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Study Finds Unhealthy Chemicals in “Green” Home and Personal Products

By on April 22nd, 2015 Categories: Uncategorized

When it comes to keeping breast cancer risk as low as it can be, our best bet is to avoid using cleaning and personal products that contain chemicals linked to cancer. Some of us may be drawn to products labeled “green,” or “natural” because these words suggest that the manufacturer has carefully checked the safety of the product’s ingredients. And on this Earth Day 2015, when we’re thinking about keeping our environments healthy, you might be thinking about buying more of these products.

Still, a new study has found that risky compounds are released into the air we breathe by common cleaning and personal care products, even some of those labeled “green.” Later in this column, I’ll tell you about steps you can take to limit your exposure to these compounds.

The study of 37 products, published in the March 4, 2015 issue of the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health, found that the products released 156 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are chemicals that easily become gases, get into the air we breathe, and are considered indoor air pollutants. Forty-two of the VOCs released by products in the study are considered toxic or hazardous under U.S. law. Every product tested released at least one of the hazardous VOCs.

Read the abstract of “Volatile emissions from common consumer products.”

The researchers looked at and compared four types of products:

  • air fresheners
  • laundry products
  • cleaning supplies
  • personal-care items

in four categories:

  • green
  • regular
  • fragranced
  • fragrance-free

When researchers analyzed the products, they found that:

  • 80% of the VOCs found most often in fragranced items were in both regular versions of the products and versions of the products claiming to be “green,” “organic,” or “natural”
  • 75% of the hazardous VOCs were the same in regular and green products
  • 7 of 17 green products tested gave off at least one hazardous VOC

The most common hazardous VOCs in fragranced products were terpenes, including limonene and pinene, which come from the peels of citrus fruits and from other plants. Limonene and pinene have a citrus or pine odor. Terpenes react with ozone — which is found in smog and given off by old electric motors and air purifiers — to produce formaldehyde, which is linked to cancer. Terpenes were not found in fragrance-free products.

Other hazardous VOCs found in “green” products included acetone, ethanol, and butane.

The researchers said that although each product released an average of 15 VOCs, some of them linked to cancer, 97% of the overall ingredients and 94% of the hazardous ones weren’t on the products’ labels.

At this time, consumer products sold in the United States and many other countries aren’t required to list all or certain ingredients, particularly chemical mixtures called “fragrance.”

The researchers said that this lack of information may lead people to buy products with pure-sounding names. The researchers also said that people might rely on buying guides that rate items based only on the ingredients listed on the label, even though there could be hazardous ingredients that are not listed.

It’s not clear what the health risks are for the amounts of VOCs released from the products in this study. It’s also not clear how much of each VOC each product released. The study focused on identifying the VOCs released, not measuring how much of each was released.

What can we do with this concerning but limited information? To be safe, use personal care products in well-ventilated areas. Open the window or turn on the bathroom fan when using products such as dryer sheets, fabric softeners, deodorizing sprays, all-purpose cleaners, dishwashing detergents, hand sanitizers, and lotions. You also may want to:

  • choose fragrance-free products and read the label to make sure “fragrance” isn’t listed as an ingredient
  • look for products labeled “low VOC”

For more information on choosing safer cleaning products, read our “Think Pink, Clean Green” column.

Learn how to make your own cleaning products.

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president, and chief medical officer of Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 14 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.

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