Why didn't you disclose brand names in your studies? Dr. Steinemann chose not to disclose brand names for two main reasons. First, the identification of brands was not central to the objectives of her research. Second, she found similar emissions of hazardous air pollutants among all fragranced products tested, even ones called natural and organic, and she wanted to avert any implication that brands other than those tested would be of less possible concern.
Is exposure to fragranced products associated with adverse health effects?
Dr. Steinemann found that 34.% of Americans and 33.0% of Australians report adverse health effects when exposed to fragranced consumer products. For instance, 20.4% of Americans report migraine headaches, asthma attacks, breathing difficulties, or other health problems when exposed to air fresheners or deodorizers. Are the fragrances in these products natural or synthetic?
Studies have found that "natural fragrances" can nonetheless contain synthetic compounds. Further, a review found that synthetic chemicals, derived from petroleum, constitute most of the raw materials used in fragrance formulations (Somyogi et al. 1998).
Are "natural" or "organic" fragranced products any different?
Not really. In Dr. Steinemann's research, emissions from products with "natural fragrance," "organic fragrance," or "essential oils" were not significantly different from regular fragranced products. All fragranced products tested emitted potentially hazardous compounds. The terms "natural" and "organic" are not regulated for fragranced products.
What about essential oils?
Emissions from products with "essential oils" were also not significantly different from regular fragranced products. All tested fragranced products with essential oils emitted potentially hazardous compounds.
What about products with "perfume"—is that a fragrance mixture?
Yes. Fragrance mixtures can also be called "perfume" — or "parfum" or "aroma."
Why exactly does a fragrance in a product cause health problems?
Dr. Steinemann's research is investigating this question. She is now looking at toxicological differences between fragrance chemicals in products and fragrance chemicals in nature.
Nearly half of the products tested emitted chemicals that have "no safe exposure level." What does that mean?
These chemicals are classified as carcinogenic Hazardous Air Pollutants by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA's position is that not even one molecule of exposure is safe or risk-free.
The companies say the chemicals are at low levels, so there's no need for worry. Is there? Low levels of chemicals can still be associated with adverse effects. First, low-level exposures add up. Second, low levels may have higher risks than high levels, for some chemicals, because of non-monotonic dose-response relationships (lower levels have higher effects). Third, product chemicals come in mixtures, which can create additive and synergistic risks, and for which we have little toxicological information. Fourth, no safe exposure level, as discussed above, applies to carcinogenic hazardous air pollutants. Fifth, people are reporting adverse effects at these levels, even if low. Rather than say - "the levels are low, so there's no concern" - it is important to look at the inverse question - "people are reporting adverse effects - what are the levels?"
Can the products emit more than volatile organic compounds?
Yes. While Dr. Steinemann examined volatile organic compounds (VOCs), other classes of chemicals, such as semi-volatile organic compounds (e.g., phthalates and musks), are often emitted from fragranced products.
Secondary pollutants can also be generated. For instance, fragrance terpenes (e.g., limonene, the most common chemical found in these fragranced products) react readily with ozone (both indoors and outdoors) to generate a range of hazardous pollutants, such as formaldehyde. What can we do to minimize potential exposures and health risks?
Choose products without any fragrance, scent, essential oils, or perfumes (including any "masking fragrance," which unscented products may contain).
Instead of air fresheners or deodorizers, use ventilation. Air fresheners and deodorizers do not "clean" the air, but rather add potentially hazardous chemicals to an existing air quality problem.
Use simple products to clean, such as vinegar and baking soda (real baking soda, not "baking soda" detergent).
Somogyi L, Janshekar H, Takei N. Aroma chemicals and the fragrance and flavor industry. Stanford Research Institute International, CEH Review, 1998, p. 503.5000F.