Fresh as a…chemical plant?

I did something on vacation this spring that I normally never do:  I sent my clothes to the laundry.  Usually I pride myself on packing so wisely that I can last a week out of a carry-on bag, and I’m typically not staying in a place swanky enough to actually “do” laundry.  But on this family vacation at an “adventure” resort we had hiked through hot, muggy jungle on some surprisingly rigorous outings.  I couldn’t resist the convenient lure of popping the sweaty stuff in the canvas bag hanging in the closet and dropping it off at the front desk.

The next day I regretted my moment of weakness.  Actually, two months later, I still regret my moment of weakness.  Why?  Fragrance.

My clothes appeared neatly folded on my bed the next day, looking fresh as a daisy but smelling as harsh as a chemical plant.   I’ve used perfume and dye-free laundry detergent for years, not because of any particular sensitivity but because it seemed smart to avoid unnecessary chemicals.  And so I wasn’t prepared for the faux floral tsunami of smell from my freshly laundered tank tops, and the burning sensation that formed in the back of my throat.  I tossed the tops back into my suitcase for the remainder of the trip, to be cleansed of harsh chemicals at home.

Except they weren’t. I couldn’t get rid of the stuff.   The smell clung to my clothes after several post-vacation washings.  Eventually, I tucked the tops in a dresser drawer, finally retrieving them last week as summer approached.  They still smelled.  So I began wondering:  what is this stuff?

Photo by Tracy O. through Creative Commons
Photo by Tracy O. through Creative Commons

According to studies by University of Washington professor Dr. Anne Steinemann, fragrant laundry detergents (and other cleaning products) contain large numbers of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs).   In a 2010 study published in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Steineman and colleagues analyzed 25 popular cleaning products that contained fragrance, include laundry products, personal care products, cleaning agents, and air fresheners.   They identified 133 VOCs – an average of 17 per product – including 24 classified as toxic or hazardous under U.S. federal law.  Each product contained between one and eight toxic or hazardous substances and 11 of them contained at least one carcinogenic Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP) identified under the Clean Air Act.  Steinemann and her colleagues didn’t measure levels of these chemicals in each product, or evaluate their health risk at typical exposure levels.  But they did note that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, carcinogenic HAPs have no safe threshold for exposure.

In 2011, Steinemann and colleagues examined VOCs emitted from the air coming out of dryer vents.  They found a total of 21 VOCs from two dryer vents, after washing towels with the most popular fragranced laundry detergent in the U.S. (they didn’t say which brand that was) and 25 different VOCs when they added a fragranced dryer sheet to the mix.  Seven of these VOCs are classified as HAPs, including two – acetaldehyde and benzene – that are classified as carcinogenic with no safe exposure level.

But short of hooking up Steinemann’s fancy equipment to your dryer vent, how would you know what’s getting into your clothes?  Manufacturers aren’t required to list specific ingredients on product containers, and a single “fragrance” listed on a bottle may include several hundred substances.  You can’t simply sidestep the problem by avoiding scented detergents or searching out “green” products:  Even detergents without scent often contain unlisted chemicals to mask smells caused by the other ingredients.  And Steinemann found no statistical difference in the number of toxic, hazardous or carcinogenic chemicals in cleaning products that made some sort of “green” claim, than in those that didn’t.

So I decided to look up my supposedly healthy home detergent in the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) consumer guide  EWG sorts through the misleading maze of consumer product-land with an easy online guide to help people find the least toxic products.  To do so, they compiled ingredient lists from product labels, company websites, and worker safety documents, and compared the lists with databases from government agencies, academic studies and other sources that examine the health and environmental effects of chemicals.  Then they graded the products on a report card scale – A through F.   Like Steinemann, EWG found that some so-called green products don’t score so well (you can see some of their more surprising discoveries here).  When I looked up the fragrance-free laundry detergent I had used for years, I found that it scored a D.   I might not have been better off washing my clothes at home after all.  But there are plenty of other brands to choose from:  EWG awarded 37 brands of detergent an A and another 33 a B.

Maybe if I buy one of those brands, I’ll finally get my tank tops back.

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