BOSTON (CBS) — There’s no shortage of exotic scents today: dishwashing liquid that smells like green apples; air fresheners with the scent of French vanilla; and dryer sheers imbued with a hint of fresh linen.

You can even get household cleaners that are supposed to remind of you a Hawaiian aloha as you clean the toilet bowl.

We like things to smell fresh and clean, but is that always good for us? New research says it might not be. It can also be difficult to determine what makes many common household products smell the way they do.

WBZ-TV’s Paula Ebben reports.

Faith Wurtzel can be so overwhelmed with these powerful scents that she feels physically ill.

“It causes instant nausea,” she explained, and questions how these products are made. “The industry isn’t being honest about what’s really in these products.”

A new study out of the University of Washington analyzed more than two dozen common household products which were scented, and came up with some troubling results.

“All of them emitted chemicals that are classified as toxic or hazardous under federal laws,” said Professor Anne Steinemann, the study’s author.

More than a third of the products, some of which were labeled organic, emitted at least one carcinogenic chemical, such as formaldehyde.

“These chemicals are ones that can damage the brain, the lungs, the central nervous system,” said Steinemann.

What’s more disturbing is that a consumer would never know by looking at the labels. Fragrances are listed as proprietary which means manufacturers are under no obligation to list those ingredients.

“The paradox,” said Steinemann, “is that if these chemicals are coming out of a smokestack, you would know about it, and it would be regulated. If it’s coming out of an air freshener, you wouldn’t know about it, and it’s not regulated.”

Dr. Todd Bania, a toxicologist cautions that this, “doesn’t mean that every time you are exposed to them you’re going to get cancer.”

However, if these products are used frequently, over a prolonged amount of time, there could be cause for concern.

“Especially, if you have any pulmonary diseases, if you have asthma,” explained Dr. Bania.

The industry, represented by the Fragrance Materials Association, said their products are safe. In a statement, they said Steinemann’s research “cannot be compared to the sound, independent, four-step safety testing, carried out by the fragrance industry.”

The Household Product Labeling Act is currently being reviewed by the U.S. Senate. It would require manufacturers to list the ingredients in these types of products.

The study didn’t release the brand names they tested. The researchers feel this is an industry wide issue, and shouldn’t be tied to one particular product

Comments (12)
  1. Cynic says:

    Study suggests that studies may be bad for you health

  2. Mark says:

    We are going to ban ourselves out of existence!

    1. A Romney says:

      Seems more likely we will poison ourselves out of existence. We have created 500,000 new chemicals since World War II, the vast majority not studied. As a result, my life is a struggle to merely “exist.” I sincerely pray this does not also happen to anyone reading, but I know it will.

  3. A Romney says:

    The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a policy on indoor air quality that will affect all CDC offices and more than 15,000 employees nationwide. The policy includes specific guidelines restricting the use of fragrance in cleaning and personal care products.

  4. Mary Delahunt says:

    Since 1995, I have been unable to teach in the college where I used to teach because of the use of fragrances and pesticide. Currently, I have noticed many ads for scented products. I hope that people will realize that what poisons some of us immediately will poison everyone slowly over time. It is encouraging to see discussion of this vitally important issue.

  5. aliza says:

    This is a major concern, I didn’t realize this and it makes me think about other products we constantly use and think nothing of it’s dangers. Or the products unknown dangers.

  6. John Branco says:

    I am so please that Professor Steinemann has widened her research to include cleaning products. Moreover, I am thankful that CBS Boston has broadcasted this crucial information. Those of us with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), who are daily sickened and disabled by these hidden, untested, sensitizing chemicals, know all too well how hazardous and ubiquitous they really are. However, the continuing rise in the incidence of cancer, asthma, and autism should make everyone question what these products are doing to us and our children. Thank you.

  7. Marina says:

    I have a friend with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) and know how harmful the products with perfumes can be. It was eyes opening experience seen my friend suffer, been in pain and disabled by anything like – carpet cleaners, hands cream or fine French perfume it could be anything.
    It is not just another thing to be controlled by government – it is life saving matter. Been a good friend I do not bay any product with the perfume –whether it is household, personal care or cosmetic products. I wish more people aware about it.

  8. Amy Reuter, IFRA North America says:

    It should be noted that the study discussed above did not review safety of scented products. Instead, it measured the presence of materials in the air and it should go without saying that scents and fragrances are actually made to be detected in the air. Moreover, some of the materials detected in this study are of natural origin and some are not used in making fragrances at all.

    That said, the Fragrance Materials Association statement used in this story was written in response to a different study and is from 2008. Since then, and in response to consumers’ desire for more information about the products they use, the fragrance industry has published an extensive list of fragrance ingredients. The list is available at

    The fact is that fragrances are safe. They are immensely popular with consumers and are used in all sorts of everyday products ranging from cosmetics and perfumes, to cleaning products, air fresheners and other household items. On average fragrance only makes up about 2% of a household product.

    Ensuring the safe enjoyment of fragrances is a top priority for the International Fragrance Association, North America (formerly FMA) and the fragrance industry. For more information on initiatives to ensure the safety of fragrances, please visit

    For more information, please visit and watch the new animated video on the safety and testing of fragrances at

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