DennisBeaverJune 25, 2011 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

“Mr. Beaver, we live in an area with hard water, so we always use a liquid fabric softener, generally Downy or similar brands. We have seasonal allergies, but the perfumes and scents in these products has never been a problem, and we have not found them to be overpowering or irritating, no matter how much of the product was used.

“Because most liquid softeners contain some oil or wax, they make towels less absorbent and are not for use with children’s sleepwear. I recently found Purex Complete Crystals, which is added to the wash water, not at the end. It promises to soften better than oil-based liquids and is safe for children’s clothing.

“The first time we tried it, the scent was so overpowering, so incredibly strong, we literally had to turn off the A/C and open all windows and doors. We felt weird, creepy, began sneezing and it lasted for hours. The scent got into everything, and we had to rewash the clothing and towels several times to get rid of this horrible scent. Isn’t there some federal law or standards for these scented or fragranced products?”

Ever hear of secondhand scents?

“We all know about the risks of secondhand smoke, but we need to bring attention to the risks of secondhand scents,” maintains Anne Steinemann, who is both professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs at the University of Washington at Seattle.

She is one of the country’s most knowledgeable university academics in the area of fragrances, perfumes and toxic chemicals in consumer products. We asked for her comments on our reader’s experience.

“The public needs to become aware of the dangers caused by fragranced products, which are currently exempt from federal regulations for ingredient disclosure,” she began.

“I have had hundreds of people contact me by phone and email, telling how sick they get from fragranced dryer sheets, laundry detergents, cleaning products, air fresheners, deodorizers, hand sanitizers, lotions, soaps, shampoos and scented candles. These products cause serious health problems in a significant percentage of the population.

“We are talking about seizures, migraine headaches, asthma attacks, breathing difficulties, rashes, swollen eyes, throat irritations, fevers, loss of consciousness and more,” she points out.

“A single air freshener can cause a seizure, an asthma attack, a migraine or anaphylactic shock. The number and consistency of reports of people getting sick from products that are supposed to be pleasing is overwhelming evidence this problem is real, huge and unregulated.”

Industry’s response – they are safe

“The Industry’s typical response is that they have tested these products, found them to be safe, but in those which do contain hazardous chemicals, the levels are so low that it does not matter. But low levels do add up. Smoking cigarettes adds up. Do it every day and we know what happens,” she points out.

“Also, some of the chemicals found in these products have no safe exposure level, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That means even one molecule is not safe to inhale,” she stressed.

Organic and green are not what you think

“But what about organic or green, or all natural fragranced products, aren’t they safer?” I asked.

“You would think so,” she replied, “But that is not the necessarily the case. Fragranced products that call themselves green, organic, all natural, or with essential oils still contain hazardous chemicals, and often just as many as regular brands.

“There is no definition or regulation of organic or green when it concerns consumer products: for food, yes, but not for consumer products. I have tested organic air fresheners and they emit hazardous chemicals, even ones with no safe exposure levels, just like just like regular brands.”

Feeling sick

“Just as your reader commented, when you feel sick after being exposed to these scented products, your body is telling you to get away from it, and just stop using it as soon as possible,” she recommends.

“More than 35 percent of the population is sensitive to fragranced products, while about 20 percent is exquisitely sensitive. While it is almost impossible to avoid all chemical exposure, fragrance-free products are generally better,” she told us.

Online, there were both positive and highly negative user comments about the fragrance of Purex Crystals. Testing the same type as my reader used, we found clothing and towels were soft, but our house reeked of an overpowering and horribly irritating floral fragrance. We had to air it out – for hours – and rewash everything. My wife got a sneezing attack. I got yelled at.

Purex was contacted and asked for their comments on their new fabric softener. It has been weeks, and we’re still waiting for their response..

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.