Study Highlights Hidden Dangers in Everyday Products -- Even the "Green" Ones

By Amy Westervelt

A first-of-its-kind, peer-reviewed study published Environmental Health Perspectives today reveals an alarming number of unlabeled chemicals of concern in commonly used household and personal care products. The study was funded by Silent Spring Institute, which had 213 consumer products (in 50 categories) independently tested by Battelle Labs in Ohio for 66 specific chemicals associated with either endocrine disruption or asthma.

The study included both conventional products, such as Windex original glass cleaner and Irish Spring deodorant soap, as well as "alternative" products marketed as containing safer ingredients than their conventional counterparts, such as Seventh Generation Free and Clear natural glass and surface cleaner and Tom's of Maine natural moisturizing body bar. Lab tests detected 55 chemicals of concern-including parabens, phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), antimicrobials, cyclosiloxanes, glycol ethers, and fragrances-in the conventional product samples tested and also found 41 concerning chemical compounds in all but 11 alternative products. Very few of these chemicals were included on product labels.

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Some of your everyday products contain hidden dangers.Some of your everyday products contain hidden dangers.In its release of the study, Silent Spring Institute cited the following findings as particularly important:

  • Vinyl products, such as shower curtains and pillow protectors, contain more than 10% by weight of the phthalate DEHP, an endocrine disruptor (anti-androgen) that has also been associated with increased respiratory symptoms in some studies.
  • Fragranced products - including air fresheners, dryer sheets, and perfume - and sunscreens had the largest number of target chemicals and some of the highest concentrations. Fragrances can trigger asthma and some have been shown to mimic estrogen, including making breast cancer cells grow in laboratory studies.
  • In addition to the labeled ingredients, alternative sunscreens contained up to 7 target chemicals that were unlabeled, including estrogenic UV filters. The alternative sunscreen with the highest number of target chemicals was a product marketed for babies, children, and sensitive adults.
  • A consumer who used the tested alternative surface cleaner, tub and tile cleaner, laundry detergent, bar soap, shampoo and conditioner, facial cleanser and lotion, and toothpaste would be exposed to 19 of the target compounds.
This study is just a start; there are obviously many thousands more products out there to test, and more research is still needed on the effects of these chemicals on human health. Nonetheless, environmental health advocates hope it will provide a jumping-off point for more research into how the public is exposed to various chemicals. "There's been a lot of work done on exposure to these chemicals in average households, and we know that these chemicals are found in air and dust in peoples' homes, and the CDC [Center for Disease Control] has shown that we find them in our bodies as well," says the study's lead author Dr. Robin Dodson. "Now we're trying to understand where the chemicals are coming from, and how people are exposed to them."

More information about such exposure could spur policy makers to impose more consistent and stringent labeling requirements on manufacturers of products in various categories to help consumers avoid exposure where possible. "Since many of these products aren't fully labeled we really don't have the information we need on what chemicals are in everyday products," says Dr. Dodson.

There are certainly manufacturers out there that do disclose all of their ingredients on product labels, and many more that are working with advocates and non-governmental organizations to improve the transparency of their labels. The problem in many cases is that there's no one set of product labeling requirements across all categories of everyday consumer products.

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Is your soap harmful?Is your soap harmful?There's a patchwork of labeling requirements across product categories," Dodson continues, explaining that cosmetic products have different requirements than cleaning products. "For cleaning products there's virtually no labeling requirement - if they have any antibacterial or antimicrobial ingredient in them, then they have to include that on their label because the EPA considers those ingredients to be pesticides. Otherwise, what you'll typically see is "98% other" on cleaning product labels; there's really no information there. Getting more comprehensive labeling requirements could definitely help consumers make more informed choices."

Updates to current chemical regulation in the United States could also help consumers avoid exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. Currently efforts are underway to modernize both the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which governs personal care products, neither of which has been updated in decades. The Silent Spring study also provides a starting point for toxicologists looking into how various chemicals interact with each other. Although regulation is written on a chemical-by-chemical, product-by-product basis, the average consumer uses several products a day and is exposed to a variety of chemicals within those products. Little is known about how various chemicals of concern interact with each other, or what levels of these chemicals the average American is exposed to in the course of a day. This study pinpoints some chemical mixes that are thought to be particularly troublesome.

DEHP [a phthalate commonly used in polyvinyl chloride (PVC)] often co-occurs with fragrance, which can trigger asthma and has also been shown to mimic estrogen, for example, so let's study that mix," Dr. Dodson says. "Not just from a toxicology standpoint, but also to improve risk assessment."

Perhaps most surprising about the study's findings was the use of various chemicals of concern in products marketed as "green" or "natural." It's not just that finding out their favorite non-toxic product actually contains potentially harmful chemicals is likely to make consumers angry, but also that manufacturers could feasibly be putting themselves at risk of legal action for being in violation of the Federal Trade Commission's green guides. Those guides state:

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Section 5 of the FTC Act makes unlawful deceptive acts and practices in or affecting commerce. The Commission's criteria for determining whether an express or implied claim has been made are enunciated in the Commission's Policy Statement on Deception. In addition, any party making an express or implied claim that presents an objective assertion about the environmental attribute of a product, package or service must, at the time the claim is made, possess and rely upon a reasonable basis substantiating the claim. A reasonable basis consists of competent and reliable evidence. In the context of environmental marketing claims, such substantiation will often require competent and reliable scientific evidence, defined as tests, analyses, research, studies or other evidence based on the expertise of professionals in the relevant area, conducted and evaluated in an objective manner by persons qualified to do so, using procedures generally accepted in the profession to yield accurate and reliable results.

So what's a health-minded consumer to do if the labels of even "green" products can't be trusted? Dodson suggests starting by simply reducing the number of manufactured cleaning and personal care products you use. She also recommends avoiding two often-toxic ingredients that are required to be listed on product labels: fragrance and antibacterials. "Avoiding fragrance products can significantly reduce exposure to many of these compounds," she says. "Another one that's easy to avoid is antibacterials; people are often using them when they don't really need to, and they are typically labeled."

Silent Spring has prepared a list of other consumer tips, including looking for products with plant-based ingredients and using plain water, baking soda, and vinegar for cleaning. Perhaps surprisingly, the tip list also includes opting for shade, hats, and cover-ups for sun protection.

"The results of the tests on sunscreen are worrisome," Dodson says. "We tested four conventional and five alternative brands, and some were better than others, but all contained some of the concerning chemical compounds. We did only test five of the available alternative sunscreen products, so there may very well be one out there that doesn't contain any of these chemicals. That said, there may be times where it's best to use sunscreen, but if you can avoid it, and opt for shade and hats, then great."

"Sunscreen could really become the poster child for the green chemistry movement," Dodson adds. "Can we engineer something that is not an endocrine disruptor and that still protects from skin cancer?"

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