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Common household products expose people to dangerous chemicals

The Silent Spring Institute and the University of California, Berkeley, have published a groundbreaking study highlighting the prevalence of toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in common household and workplace products. The findings could lead to stronger chemical regulations and guide manufacturers in developing safer alternatives.

VOCs are chemicals that evaporate at room temperature and accumulate in indoor air. They are found in everyday household items such as shampoos, body lotions, cleaning products, mothballs, and paint removers. 

Exposure to these toxic compounds has been linked to various health issues, including cancer. Unfortunately, companies are not usually required to disclose the contents of their products or the amounts used, making it difficult to assess the potential health risks associated with exposure.

“This study is the first to reveal the extent to which toxic VOCs are used in everyday products of all types that could lead to serious health problems,” said study lead author Kristin Knox. “Making this information public could incentivize manufacturers to reformulate their products and use safer ingredients.”

How the study was done

To conduct the analysis, Knox and her colleagues used an unconventional data source: The California Air Resources Board (CARB). CARB has been monitoring VOCs in consumer products for over three decades as part of its efforts to reduce smog. VOCs react with other air pollutants in the presence of sunlight, forming ozone, the primary component of smog.

The researchers analyzed data from CARB’s Consumer Product Regulatory program, which collects information on a wide range of products sold in California, from hair sprays to windshield wiper fluids. Although CARB does not share data on specific products, it does provide details on the concentration of VOCs in various product categories and the sales volume of each category within the state.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, focused on 33 VOCs listed under California’s right-to-know law, Proposition 65. This law mandates that companies selling products in California must warn users if their products could expose them to significant amounts of these harmful chemicals, which are known to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.

What the researchers discovered

The team has discovered that over 100 types of products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) listed under California’s Proposition 65. The researchers identified 30 products, including a dozen different personal care items, that warrant particular attention due to their frequent use and potential health risks. The analysis did not include other toxic chemicals listed under Proposition 65, such as lead.

Occupational exposure to these toxic chemicals is a primary concern, as workers often use various products that may each contain at least one hazardous compound. 

Nail and hair salon workers, for example, are exposed to up to nine different Proposition 65 VOCs through their daily use of products like nail polish, polish remover, artificial nail adhesives, and hair straighteners. 

Janitors may be exposed to over 20 Proposition 65 VOCs through their use of general cleaners, degreasers, detergents, and other maintenance products.

“At the most basic level, workers deserve to know what they’re exposed to. But, ultimately, they deserve safer products and this study should compel manufacturers to make significant changes to protect workers’ health,” said Dr. Meg Schwarzman.

Top chemicals that the study recommends be eliminated

The study identified the top 11 chemicals listed under Proposition 65 that should be eliminated from products due to their high toxicity and widespread use. Among the findings were:

Formaldehyde was the most common Proposition 65 VOC found in personal care items such as nail polish, shampoo, makeup, and more.

Home-use products like general-purpose cleaners, art supplies, and laundry detergents contained the highest number of Proposition 65 VOCs.

Adhesives contained over a dozen different Proposition 65 VOCs, revealing that workers can be exposed to numerous toxic chemicals from using just one type of product.

Using the California Air Resources Board (CARB) data, the research team calculated that over 5,000 tons of volatile Proposition 65 chemicals were released from products in California in 2020, with nearly 300 tons coming from mothballs (1,4-dichlorobenzene) alone.

How to solve the problem

“This study shows how much work remains for product manufacturers and regulators nationwide, because the products in CARB’s database are sold throughout the U.S.,” said study co-author Claudia Polsky.

The study proposes solutions by identifying the types of products that manufacturers should reformulate to replace toxic VOCs with safer ingredients. 

Additionally, based on their findings, the experts suggest that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency consider regulating five more chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA): ethylene oxide, styrene, 1,3-dichloropropene, diethanolamine, and cumene.

By shedding light on the widespread use of toxic VOCs in everyday products, this study could play a crucial role in driving policy changes and motivating manufacturers to create safer alternatives. Ultimately, these efforts could result in better protection for consumers’ health and well-being.

More about volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a diverse group of carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature. They are present in a wide range of products, including paints, solvents, cleaning agents, pesticides, and personal care items. VOCs are emitted from various sources, such as industrial processes, vehicle exhaust, and even natural sources like plants.

Impact on humans: When inhaled, VOCs can have negative effects on human health, depending on the specific compound, concentration, and duration of exposure. Some of the potential health impacts of VOCs include:

Short-term effects

Exposure to VOCs can cause immediate symptoms like headaches, dizziness, eye and respiratory irritation, fatigue, and nausea. These symptoms usually resolve once the exposure is eliminated.

Long-term effects

Prolonged or chronic exposure to certain VOCs can result in more severe health issues, such as damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Some VOCs, like benzene and formaldehyde, are classified as human carcinogens and can increase the risk of cancer with long-term exposure.

Indoor air quality

VOCs are a major contributor to poor indoor air quality. They can be emitted from household items such as cleaning products, building materials, furniture, and electronic devices. As buildings become more energy-efficient and airtight, indoor VOC concentrations can accumulate to levels that pose health risks.

VOCs have several environmental impacts, including the following:

Ozone formation and smog

VOCs react with nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the presence of sunlight to form ground-level ozone, a key component of smog. Ozone is a harmful air pollutant that can cause respiratory issues, reduce crop yields, and damage ecosystems.

Climate change

Some VOCs are greenhouse gases, meaning they can contribute to global warming by trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. Methane, for example, is a potent greenhouse gas and a significant VOC.

Stratospheric ozone depletion

Certain VOCs, like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), can deplete the ozone layer in the stratosphere. 

This depletion allows more harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation to reach the Earth’s surface, increasing the risk of skin cancer and cataracts, as well as harming ecosystems and reducing crop yields.

Due to the potential risks posed by VOCs, efforts have been made to regulate their use and emissions, as well as to promote the development of safer alternatives.


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