Monday, November 28, 2011

"Fragrance" And Its Hidden Chemical Dangers

Two weeks ago, I bought a bathrobe from a major department store in Los Angeles. I found that the bathrobe had an odd chemical smell when I put it on at home. I tried washing it... twice. I tried putting it outside in the sun, multiple times. And yet, it still stinks. The bathrobe has some kind of fabric coating that feels slippery to the touch. The fumes coming off of it while I wear it irritate my eyes and throat. I believe that the robe is “off-gassing” (reacting with the air and giving off) volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which can cause a wide variety of health problems from asthma to cancer. Needless to say, I am returning the robe.

Coincidentally, two new research articles about the dangers of exposure to VOCs came to my attention this weekend, so I thought this is a great opportunity to discuss these reported risks and dangers. It turns out that "fragrance" is just a nicer word for VOC. As we discussed in previous posts,volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are dangerous and, can lead to a number of chronic illnesses including asthma and cancer. Obviously, it is important to avoid them as much as possible. So what do we need to avoid and how?


What the first study found is that virtually every tested product with a fragrance contains and off-gasses multiple VOCs. It doesn’t matter if the product is an air freshener, lotion, shampoo, deodorant, hand sanitizer, laundry detergent, dryer sheet, dish detergent, or disinfectant; if it has fragrance in it, it’s giving off VOCs. In 25 products tested, 133 different VOCs were found. That’s an average of over 5 VOCs in each product.

Since manufacturers are allowed to consider fragrances as trade secrets, the government does not require them to list the specific ingredients in a fragrance, even if the ingredients are harmful VOCs. In reality, “fragrance” can be almost any chemical of combination of chemicals, and manufacturers are not required to tell you what those chemical names are. A single fragrance in a product can contain a mixture of hundreds of chemicals. Those chemicals are only required to be listed as just “fragrance” on the product, giving you no idea what you are exposing yourself or your family to. (The same regulation applies to listing “flavor” on products, though flavoring doesn’t usually contain VOCs.)

Worse yet, repeated exposure to the same VOCs can cause your body to become more sensitive to them. The term for this developed sensitivity is “TILT” (Toxicant-Induced Loss of Tolerance). Sensitivity developed from VOCs could explain a variety of conditions including certain cases of asthma, migraine headaches, and depression. The problem is only made worse by the fact that many of these VOCs build up and stay in your body over time.

Fortunately, at least in the USA, legislation is currently being considered that would require companies to list the chemicals used as fragrance in their products. This should help consumers to better understand which products might be causing them to get (and stay) sick.

Formaldehyde - The most common VOC

Formaldehyde is especially found off-gassing from new (and some old) products, as it is used in a wide number of manufacturing techniques. “New car smell” is a particularly good example of off-gassing formaldehyde, as many parts of a car’s interior contain plastics that are produced using formaldehyde. You are probably familiar with the chemical scent you encounter when you enter a “big box” store like Wal-Mart. Many of their products, especially those with plastics, are created using formaldehyde and they very easily off-gas that into the air.

In your home or workplace, everything from floors (carpets and tile) to paint and even office supplies could possibly be off-gassing formaldehyde into the air you breathe. But formaldehyde isn’t the only VOC you should be concerned about. There are thousands of different VOCs that can affect your health.

Infants and Formaldehyde

The second piece of research shows the effects of formaldehyde on infants. Many parents like to paint a baby’s room or nursery pink, yellow, or blue, often just before the baby is due. Unfortunately, if you’ve ever painted a room you probably know the symptoms of being exposed to the VOCs in paint fumes (eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, etc.). This is because almost all paint gives off a huge amount of VOCs, formaldehyde being the most common. This study showed that infants exposed to formaldehyde were 30-40% more likely to develop lower respiratory infections (like pneumonia) or have respiratory infections that cause wheezing.

Avoiding VOCs

In the mean time, it is important for us all to be aware of where these chemicals exist and how to avoid them as much as possible. If you avoid using products with a particular scent, and instead use products that are unscented, you should be able to avoid a large number of VOCs. “Unscented” and “Fragrance Free” aren’t labels you can trust as they are not regulated by the FDA. But, if you look at a product’s ingredients and don’t see “fragrance” listed, that is a good sign that there aren’t hidden VOCs or other ingredients. For tips on where VOCs are most likely to be found, check out our post on Toxicant Exposures. For help with replacing major sources of VOCs in your home, see our post on Building A Healthier Home.

If you have any suggestions or experience with VOC sensitivities, please let us know in the comments section below.



Scented Products Emit a Bouquet of VOCs
The compelling anomaly of chemical intolerance
Formaldehyde Exposure and Lower Respiratory Infections in Infants
FDA Labelling Guidelines (pdf)

Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

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