Artificial Fragrance

Why are products scented with fragrances cook up in a lab? Soap, laundry detergent, fabric softener, room fresheners, shampoo. hair conditioner.

The simple answer is that it promotes sales. And what has happened over the past decades is that the addition of artificial fragrances to products has become the norm. It is the default. It is now what your nose expects. We’re surrounded by it, like cell phones and other wireless technologies. It’s everywhere. You can’t imagine life without it. You might notice its absence more than its presence—unless, of course, you’re one of the many people who react badly to artificial fragrance.

Little research has been done on the health effects of these pervasive substances. What research there is should concern us. Anne Steinemann at the University of Washington recently published research under the title “Fragranced consumer products and undisclosed ingredients” in the Environmental Impact Assessment Review.

As the study’s title suggests, Dr. Steinemann found a number of toxic substances not listed on product labels. These ingredients were also not on the manufacturer’s material safety data sheet (MSDS), a document used by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to protect workers who handle materials used in manufacturing.

If these ingredients aren’t listed anywhere, you might wonder how Dr. Steinemann identified them. She used standard processes called gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify volatile organic compounds (VOCs) contained in six products: three air fresheners and three laundry products. The air fresheners she tested were a solid disk commonly used in lavatories, a wall-mounted mister used in schools and medical institutions, and an evaporator that plugs into an electrical socket used in both homes and institutions. The laundry products she tested were a dryer sheet brand, a liquid fabric softener, and a liquid detergent.

Dr. Steinemann found 58 specific VOCs. Some that she found were ethanol, acetaldehyde, acetone, benzaldehyde, chloromethane, ethyl acetate, and many, many more that are regulated as toxic or hazardous by one or another Federal regulatory agency. Dr. Steinemann discusses the regulatory environment for these products in her article. In essence, manufacturers of these products are free to put whatever artificial fragrance they want in their products and tell no one about it by cloaking that information as a trade secret.

The Fragrance Materials Association of the United States is the fragrance industry’s trade organization, to fragrance what the AMA is to medicine. Cathy Cook, a representative of the Association, responded to Dr. Steinemann’s research by saying, “We are certain that, when used in compliance with standards, these fragrance ingredients are safe and can be used … with confidence.” What standards? There are, for all practical purposes, none.

In other words, pay no attention to the science. Your clothes smell fresh and bright. Your home and workplace and your children’s school smells like a spring day. Isn’t that great? And best of all, you get to enjoy artificial fragrance everywhere you go!

Two years ago researchers at UC Berkeley’s Indoor Environment Laboratory prepared a report for the California Air Resources Board on the indoor air chemistry of common cleaning products. Many of the VOCs released from these products are toxic just by themselves. But once in the air these chemicals do what chemicals like to do: they react with each other. So two non-toxic chemicals can react to produce a third that is toxic. Or two toxic chemicals can react to produce a third that is more toxic that the original two individually.

Dr. Steinemann notes in her article that she was unable to evaluate these secondary atmospheric reactions, but that they are almost certainly going on. She also notes that we know virtually nothing about the long-term effects from exposures to these ubiquitous chemicals. The people who react to this stuff might be lucky. They avoid fragranced products like the plague. For those who don’t suffer an acute reaction and so don’t avoid artificial fragrance, what happens to their health after 20 to 40 years of exposure?

Once again, industry is conducting an uncontrolled medical experiment on you and me.

So stop buying this stuff. You don’t need it. It’s acutely toxic to many people. And it’s likely to have chronic health effects for the rest of us.