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Findings

Is Clean Living Making Us Ill?

The laundry products and air fresheners that make our lives more pleasant may actually be compromising our health. According to a study by Anne Steinemann, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs, many of today's top-selling dryer sheets, detergents and plug-in deodorizers contain toxic chemicals.

Steinemann launched the study to investigate which chemicals exist in fragranced consumer products but do not appear on product labels. In studying three common air fresheners—a solid deodorizer disk, a liquid spray and a plug-in oil— and three laundry products—a dryer sheet, a fabric softener and a detergent—she discovered 98 volatile organic compounds, 10 of which are regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal law. None of those chemicals appeared on any of the product labels. In fact, as the study points out, no law in the United States requires disclosure of all chemical ingredients in consumer products and fragrances, regardless of the potential health hazards.

While her study does not address links between exposure to chemicals and health effects, 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 as common.

"Fragrance chemicals are of particular interest because of the potential for involuntary exposure, or secondhand scents," Steinemann says. "Be careful if you buy products with fragrance, because you really don't know what's in them."