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Hidden Hazards Not Labelled in “All-Natural” Products

A University of Melbourne researcher has found that common consumer products, including those marketed as “green”, “all-natural”, “non-toxic” and “organic”, emit a range of compounds that could harm human health and air quality. However, the presence of these volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is not disclosed to the public.

Dr Anne Steinemann investigated and compared VOCs emitted from 37 different products, such as air fresheners, cleaning products, laundry supplies and personal care products, including those with certifications and claims of “green” and “organic”. Both fragranced and fragrance-free products were tested.

The study, published in Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health, found 156 different VOCs emitted from the 37 products, with an average of 15 VOCs per product. Of these 156 VOCs, 42 are classified as toxic or hazardous under US federal laws, and each product emitted at least one of these chemicals.

The study revealed that emissions of carcinogenic air pollutants from “green” fragranced products were not significantly different from regular fragranced products.

In total, more than 550 volatile ingredients were emitted from these products, but fewer than 3% were disclosed on any product label or material safety data sheet.

“The paradox is that most of our exposure to air pollutants occurs indoors, and a primary source is consumer products,” Steinemann said. “But the public lacks full and accurate information on the ingredients in these products. Our indoor air environments are essentially unregulated and unmonitored.”

The most common chemicals in fragranced products were terpenes, which were not found in fragrance-free versions. Terpenes readily react with ozone in the air to generate a range of additional pollutants, such as formaldehyde and ultrafine particles.

Consumer products sold in Australia, the US and around the world are not required to list all ingredients, or any ingredients in a chemical mixture called a “fragrance” or “parfum”.

“Given the lack of information, consumers may choose products with claims such as green, natural or organic, but those claims are largely untested,” Steinemann said.