Many Cleaning Products Release Harmful Volatile Organic Compounds, Researchers Warn

While VOCs were also found in "green" products, researchers recommended consumers use them to avoid the much higher levels of exposure linked to more conventional household cleaners.

Common everyday cleaning products, including those promoted as “green” or environmentally friendly, release hundreds of harmful chemicals that may increase the risk of serious health problems, according to the findings of new research.

In a study published last week in the journal Chemosphere, a prominent environmental activist group tested nearly 30 cleaning products, and found that they released more than 500 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are potentially harmful gases emitted by certain chemicals.

A wide variety of consumer products contain VOCs, including cleaning products, paint, air fresheners, shampoos, cosmetics, feminine hygiene products, office equipment, and furniture. Some VOCs emit gases that have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, neurotoxicity, respiratory damage, irritation to the nose, eyes, and throat, headaches, and allergic reactions.

Researchers from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) conducted air emissions tests using air chambers for 28 conventional cleaning products and two air fresheners. They measured emissions after the products were applied to determine the level of VOCs emitted during use. Of the products tested, 14 were conventional cleaners, nine were green cleaners with fragrance, and seven were fragrance-free green cleaners.

Some of the brands included Clorox, Comet, Zep, Bona, Windex, and Martha Stewart. Some of the “green” brands included Dr. Bronner’s Castille soap, Biokleen, ECOS, and Babyganics.

According to the findings, the products tested released a total of 530 VOCs, with 205 additional VOCs that were detected below the limits of concern. A total of 193 VOCs detected were considered hazardous by California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control Candidate Chemicals List or the European Chemical Agency’s Classification and Labeling Inventory.

EWG researchers concluded that every conventional cleaning product emitted an average of 22 VOCs, but some emitted nearly 100. Green products emitted an average of 15 VOCs each, and fragrance-free green products emitted an average of four per product.

The five products with the highest hazard levels of VOCs were conventional cleaners, according to EWG researchers. The chemicals emitted included 2-butoxyethanol, isopropanol, toluene, and chloroform.

Green Cleaners Safer, But Still Often Emit VOCs

The data indicates most conventional cleaning products are exposing users to dozens up to hundreds of harmful emissions. But consumers are also exposed to many harmful chemicals from so-called green cleaning products and fragrance-free green cleaning products believed to be less harmful to human health.

However, while VOC emissions were widespread, the number and concentrations of VOCs in green products and fragrance-free products were significantly lower than in conventional cleaners, the researchers determined.

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Green products are advertised as healthier or natural and labeled as non-toxic and not containing harmful chemicals. Green products are often tested and given third-party certification for safety or environmental features.

“Overall, this analysis suggests that the use of ‘green’ cleaning products, especially fragrance-free products, may reduce exposure to VOC emissions,” the researchers concluded.

The EWG called for more studies to determine the true level of VOC exposure experienced by the average consumer. They emphasized the need for increased ingredient disclosure and asthma warnings for cleaning products.

In the meantime, if consumers want to avoid most VOCs, the researchers recommended using green and fragrance-free products.


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