Thousands of Tons of Toxic Chemicals Are Released Into American Homes Each Year

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Key Takeaways

  • Dozens of different types of consumer products contain chemicals that emit airborne toxins called volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

  • Formaldehyde is found in many personal care products, including nail polish, shampoo and makeup

  • Cleaners, art supplies, laundry detergents, adhesives and mothballs also can emit VOCs

TUESDAY, May 2, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Many common household products emit airborne toxins that can harm your health in ways up to and including cancer, a new study reports.

Dozens of different types of consumer products contain toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chemicals that escape as gases and accumulate in indoor air, researchers from the Silent Spring Institute and the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), reported.

More than 100 types of products contain VOCs that can cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, according to their report published May 2 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

More than 5,000 tons of VOCs were released from consumer products in California in 2020, the researchers estimated.

The investigators identified 30 categories of products that deserve special scrutiny because they frequently contain harmful chemicals and may pose the greatest health risk.

Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, was the most common harmful VOC. It was found in nail polish, shampoo, makeup and many other types of personal care products.

Other products that emit VOCs included cleaners, art supplies, laundry detergents, mothballs and adhesives.

“This study is the first to reveal the extent to which toxic VOCs are used in everyday products of all types that could lead to serious health problems,” lead author Kristin Knox, a scientist at Silent Spring Institute, said in an institute news release. “Making this information public could incentivize manufacturers to reformulate their products and use safer ingredients.”

For this study, Knox and her colleagues gathered data from the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which for more than three decades has tracked VOCs in consumer products in an effort to reduce smog. When exposed to sunlight, VOCs react with other air pollutants to form ozone.

The CARB regularly surveys companies that sell products in California, collecting information on products ranging from hair spray to windshield wiper fluid. The data includes information on VOC concentrations within the products and how much of each type is sold in the state.

The researchers focused on 33 VOCs listed under California’s right-to-know law, Proposition 65, because they are most potentially harmful to human health.

The research team said they’re especially concerned by products used on the job because workers often use many different types.

For example, nail and hair salon workers use nail polishes, polish removers, artificial nail adhesives, hair straighteners and other cosmetics. These types of products combined contain as many as nine different harmful VOCs.

Janitors using a combination of general cleaners, degreasers, detergents and maintenance products could be exposed to more than 20 harmful VOCs on the job, the researchers said.

“The same thing goes for auto and construction workers. All these exposures add up and might cause serious harm,” said co-author Dr. Meg Schwarzman, a physician and environmental health scientist at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

Adhesives alone can contain more than a dozen different VOCs, potentially exposing workers to many different toxins from just one type of product, the study authors warned.

“At the most basic level, workers deserve to know what they’re exposed to,” Schwarzman continued. “But, ultimately, they deserve safer products and this study should compel manufacturers to make significant changes to protect workers’ health.”

The researchers urged manufacturers to reformulate their products and replace toxic VOCs with safer ingredients. They also encouraged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to add more VOC-emitting chemicals to those regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

The EPA, meanwhile, recommends that people increase ventilation when using products that emit VOCs, and read labels carefully.

More information

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has more about volatile organic compounds.

SOURCE: Silent Spring Institute, news release, May 2, 2023

What This Means For You

Working in beauty salons, and the construction and auto industries could expose certain workers to many types of toxins.

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