A new study has found that common consumer products, including those marketed as ‘green’, ‘all-natural’, ‘non-toxic’, and ‘organic’, emit a range of compounds that could harm human health and air quality — but most of these ingredients are not disclosed to the public.
The research was led by University of Melbourne scientist Dr. Anne Steinemann, a world expert on environmental pollutants, air quality, and health effects.
For the study, Dr. Steinemann investigated and compared volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from 37 different products, such as air fresheners, cleaning products, laundry supplies, and personal care products, including those with certifications and claims of ‘green’ and ‘organic’. Both fragranced and fragrance-free products were tested.
The study, published in the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health, found 156 different VOCs emitted from the 37 products, with an average of 15 VOCs per product. Of these 156 VOCs, 42 are classified as toxic or hazardous under US federal laws, and each product emitted at least one of these chemicals.
Findings revealed that emissions of carcinogenic hazardous air pollutants from ‘green’ fragranced products were not significantly different from regular fragranced products.
In total, over 550 volatile ingredients were emitted from these products, but fewer than three percent were disclosed on any product label or material safety data sheet (MSDS).
“The paradox is that most of our exposure to air pollutants occurs indoors and a primary source is consumer products. But the public lacks full and accurate information on the ingredients in these products. Our indoor air environments are essentially unregulated and unmonitored,” noted Dr. Steinemann.
The most common chemicals in fragranced products were terpenes, which were not in fragrance-free versions. Terpenes are a class of chemicals found in pine, lemon and orange oils that are used in many consumer products either as solvents or to provide a distinctive scent. Although terpenes themselves are not considered toxic, recent studies have shown that they readily react with ozone to produce a number of toxic pollutants, such as formaldehyde and ultrafine particles.
At this time, labeling requirements for consumer products sold in Australia, Europe, the U.S. and around the world are not required to list all ingredients, or any ingredients in a chemical mixture called ‘fragrance’. That includes products such as laundry products, cleaning supplies, air fresheners, personal care products and cosmetics.
“Given the lack of information, consumers may choose products with claims such as green, natural, or organic, but those claims are largely untested,” said Dr. Steinemann.
While the health effects of these pollutants are not entirely understood, research indicates that fragranced products have the potential to produce a range of acute health effects including neurotoxicity, respiratory irritation, and decreased airflow velocity. While most of us know that products such as air fresheners, cleaning agents, and perfumes and colognes can be allergenic, other sources of potentially toxic byproducts are unknown to most people. For example, fabric softener, mattresses and mattress covers, carpets, markers, and even diapers have all been shown to emit potentially harmful chemicals.
Past research has also linked chemicals in common household products to health risks including hormone disruption and early menopause, infertility, breast cancer, and adverse fetal and infant outcomes.