NOTE: This is a guest post from Sarah Swanke, General Research Intern at the Environmental Working Group, the nation’s leading environmental health research and advocacy organization.
Attention Bargain Shoppers: Walgreens now sells a line of healthy home products called Ology! These new products are advertised as free of toxic chemicals, including ammonia, chlorine bleach, di- and tri-ethanolamines, phthalates and formaldehyde.
Walgreens says it is making safer products with modest prices. Does Walgreens’ move mean we can all breathe a little easier?
As it turns out, that depends on what you’re breathing.
The labels of most but not all Ology products say they contain “natural fragrance.” We have some significant concerns about “fragrance” because this term is a vague catchall that often hides undisclosed, potentially toxic chemicals.
“Natural” is a marketing word that means — not much. It doesn’t come with any regulations or health guarantees.
How harmful is “fragrance?” Depends on the product you’re using. For example, Ology’s cleaning sprays, when used as directed, release a fine mist of droplets that is likely to be inhaled by anyone around, including children and pets.
In a 2009 paper in the Journal of Environmental Health, Dr. Anne Steinemann of the University of Washington and her colleagues wrote that nearly one-third of consumers surveyed reported respiratory irritation from scented consumer products, notably 10 percent from scented laundry products and 20 percent from air fresheners. In a study published last year, she found that even products marketed as “green” can still emit harmful chemicals.
EWG tested fragrances in 2010 and found chemicals with long- term health consequences such as allergic sensitization, endocrine disruption and reproductive toxicity. Some citrus and pine oils used in cleaning products react with ozone, a common air pollutant, to form formaldehyde.
What You Can Do
Building an underwater castle with only rare plants oxygenating the completely fragrance-free fortress isn’t feasible, at least to me (I’m looking at you, Tony Stark). But there are a couple of practical measures we all can take to limit exposure to fragrance chemicals:
1. Don’t buy products that list the ingredient fragrance, even if it’s “natural.”
2. If the product doesn’t specify its ingredients, stick to those labeled fragrance-free or free and clear.
3. Clean in well-ventilated areas.
4. Avoid pump and aerosol sprays.