Hidden toxins found in ‘green,’ ‘all-natural,’ and ‘organic’ products
Fewer than three percent of volatile ingredients identified
March 8, 2015
A University of Melbourne researcher has found that common consumer products, including those marketed as “green,” “all-natural,” “non-toxic,” and “organic,” emit a range of compounds that could harm human health and air quality. But most of these ingredients are not disclosed to the public.
Prof. Anne Steinemann* investigated and compared volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from 37 different products, such as air fresheners, cleaning products, laundry supplies, and personal care products. Both fragranced and fragrance-free products were tested.
The study, published in the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health, found 156 different VOCs emitted from the 37 products, with an average of 15 VOCs per product. Of these 156 VOCs, 42 are classified as toxic or hazardous under U.S. federal laws, and each product emitted at least one of these chemicals.
Carcinogens not listed
Findings revealed that emissions of carcinogenic hazardous air pollutants from “green” fragranced products were not significantly different from regular fragranced products. (“Fragranced” are those with an added or intentional fragrance or scent. A “fragrance”is typically a mixture of several dozen to several hundred chemicals, with an estimated 80% — 90% synthetically derived.)
In total, more than 550 volatile ingredients were emitted from these products, but fewer than three percent were disclosed on any product label or material safety data sheet (MSDS).
The most common chemicals in fragranced products were terpenes, which were not in fragrance-free versions. Terpenes readily react with ozone in the air to generate a range of additional pollutants, such as formaldehyde and ultrafine particles.
At this time, consumer products sold in Australia, the U.S., and around the world are not required to list all ingredients, or any ingredients in a chemical mixture called ‘fragrance’.
Products selected are commonly used in Australia, the U.S. and other countries in a range of environments, including homes, schools, hospitals, workplaces, hotels, restaurants, stores, residential buildings, parks, child care and aged care facilities, gyms, homeless shelters, government buildings, airports, planes and public transport.
Gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) headspace analysis was used to identify VOCs emitted from 37 products, representing air fresheners and deodorizers (sprays, gels, solids, oils, and disks), laundry products (detergents, dryer sheets, and fabric softeners), cleaning supplies (all-purpose cleaners, window and surface cleaners, disinfectants, and dishwashing liquids), and personal care products (soaps, hand sanitisers, sunscreens, lotions, baby lotions, deodorants, shampoos, and baby shampoo).
Ingredients in consumer products and in fragrance formulations, are exempt from full disclosure to the public.
For laundry products, cleaning supplies, and air fresheners, labels do not need to list all ingredients, or the presence of a fragrance in the product.
For personal care products and cosmetics, labels need to list ingredients, except the general term “fragrance” or “parfum” may be used instead of listing the individual ingredients in the fragrance.
For all products, material safety data sheets do not need to list all ingredients.
Fragrance ingredients are exempt from full disclosure in any product internationally.
* Professor of Civil Engineering, and the Chair of Sustainable Cities, from the Department of Infrastructure Engineering, Melbourne School of Engineering, University of Melbourne
Abstract of Volatile emissions from common consumer products
Consumer products emit a range of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can affect air quality and health. Risk reduction is hindered because of lack of information about specific product emissions. This study investigates and compares VOCs emitted from 37 common products (air fresheners, laundry products, cleaners, and personal care products), including those with certifications and claims of green and organic. It extends a prior study of 25 consumer products by adding 12 more products, including fragrance-free versions of fragranced products, representing the first such comparison in the scientific literature. This study found 156 different VOCs emitted from the 37 products, with an average of 15 VOCs per product. Of these 156 VOCs, 42 VOCs are classified as toxic or hazardous under US federal laws, and each product emitted at least one of these chemicals. Emissions of carcinogenic hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) from green fragranced products were not significantly different from regular fragranced products. The most common chemicals in fragranced products were terpenes, which were not in fragrance-free versions. Of the volatile ingredients emitted, fewer than 3 % were disclosed on any product label or material safety data sheet (MSDS). Because health effects depend on many factors, not only individual ingredients, this study makes no claims regarding possible risks. However, knowledge of product composition can be an important step to understand, assess, and reduce potential exposures and effects.