That Sweet Smell Is Hiding a Dirty Secret: New Report Reveals Environmental and Human Health Risks of Commonly Used Synthetic Fragrance

Guest blog by Anna Reade, UCSF GSICE intern at NRDC

Air fresheners and cleaning products often contain synthetic fragrance

Synthetic musk and fragrance ingredients have become widely used in consumer products ranging from household cleaning products to cosmetics to air fresheners. In fact it is harder and harder to find normal unscented or naturally scented products.  Unfortunately many of these chemicals have been linked to multiple harmful health effects including, reproductive and developmental disorders, hormone disruption and obesity.

Galaxolide (also called “HHCB”) is a common synthetic musk whose use has been steadily increasing in the U.S over the last 30 years. A number of studies have detected extensive Galaxolide contamination in the Great Lakes; others have detected it in human blood and breast milk. Because it is a long-lasting fragrance and survives wastewater treatment plants, it ends up in our waterways which eventually contaminate natural water sources.

Its heavy use, widespread presence within humans, contamination of our waterways, and lack of data on its health effects lead Women’s Voices for the Earth to commission a GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals study of Galaxolide to determine the threat it poses to human health and the environment.

The results are surprising and very concerning; GreenScreen identified Galaxolide as a chemical of highest concern whose use should be avoided.

GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals is an internationally recognized tool for assessing the hazard of chemicals. It answers the questions: Is this chemical toxic? And if so, how and to what extent? This method, developed and offered by Clean Production Action, facilitates the independent investigation of chemicals of concern. It takes data from industry-sponsored and non-industry scientific studies and assigns a hazard score (see chart below) based off of a comprehensive list of health and environmental outcomes:

  • Human health outcomes assessed include: cancer, reproductive, developmental, endocrine/hormone, systemic and neuronal toxicities, skin and eye irritation, and respiratory and skin sensitization.
  • Environmental and physical outcomes/properties assessed include: Aquatic toxicity, persistence (how fast does it break down?), bioaccumulation (does it build up in animals over time?), reactivity and flammability.

GreenScreen assigned Galaxolide the worst possible rating, Benchmark 1, because it:

  • Does not break down easily in the environment
  • Builds up in animals over time
  • Is highly toxic to fish and other aquatic creatures
A summary of the GreenScreen results for Galoxilide

Additionally, Galaxolide was assigned a moderate human health hazard level for its ability to disrupt hormone signaling. Hormone disruption is associated with a wide array of diseases including metabolic, behavioral, reproductive and developmental problems. Although it was only assigned a moderate human health hazard rating, this hazard level is still concerning when considering the plethora of other hormone disrupting chemicals we are exposed to.

We cannot continue to think about the hazards of just one chemical at a time, but must factor in the combined potential risks from the hundreds of chemicals we face every day.

Galaxolide is a perfect example of this because it is often made as a chemical mixture of the fragrance ingredient HHCB diluted with a phthalate, DEP. The GreenScreen hazard score refers to HHCB’s potential effect on human health and the environment; it does not factor in DEP effects. DEP and other phthalates are associated with reproductive and developmental toxicity in children.

What can you do?

Many of the consumer products containing Galaxolide and other synthetic fragrances are products like air and fabric fresheners, candles, and cleaners that we use to make rooms “smell fresh”. A previous study of air fresheners by NRDC uncovered the presence of phthalates, like DEP, in 12 out of 14 of the products tested, including those advertised as “all-natural” or “unscented.”

Since fragrance ingredients are poorly regulated and not required to be disclosed, it is best to avoid using air fresheners—especially in places where there are children or pregnant women.

Ideas for improving your home’s air quality in a safe manner include:

  • Ventilate! Open windows to bring in fresh air or use fans to maintain air circulation.
  • Remove sources of odors (take out the trash, clean litter boxes, etc) instead of trying to cover them up.
  • Be creative! Turn to natural fragrances like fresh cut flowers, use lemon or other citrus peels to freshen up your garbage disposal, or leave an open box of baking soda in your fridge.

About the Authors

Veena Singla

Staff Scientist, Health & Environment program

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