We like to think of ourselves as clean and fresh-smelling. But at what price? Although suspect for several years, the gentle aromas wafting from our laundry appliances are giving us more than we asked for—pollution. Venting the dryer outside contributes to the air many of the same chemicals emanating from vehicle and industrial exhausts, but better-smelling. If the dryer is vented indoors into a bucket of water for lack of a suitable alternative, the effect is concentrated to a much smaller environment. Although dozens of potentially harmful compounds have been identified in laundry fragrances, from soap to dryer sheets, none, by law, needs to be listed on the product label. We don’t know what we’re getting for our money, but you can bet it’s more than we bargained for.
The emissions from a dryer are not regulated or monitored. “If they’re coming out of a smokestack or tailpipe, they’re regulated…” says the lead author of a study performed at the University of Washington. Reporting in the 2011 online edition of Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health, Anne Steinemann, an environmental engineering professor at the university, found more than two dozen volatile organic compounds emitted through laundry vents. Of these, seven are named as hazardous air pollutants, two of which are known carcinogens described by the EPA. Acetaldehyde and benzene enjoy zero 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 added. To get a clearer picture of the problem, the aldehydes emitted by using a particular, though unnamed, brand of detergent represents three percent of that emitted by automobiles in the study area (King County, WA). If combined, the top five brands of laundry products would account for six percent of vehicular aldehyde emissions. (Steinemann. 2011)
Let’s start with the aldehydes and benzenes. Acetaldehyde occurs naturally in coffee, breads and ripe fruits, and arises from normal plant metabolism. It’s produced by the oxidation of alcohol, and is blamed for hangovers. The liver converts ethanol to acetaldehyde through enzymatic activity. Occurring also in tobacco smoke, acetaldehyde enhances the addictive effect of nicotine. It is a probable carcinogen in humans. (U.S. EPA. 1994)
Benzene is an important industrial solvent, once used as an additive to gasoline to increase octane ratings and to eliminate knocking, but still used to manufacture plastics and synthetic rubber, and, occasionally, some drugs. Its carcinogenic property is well-established. It can be formed wherever incomplete combustion of a carbon-rich substance occurs, as in forest fires and volcanoes, and in vehicle exhausts. Its use in the United States is now limited, although it is making a minimal comeback since tetraethyl lead has been eliminated from vehicular fuel. (Federal Register. 2006)
Although they can make your clothes soft and cuddly, fabric softeners are some of the most toxic substances around. Because there are limited alternatives to these handy chemicals, few people are willing to give them up, and even fewer are likely to relate health problems with their use. If you say they’re made from natural ingredients, remember that arsenic is all natural. The chemicals in softeners in particular are designed to stay on the clothes for a while, and are absorbed through the skin as well as inhaled. Because the dryer sheets are heated, they emit their chemicals into the vented air, either outside, inside, or both. The chemicals that create the softening effect are strong smelling and pungent, so need to be masked with fragrances that are chemically just as bad.
What are some other noxious / toxic ingredients in laundry and other household products and their after effects? Benzyl acetate in softeners causes pancreatic disease. Camphor and ethanol affect the central nervous system. Ethyl acetate affects the kidneys and skin. Limonene is a sensitizer that is not to be inhaled, although we do anyway, but not on purpose. The list goes on. More than ninety-five percent are made from petrochemicals, and may present as neurological maladies, allergic reactions, birth defects, and cancer, not to mention sinusitis and asthma.
What to do? Look for detergents that have no scent. If they can’t be found in the supermarket, try a health food store or look online. There are at least two multi-level marketing firms that offer them; one starts with an “S” and the other with an “A.” To soften clothes, add a quarter cup of baking soda to the wash water. The same amount of white vinegar can prevent static cling and still soften fabric…and won’t smell like a salad.
Those aromatic thingies you plug into an outlet? Chuck ‘em. Got petroleum-based candles that hide the mackerel miasma? Dump ‘em. Find out what’s in your underarm deodorant / anti-perspirants, the furniture polish, the toilet bowl cleaner, shampoo, and even toothpaste. What makes your trousers wrinkle-free and stain-free, or your baby’s clothes fireproof, or the new sofa stain-resistant? Nobody would have thought that “April Fresh,” “Ocean Mist,” and “Orange Honey” could be so dangerous. We might be able to answer a few questions if we keep track of who gets sick and the materials to which they are exposed. Manufacturers are not required to list ingredients in fragrances, so consumers are at the mercy of the establishment.
Anne C. Steinemann, Lisa G. Gallagher, Amy L. Davis and Ian C. MacGregor Chemical emissions from residential dryer vents during use of fragranced laundry products Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health DOI: 10.1007/s11869-011-0156-1Online First™ http://www.springerlink.com/content/a520ttu523333552/
University of Washington (2008, July 24). Toxic Chemicals Found In Common Scented Laundry Products, Air Fresheners. ScienceDaily. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080723134438.htm
CHEMICAL SUMMARY FOR ACETALDEHYDE OFFICE OF POLLUTION PREVENTION AND TOXICS U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY August 1994 http://www.epa.gov/chemfact/s_acetal.txt
"Control of Hazardous Air Pollutants From Mobile Sources". U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2006-03-29. p. 15853. Retrieved 2008-06-27. http://www.epa.gov/EPA-AIR/2006/March/Day-29/a2315b.htm
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Heisterberg MV, Menné T, Andersen KE, Avnstorp C, Kristensen B, Kristensen O, Kaaber K, Laurberg G, Henrik Nielsen N, Sommerlund M, Thormann J, Veien NK, Vissing S, Johansen JD. Deodorants are the leading cause of allergic contact dermatitis to fragrance ingredients. Contact Dermatitis. 2011 May;64(5):258-64.
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*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.