Our Sweet Poisons

Most of us would not choose to live next door to a toxic dump for fear of contamination.  Many of us have concerns about what our local factories are spewing into the air or dumping in the local river.  However, on the home front, Americans are having a 24/7 love affair with sweet smelling toxic chemicals.  We are rubbing and spraying them onto our skin with perfumes and lotions. We are marinating our clothes and bed linens in toxic soups with our detergents and fabric softeners, then we are heat-fixing the toxins in with dryer sheets. We are vaporizing and spraying sweet but toxic fumes in every nook and cranny of our living and work quarters with “air freshener”.

An unprecedented global experiment that will test the limits of toxic exposure on human health is underway, and each of us is the guinea pig.  There have been 75,000 new chemicals registered with the EPA since the 1940’s and of these, only a tiny minority have had any form of testing for safety.  None of these chemicals have been tested in combined groups to simulate the real life facts of chronic, multiple exposures.  We know that many of these chemicals are accumulating in human fat tissue, blood, breast milk, as well as our drinking water supplies, lakes and streams, and fish and wildlife. 

In fragrance products alone there are at least 5,000 different chemicals used in their production, and only 20-30% have had any testing for their human toxicity.  These fragrance products include those for personal use – perfumes, colognes, soaps, deodorants, lotions, hair products—and those for household use – cleaners, air fresheners, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, etc. 

Perfume and cologne can contain hundreds of chemical ingredients just in one product. A 1986 National Academy of Science report states that 95% of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum.  These include benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and many other known toxins and sensitizers capable of causing cancer, birth defects, allergic reactions, and nervous system disorders.  Fragrances were listed along with insecticides, solvents, and heavy metals as categories of chemicals that should be given high priority for neurotoxicity testing.  Amazingly, some perfume ingredients are the same toxic chemicals found on the EPA’s hazardous waste lists.

Household products such as fabric softeners and dryer sheets also contain chemicals that are on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste List as well as chemicals that have been shown to cause cancer, birth defects, allergic reactions, and nervous system disorders.  The so-called “air fresheners” contain the highly toxic chemical phenol, as well as a known carcinogen, formaldehyde. 

It is not necessary to ingest these products through our mouths to be harmed. The substances in both household and personal care products are inhaled into our lungs, get into our brain via olfactory neural pathways, an are efficiently absorbed through our skin.  If these same chemicals are used in other industries they are highly regulated. However, the fragrance industry is basically self-regulating and does not have to register it’s formulations because of trade secret” clauses. If the fragrance industry tests any of it’s ingredients they can keep the results in their own files.

It can be a challenge to limit our exposure to the profusion of new chemicals in our world as they have truly been woven into the fabric of our modern synthetic lives.  However, we can exert control over what comes into our homes, and what we use on our bodies. To educate yourself about healthier choices try the website www.ewg.org and any of the books by Debra Lynn Dadd, Annie Berthold-Bond, or Lynn Lawson.

Originally published: 

July 15, 2001