Oftentimes when walking down the street, riding my bike, or simply taking out the trash, I find myself walking past the front of homes and being bombarded by strong, almost perfume-like odors. Depending on neighbor activity, temperature, and wind patterns, these odors may come right into my home, and linger for quite some time. Sometimes I will give one of my children’s friends a ride home only to discover that the compounds in his clothing are releasing into my car’s interior at an alarming rate – so much so that I have to roll down windows in order to breathe clearly. Can a dryer sheet cause an indoor air quality issue?
These odors, peddled with names like “springtime fresh” and “wild orchid”, are given off by dryer sheets – that laundry additive found in so many American homes air quality. These scented laundry products may contain up to several hundred chemicals just in the fragrance alone.1 And because of the fact that I seem to be exposed to these air quality odors just about every day, I began wondering exactly what compounds I was inhaling into my body, and what some of the potential toxic effects could be for me and my family.
A study was carried out by Anne Steinemann and colleagues at the University of Washington in order to determine what volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were emitted from dryer vents when a top selling laundry detergent and popular dryer sheet were used. Using GC/MC analysis on dryer-vent emissions, they discovered a total of 29 different VOCs were emitted from the vents, including acetaldehyde, benzene, ethylbenzene, methanol, m/p-xylene, o-xylene, and toluene.2
What I found quite concerning was the presence of benzene, a known human carcinogen. Thus, the remainder of this article will focus on this compound – it’s chemical properties, possible exposure routes, potential health effects, and what exactly happens when benzene enters the body.
Benzene is a colorless to light yellow aromatic liquid. Its exposure routes include inhalation, ingestion, skin contact, eye contact, and skin absorption. Its target organs are the central nervous system, respiratory system, bone marrow, blood, eyes, and skin.
Some of the health effects associated with acute benzene exposure via inhalation are drowsiness, unconsciousness, rapid/irregular heartbeat, and death. Effects associated with ingestion include convulsions, stomach irritation, and vomiting. Long-term exposure has been linked with bone marrow damage, which in turn led to anemia and excessive bleeding.
As far as carcinogenicity is concerned, benzene is known to cause acute myelocytic leukemia. However, there is also evidence that there is a heightened risk of chronic myeloid and chronic lymphocytic leukemia as well as for an increase in total lymphatic and hematopoietic neoplasms. Evidence for this has come from experiments in which benzene exposure depresses all lympho-hematopoietic cell lines.
Needless to say, benzene is clearly toxic to the human body. Its multiple routes of exposure, immunotoxic and genotoxic capabilities, and its ability to cause various types of cancer classify this compound as clearly quite dangerous. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the fact that something as commonplace as a dryer sheet can lead to some level of exposure.
What’s perhaps more disturbing is the fact that these manufacturers are not required by law to list these ingredients anywhere on the package. Thus, unknowing individuals end up exposing not only themselves, but many others to potential health effects. It is time that the United States government require that the manufacturers of household products list all chemicals that can be found within them.
Some may argue that the potential exposure to benzene through dryer vent exhaust is negligible, and that no observable effects have been seen at concentrations reported in the studies of air quality. This may be true; however, it should be reiterated here that over 29 different VOCs were detected in the exhaust. One would be shortsighted if one did not leave room for the possibility of synergistic or cooperative effects between various chemicals that would introduce additional toxic potentials to the air quality.
It is time for the government to act on this matter. Consumer products – especially scented household items such as dryer sheets – are sold to the public with little to no toxicological information. It is absurd to think that governmental agencies require fast food franchises to post the quantity of trans fat and calories in a hamburger, but that this same government does not require notification that carcinogens are present in common grocery store purchases. Just as food manufacturers are required to list ingredients in their products, so too should the makers of products that are used by millions of Americans on a daily basis.