More than 5,000 tons of toxic chemicals are released from consumer products every year inside homes and workplaces in California, new research has found.
The study, which is the first of its kind, shows people are exposed to multiple chemicals in everyday products – such as shampoos, body lotions and mothballs – that can cause cancer or birth defects. The American study revealed that many products contain toxic volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Whether exposed through touch or breathed in as chemicals travel in the air, they can cause a variety of health problems.
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In the US state of California, more than 5,000 tonnes of toxic chemicals were released from consumer products inside the office or at home in 2020. Nearly 300 tonnes of it them came from mothballs alone.
Lead author Dr Kristin Knox, of the Silent Spring Institute – a non-profit organisation that focuses on preventing breast cancer, said: “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. Making this information public could incentivise manufacturers to reformulate their products and use safer ingredients.”
The team looked at the data from the California Air Resources Board (CARB). For over 30 years CARB has been tracking VOCs in consumer products to help reduce smog, as when VOCS are in sunlight, they react with other air pollutants to form ozone, the main ingredient in smog.
The data included information on the concentration of VOCs in various types of products and how much of each product type is sold in the state of California. The team analysed the most recent data, focusing on 33 VOCs listed under California’s right-to-know law.
The law, Prop 65, is in place as these chemicals can cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. Prop 65 requires companies that sell products in the state 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 contained these harmful VOCs. Of those, they identified 30, including a dozen different types of personal care products, that are especially harmful and may pose the greatest health risk.
Products used on the job are especially concerning, as workers often use many different types of products. Nail and hair salon workers use nail polishes and polish removers, artificial nail adhesives, hair straighteners and other cosmetics.
According to the study, these types of products combined contain as many as nine different Prop 65 VOCs. Janitors might use a combination of general cleaners, degreasers, detergents and other maintenance products, which could expose them to more than 20 Prop 65 VOCs.
Study author Dr Meg Schwarzman, of University of California’s Berkeley School of Public Health, said: “The same thing goes for auto and construction workers. All these exposures add up and might cause serious harm.
“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.”
Of the 33 VOCs listed under Prop 65, the researchers identified the top 11 chemicals that manufacturers should eliminate from products.
Among products used on the body, formaldehyde was the most common Prop 65 VOC. It was found in nail polish, shampoo, makeup and other types of personal care items. While for home products, general purpose cleaners, art supplies and laundry detergents contained the most.
Adhesives also had more than a dozen, showing that workers can be exposed to many toxic chemicals from just using one product. Co-author Dr Claudia Polsky, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law, said: “Although Prop 65 has reduced the public’s exposure to toxic chemicals both through litigation and by incentivising companies to reformulate their products, people continue to be exposed to many unsafe chemicals.
“This study shows how much work remains for product manufacturers and regulators nationwide, because the products in CARB’s database are sold throughout the U.S.”
The authors suggest that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency consider regulating five additional chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
These chemicals are ethylene oxide, found in antifreeze and detergents, styrene, which can be found in foods like fried chicken and nectarines, and 1,3-dichloropropene, used in pesticides.
The final two are diethanolamine, which can be found in shampoos and perfumes, and cumene, which is used as a thinner in paint or found in the manufacture of rubber, iron and steel.
The study was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.