cleaning products

Hidden cancer and birth defect risks detected in common consumer products

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More than 5,000 tonnes of toxic chemicals are released from consumer products every year that can cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm, a study has found.

Researchers at the Silent Spring Institute and University of California, Berkeley, have said that people underestimate how they come into contact with toxic ingredients in products, used at home and at work, that could harm their health.

The findings could be used to help governments strengthen chemical regulations and guide manufacturers in making safer products, they said.

Many common products like shampoos, body lotions, cleaners, mothballs and paint removers contain toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are chemicals that escape as gases, accumulate in indoor air and cause a variety of health problems including cancer.

Companies are often not required to disclose what is in their products which makes it difficult to know what people might be exposed to and the potential health effects.

“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 said. “Making this information public could incentivise manufacturers to reformulate their products and use safer ingredients.”

The researchers used data from The California Air Resources Board (CARB), which tracks VOCs in consumer products in an effort to reduce smog. In the presence of sunlight, VOCs react with other air pollutants to form ozone, the main ingredient in smog.

The data includes information on the concentration of VOCs used in various types of products and how much of each product type is sold in the state.

An analysis of the most recent CARB data focused on 33 VOCs listed under California’s right-to-know law because they cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. The law requires companies that sell products in California to warn users if their products could expose them to significant amounts of these harmful chemicals.

The team’s analysis found more than 100 types of products that contain these dangerous VOCs. Thirty were identified, including a dozen different types of personal care products, that deserve special scrutiny because they frequently contain harmful chemicals and may pose the greatest health risk.

Products used on the job are especially concerning, the authors said, because workers often use many different types of products, each of which likely contains at least one hazardous chemical.

For instance, nail and hair salon workers use nail polishes and polish removers, artificial nail adhesives, hair straighteners, and other cosmetics which can contain as many as nine different VOCs. Cleaners, who might use a combination of general cleaners, degreasers, detergents and other maintenance products, are also at risk.

“The same thing goes for auto and construction workers. All these exposures add up and might cause serious harm,” said co-author Meg Schwarzman, who led the study. “At the most basic level, workers deserve to know what they’re exposed to. But, ultimately, they deserve safer products and this study should compel manufacturers to make significant changes to protect workers’ health.”

Among products used on the body, formaldehyde was the most common dangerous chemical, and was found in nail polish, shampoo, makeup and other personal care items.

For products used in the home, general purpose cleaners, art supplies and laundry detergents contained the most.

Adhesives contained more than a dozen different VOCs, highlighting that workers can be exposed to many toxic chemicals from using just one type of product.

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