Scented consumer products emit over 100 different VOC's; some are carcinogenic

Scented consumer products emit over 100 different VOC's; some are carcinogenic

For those of us acquainted with researchers examining VOC exposure to individuals from scented consumer products (for example, at U.C. Berkeley and at U.C. Medical Center in San Francisco), it comes as no surprise that there is a bouquet of VOC's wafting into homes and work places.  However, researchers have recently undertaken a survey of 25 scented products (air fresheners, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, disinfectants, dish detergents, all-purpose cleaners, soaps, hand sanitizers, lotions, deodorants, and shampoos) and identified that over 100 different VOC's are being emitted, a figure that is surprising in its scope.  Even products advertised as "green," "natural," or "organic" emitted as many chemicals as standard ones.

Even more troubling is the utter lack of disclosure.  The researchers found 133 unique VOC's identified among 25 products, and that 24 of these are classified as toxic or hazardous under at least one federal law.  Only 1 of the 133 was listed on any label, and only 2 of the 133 were listed on any MSDS sheets.  The researchers found the average number of VOC's emitted per product was 17.  Each product emitted 1-8 toxic or hazardous chemicals, and close to half (44%) generated at least 1 of 4 carcinogenic hazardous air pollutants (acetaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane, formaldehyde, and methylene chloride).  These hazardous air pollutants have no safe exposure level, according to EPA.  Of the 133 VOC's detected, only ethanol was listed on any label (for 2 products), and only ethanol and 2-butoxyethanol were listed on any Material Safety Data Sheet (for 5 products and 1 product, respectively).

Further, the potential for health impacts is not abstract nor necessarily associated with the VOC's present in the product.  For example, a single fragrance in a product can contain a mixture of hundreds of chemicals, some of which (e.g., limonene, a citrus scent) react with ozone in ambient air to form dangerous secondary pollutants, including formaldehyde (a known human carcinogen).  Thus, the potential exposure picture is more complex than the mere presence of specific VOC's.

Manufacturers are required by FDA (which regulates personal care items) to list the term "fragrance" on product labels, but not MSDS's, although they do not need to disclose the ingredients of those fragrances.  Manufacturers are not required by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (which regulates cleaning supplies, air fresheners, and laundry products) to list either the term "fragrance" or fragrance ingredients on labels or MSDS's.  The Household Product Labeling Act, currently under review in the U.S. Senate, would require manufacturers to label consumer products with all ingredients, including fragrance mixtures.

It is important to note that at present there is a lack of good toxicological data on the threat posed by such exposure.  It may be minimal; it may help create a risk.  A good example of the range of risk derives from some studies undertaken many years ago in the context of Proposition 65 litigation.  It was found that while customers in nail saloons were not exposed to dangerous levels of chemicals, the workers in the saloons were.

The report can be found at