A 2011 study from fragrance sleuth Anne Steinemann, PhD, (a Rodale.com advisor) shows that carcinogenic chemicals typically found in vehicle exhaust are being released from household dryer vents when consumers use popular scented laundry products. "This is an interesting source of pollution because emissions from dryer vents are essentially unregulated and unmonitored," says lead study author Steinemann, professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs at University of Washington. "If they're coming out of a smokestack or tailpipe, they're regulated, but if they're coming out of a dryer vent, they're not."
THE DETAILS: Since no one regulates what comes out of these vents that spew into yards and city streets, and since regulations don't require laundry product companies to label any ingredients, Steinemann and team decided to take matters into their own hands. To determine what happens to laundry detergent and dryer sheet chemicals—and how they might wind up affecting our health—researchers purchased chemical-free organic towels and washed them with various popular detergents in washing machines that had been cleaned out with nontoxic vinegar. Then, they popped them in the dryer, captured emissions from dryer vents, and analyzed them in the lab.
When scented laundry detergent and dryer sheets were used, researchers detected up to 24 VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, that can trigger breathing problems and headaches. Compared to the control group (laundry washed and dried using detergents or dryer sheets), the scented laundry product dryer loads emitted seven hazardous air pollutants, including benzene and acetaldehyde—two compounds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists as carcinogens. (There's no safe exposure level for these air pollutants.) "These products can affect not only personal health, but also public and environmental health," says Steinemann. "The chemicals can go into the air, down the drain, and into water bodies."
Researchers conclude that in the study area of Seattle, toxic acetaldehyde emissions from the top-selling laundry detergent tested would be on par with 3 percent of acetaldehyde emissions from vehicle exhaust.
The study was published online in the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health.
WHAT IT MEANS: This latest study builds on previous research investigating toxic compounds in perfumes, scented lotions, and laundry products. Corporations don't have to label actual fragrance ingredients, but rather use "fragrance," "parfum," on personal care products (or nothing at all on laundry products). In reality, companies can use hundreds of different chemicals and just call them "fragrance." That's certainly safer
sounding than listing a cancer-causer like benzene.
And while Steinemann and company tested emissions coming out of the dryer vent, there's a chance some are leaking into your home or being released from your clean clothing, too.
To keep your household laundry operation safe, use these three easy tips. You'll probably wind up saving money in the process!
Here's how to choose safer laundry ingredients:
• Go fragrance free. Avoid any detergents, fabric softeners, and dryer sheets that boast artificial fragrances (these account for most on the market). Instead, look for unscented products made from plant sources. (Most conventional brands are made from petroleum and harbor petrochemicals.)
• Reach for white vinegar. For a cheaper and nontoxic fabric softener option, add ¼ to ½ cup of white vinegar to your laundry's rinse cycle. Don't worry, the vinegar smell dissipates within a few minutes.
• Make your own! Make homemade laundry detergent to bypass toxic compounds.
Here's one detergent recipe:
Easy Laundry Liquid
(works well in any temperature wash water)
1 cup + 2 quarts warm water
½ cup soap flakes or plain bar soap (unscented), grated
½ cup borax
½ cup washing soda
1. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a saucepan, add the soap flakes or gratings, and stir until the soap is melted. To speed the process, you can keep the pot on low heat until the soap melts.
2. Pour the melted soap into a large glass jar or jug and add the borax and washing soda. Stir or shake well until everything dissolves (I use a 1-gallon glass jug with a lid).
3. Add the 2 quarts of water and stir or shake until well mixed. Store with the lid on.
4. Shake your detergent before each use. The mixture thickens up and gets really goopy—that's just the way it is—and shaking breaks up the clumps and makes it easier to measure out. Use 1/8 to ¼ cup for each load of laundry, even if you have a front loader. This mixture doesn’t suds much, which is the concern with regular laundry detergents in front loaders.
For more, check out The Nickel Pincher: 3 Easy Homemade Laundry Detergents.