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The Hidden Hazards In Your Everyday Home Fragrances

They're bringing adverse health effects.

22/11/2016 8:28 AM AEDT | Updated 22/11/2016 3:35 PM AEDT
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Beware of those second hand scents.

Each time the air-freshener in your bathroom emits that sweet, sweet (yet slightly artificial) spray, it may be affecting you more than you realise.

According to new research coming out of the University of Melbourne, common fragranced consumer products containing hazardous pollutants are drawing acute health effects.

People assume that because these products are widely used and sold, they must be safe. This isn't quite the case.

And they are typically hidden from the public.

"I see this as a huge public health issue, with layers of potential hazards. We don't know what we are being exposed to, or all the possible effects, but we do know that people are getting sick," environmental engineer and lead researcher from the University of Melbourne's School of Engineering Professor Anne Steinemann told The Huffington Post Australia.

"People assume that because these products are widely used and sold, they must be safe. This isn't quite the case."

Surveying 1,136 Americans, Steinemann found that more than one-third of respondents reported adverse health effects -- from asthma attacks to dizziness and migraine headaches -- when exposed to a range of everyday fragranced products such as air fresheners, cleaning products and laundry supplies.

She has also completed a similar study of Australians and the results -- to be published early next year -- are "strikingly similar".

This comes down to the 'hidden hazards' contained in what she labels "secondhand scents".

Whilst they are known to be hazardous, and therefore regulated in outdoor environments, they are not regulated indoors.

Professor Steinemann is a world expert on environmental pollutants, air quality and health effects who has been studying these hazards for years.

"I looked at volatile organic compounds emitted from these common fragranced products," Steinemann said.

"There's petrochemicals involved in either synthesising the chemical or extracting it. When these chemicals are in a consumer product, they are mixed with several dozen to several hundred chemicals and we don't really know the full toxicological effects."

"While some compounds are are known to be hazardous, and regulated in outdoor environments, they are not regulated indoors," Steinemann said.

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What's in that tiny, sweet-smelling capsule? Turns out a lot that we don't actually know.

And they remain hidden because the breakdown of chemicals in fragrances do not appear on labels.

"Around the world, there is no law that requires a fragrance formulation to disclose all of its ingredients," Steinemann said. "Labels typically show fewer than 3 percent of all ingredients, according to my research."

How about organic products?

Don't be deceived -- they can also be meddled with.

"In my previous studies, I have found that it doesn't matter whether fragranced products call themselves green, natural or organic. They all emit the same potentially hazardous products," Steinemann said.

"If it had a fragrance, it caused health problems. Even essential oils can be extracted with petrochemicals."

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One step better?

If they're at low levels, should they matter?

According to Steinemann, low-level exposure can build up.

"Some of these health effects are dramatic and immediate, whereas a lot of them are subtle and insidious so you may not realise that you are getting sick until you are manifesting severe symptoms," Steinemann said.

"This is a serious problem. People are getting sick and it matters. So, I'm interested in answering, 'why are they getting sick and what can we do about it?"

What can we do about it?

Steinemann recommends choosing products without a fragrance, whenever possible.

"Fragrance is not intended to clean or disinfect. It is a chemical mixture added to a product."

And 'unscented' products do know necessarily mean fragrance-free.

"An unscented product can be a fragranced product with the addition of a masking fragrance," Steinemann said.

"If you can't eat it or drink it, don't clean with it. Eventually it is going to get into your system. You can clean perfectly well with vinegar and bicarb instead of strong chemical cleaners."

We may not fully understand scientifically why these effects are occurring but I think it's important right now to consider the implications from a health, societal and economic perspective.

And she hopes to stir wider conversations.

"We may not fully understand scientifically why these effects are occurring but I think it's important right now to consider the serious implications from a health, societal and economic perspective, and to take steps to reduce the exposure to fragranced products," Steinemann said.

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