Here’s some stinky news about scented household products: even those bearing “green” labels contain chemicals that threaten human health. Research from the University of Washington shows that popular, fragranced products included ingredients that are classified as toxic or hazardous and some even contained carcinogens. Of the 25 items tested, there were 133 different chemicals detected, nearly a quarter of which are classified as toxic or hazardous under at least one US law.

Detergent_Flickr_Scorpions and CentaursThe items tested included air fresheners, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, soaps, hand sanitizers, lotions, deodorants, shampoos, disinfectants, all-purpose sprays, and dish detergent.

The research is out today in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review. The work was led by Anne Steinemann, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and of public affairs, and builds on a similar study that I covered for the Seattle P-I.

The researchers don’t make any conclusions about the health effects of these chemicals. But consumers who are concerned and want to curb their exposure have limited options for doing so. That’s because these ingredients aren’t found on product labels. Manufacturers can legally list “fragrance” as an ingredient without including any additional information about what that fragrance is actually made from.

These exposures can be particularly troubling when it comes to kids and babies. Fragrances can include plasticizing chemicals called phthalates. A separate 2008 study from the UW by Sheela Sathyanarayana found phthalates in the urine of babies whose parents used lotions and other products on them—including products specifically marketed for babies.

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  • Sathyanarayana explains the health risks of phthalates:

    In animal studies, exposure to some phthalates early in life can lead to a variety of adverse effects with specific toxicity to the male reproductive tract. Several phthalates are anti-androgens; they decrease fetal testosterone. Some studies have also documented toxicity to the female reproductive tract leading to early puberty.

    As a mom of a toddler, I know I can’t eliminate my daughter’s exposure to these chemicals, but I think that it makes sense to limit it. I don’t use a scented detergent, forgo fabric softeners and air fresheners, and the soaps and dish detergent that I use come from Ballard Organics, which doesn’t use phthalates or other suspect ingredients.

    But I’m one mom who’s paying more attention to this issue than most people have the time and energy for. What needs to happen is for the US and Canadian governments to do their jobs and make sure that consumer items are safe for use.

    The US Senate is reviewing the Household Product Labeling Act, which would require manufacturers to list ingredients in air fresheners, soaps, laundry supplies, and other household products. I’m less familiar with Canadian regulations, but they don’t look much better than what the US offers (for example, both allow a label of “fragrance free or unscented” in cosmetics but that actually allows for the use of a masking agent that simply hides the scents from the other ingredients.

    Detergent photo used under the Creative Commons license from Flickr user Scorpions and Centaurs.