Photo of washing machine
Popular laundry detergents contain toxic chemicals that pollute people and planet

Scented laundry products emit hazardous chemicals

1 September, 2011

Startling new research shows that top-selling scented liquid laundry detergents and scented dryer sheets contains hazardous chemicals, including two that are classified as carcinogens.

The findings published online in the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health, come from a team of researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle led by professor Anne Steinmann.

The research builds on earlier work that looked at chemicals released by a variety of scented products including laundry products, air fresheners, cleaners, lotions. Manufacturers are allowed to hide behind ‘trade secret’ rules when it come to such products and therefore are not required to disclose the ingredients used on their labels.

To conduct this latest study the research team first purchased and pre-rinsed new, organic cotton towels. They asked two homeowners to volunteer their washers and dryers, which were thoroughly cleaned before use.

At the first home, they ran a regular laundry cycle and analysed the vent fumes for three cases: once with no products, once with the leading brand of scented liquid laundry detergent, and finally with both the detergent and a leading brand of scented dryer sheets. A canister placed inside the dryer vent opening captured the exhaust 15 minutes into each drying cycle. Researchers then repeated the procedure with a different washer and dryer at a second home.

Analysis of the captured gases found more than 25 volatile organic compounds, including seven hazardous air pollutants, coming out of the vents. Of those, two chemicals – acetaldehyde and benzene – are classified by the US Environmental Protection Agency as carcinogens, for which the Agency has established no safe exposure level.

“These products can affect not only personal health, but also public and environmental health. The chemicals can go into the air, down the drain and into water bodies,” Steinemann said.

The researchers estimate that in the Seattle area, where the study was conducted, acetaldehyde emissions from this single brand of laundry detergent would be equivalent to 3% of the total acetaldehyde emissions coming from automobiles. Emissions from the top five brands, they estimate, would constitute about 6% of automobiles’ acetaldehyde emissions.

“We focus a lot of attention on how to reduce emissions of pollutants from automobiles,” Steinemann said. “And here’s one source of pollutants that could be reduced.”

The recent study is part of an ongoing investigation into fragranced products. The project’s website also includes letters from the public reporting health effects from scented consumer products.  Steinemann says it was people’s reports of adverse reactions to fragranced air coming from laundry vents motivated her to conduct this study.

Based on her findings Steinemann recommends using laundry products without any fragrance or scent.