Common US consumer products release toxic compounds, new research shows

Dangerous chemicals that can cause cancer and air pollution are often found in cosmetics, personal care products and cleaners Some of the most common consumer products probably release 5,000 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in American homes annually, new research on the dangerous class of chemicals finds.

The research, which analyzed ingredient lists across dozens of product categories, found the most concerning levels in general purpose cleaners, art supplies and laundry detergents, while the individual product that emitted the most VOCs was mothballs. The sum of the exposures present a health risk for average consumers and especially those working with many of the products in a professional capacity.

The findings are “alarming”, said Kristin Knox, a scientist at Silent Spring Institute and study co-author. “It just highlights that there are a lot of products that people use every day that contain many of these harmful chemicals,” she added. VOCs are a widely used class of chemicals that can detach from or are emitted from surfaces or products and move through the air. Many pose health risks and are carcinogenic, or bond with other chemicals to form air pollution.

The study is the first analysis to make use of data manufacturers are required to submit to the state of California under its truth-in-labeling law, Proposition 65, and which in some cases otherwise wouldn’t be made publicly available. The ingredients are submitted to the California air resources board, which tracks 33 VOCs in consumer products in an effort to reduce smog.

In the presence of sunlight, VOCs react with other air pollutants to form ozone, the main ingredient in smog. However, the study was limited to VOCs, and many products can contain other chemicals that are not identified. The peer-reviewed research was conducted by the University of California, Berkley, and the Silent Spring Institute environmental non-profit. Overall, the research found more than 100 products with VOCs, and 30 – including a dozen different types of personal care products – that researchers say deserve special scrutiny because the goods frequently contain VOCs and may pose the greatest health risk.

VOCs can be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin, and many products contained more than one kind of the compounds. “It’s not just one product at a time, like your dish detergent, it’s the fact that we use multiple products every day and each of these products could have different [VOCs] in them, so all of this really adds up in our daily lives,” said Robin Dodson, a scientist with Silent Spring Institute and study co-author.

The most common VOC was formaldehyde, which was listed as an ingredient in nail polish, shampoo, makeup and other kinds of personal care items. Industry adds the substance to function as a preservative. Mothballs, meanwhile, emit about 300 tons of 1,4-dichlorobenzene, a likely carcinogen that comprises about 99% of the ingredients in the insect repellant, though Knox noted that safer alternatives, like cedar chips, exist.

Among the most toxic ingredients was diethanolamine, which the EU has banned for use in cosmetics, but was found in 40 different US products, including cosmetics and personal care items. It is used as an emulsifier. “The fact that it is in so many products is kind of worrisome,” Dodson said.

The risk is greatest for those who work professionally with VOC-containing products and are consistently exposed to one or multiple chemicals in products. Hair and nail salon workers are likely regularly subjected to about nine VOCs covered by Prop 65 that are added to nail polishes, nail polish removers, artificial nail adhesives, hair straighteners and other cosmetics. Janitors, meanwhile, could use a combination of general cleaners, degreasers, detergents and other maintenance products which could expose them to more than 20 VOCs covered by Prop 65.

Consumers can take some steps to protect themselves, like reading labels and identifying dangerous chemicals, when possible, or using products outdoors. Researchers identified 11 VOCs they say manufacturers should eliminate from products because of their high toxicity, volatility and widespread use, and five that should be banned under the nation’s toxic substances laws. The authors say they also hope California state regulators will use the analysis to identify priority products and chemicals that could be regulated more tightly in consumer goods. “We’re handing them a couple of good ideas based on the analyses,” Knox said.