fabric softeners can also contain carcinogenic coal-tar dyes, ammonia, and very strong fragrances. One fragrance can be made up of literally hundreds of chemicals, none of which has to be disclosed or tested in any way. All are derived from petroleum products, which means high potential for human toxicity. Fragrances are one of the leading causes of allergic reactions.
Scents and Sensibility
Our powerful attraction to fragrances is being manipulated by advertisers and marketers to sell products, and laundry products are among them. Your sense of smell is your most primitive sense, allowing you to recognize up to 10,000 different smells. Smell is hard-wired deep into primitive areas of your brain.
According to Dr. Stuart Firestein of Columbia University, the olfactory system is very closely connected to the limbic system, which is said to contain your most basic drives. So it's not surprising that scent is powerfully connected to both emotion and memory.
Fragrances are added to far more products than you may realize, often to mask the odor of noxious chemicals. Fragrances are even added to medications (inhalers and sports creams), furniture polish, dental floss, nail polish, paper, some disposable razors, and even construction materials such as paint and varnish. Many stores now use "scent branding" to draw people in, like bees to honey—and KEEP people in. Customers in ambient-scented stores have been found to shop for 20 to 30 percent longer.
Secondhand Scent: The New Secondhand Smoke
If you are sensitive to fragrances, it is important to understand that odor isn't the cause of all of your symptoms. Even pleasant smelling products, and products whose concentration is too low to be smelled, can cause symptoms, while a noxious smelling product may elicit no response at all. And there may be symptoms you cannot identify, so it is often difficult to link those effects to a given exposure.
Fragrance products can cross your blood brain barrier, and many of the thousands of chemical agents in fragrances have psychoactive properties, just like psychoactive drugs. This is important because seemingly innocuous fragrances, most of which are petroleum-derived, can potentially be neurotoxic. These chemicals can sensitize your immune system, making it react every time you are exposed. As there are literally thousands of chemicals in fragrances, it is hard to list all of their adverse health effects. There is still so much we don't know.
That said, there are general categories into which the adverse reactions tend to fall:
✓ Respiratory: Allergic asthma, non-allergic asthma, reactive airway dysfunction syndrome (RADS), sinus problems
✓ Neurological: Migraines and other headaches, nausea, dizziness, and mental confusion, memory impairment, lethargy and other central nervous system problems
✓ Endocrine: endocrine disruption, reproductive dysfunction, abnormal sexual development, birth defects
✓ Immune: Immunosuppression, bone marrow damage
✓ Skin: Urticaria, irritation and sensitization
✓ Eye: Irritation, tearing and inflammation
✓ Organ Damage: Kidney, liver, heart
We just can't predict the consequences of long-term cumulative exposure to these chemical mixtures, since relatively few compounds have undergone safety studies, much less the interactions between them. Many industrial chemicals, once inhaled or absorbed, lodge in your tissues and are VERY persistent, because your body lacks to ability to break them down or flush them out.
Is pleasant-smelling laundry worth any of that?
So many people are having fragrance reactions in their workplace that it's being compared to secondhand smoke. The good news is, the perfume industry has seen a significant drop in sales over the last few years, so perhaps Americans' brains are starting to override their noses.
Alternatives that Make Sense
It is safer, less expensive, and kinder to the planet to shift to less toxic products. Here are some alternatives to dryer sheets and fabric softeners:
- Dry your clothes naturally on indoor or outdoor drying racks.
- Remove your clothes from the dryer before they're completely dry. The remaining moisture helps prevent static cling. Use a drying rack instead.
- Launder natural and synthetic fabrics separately, as the synthetics (nylon, rayon, etc.) cause most of the static problems.
- Several sites recommend placing a wad of aluminum foil in the dryer with your clothes to eliminate static cling.
- For general cleaning, stick to the basics such as baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, lemon juice and vinegar. If your house has an odor, just open a window.
Kid Feed even has a recipe for a homemade fabric softener:
"In a recycled gallon sized vinegar jug, add 2 cups baking soda and 2 cups distilled white vinegar. When mixture finishes foaming, add 4 cups of hot water and essential oils (optional) to desired strength. (Try using 20 drops each of lavender and lemon.) Shake before each use, and add about 1 cup for large loads in the rinse cycle."
If you really want to use a commercial product, look for a natural softener or reusable dryer cloth that uses a natural base. To find out about the ingredients in common household products, there's a searchable database you might find helpful from Environment, Health and Safety Online (EHSO).
There is more information about Dr. Steinemann's research on her website, Exposure Assessment.