Many common household products, including those marked 'green,' or 'organic,' have been found to contain potentially harmful chemicals not disclosed to consumers.
A number of widely used household products have been found to contain potentially harmful chemicals, new research shows.
The study, carried out by Melbourne University's Professor Anne Steinemann and published in The Journal Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health, showed that certain fragranced products emitted compounds that could cause health problems.
Professor Steinemann, a world expert on environmental pollutants, compared 37 best-selling household products, including a number labelled 'green,' or 'organic' and found they emitted 157 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), 42 of which were classified as toxic or hazardous.
Professor Steinemann told SBS she had been motivated to do the research after receiving thousands of messages from people claiming they suspected household products were making them sick. Common complaints included migraines, asthma attacks and breathing difficulties.
And the findings casted doubt on the idea that so-called 'green' products were any better for our health.
"I didn't find any significant difference in the types of potentially hazardous chemicals emitted from the fragranced products that called themselves 'green' versus the ones that were regular," Professor Steinemann said.
She said the potential effects of such chemicals ranged from the immediate - rashes, migraines and cognitive difficulties - to the long-term, including damage to the immune system.
"These are chemicals that can harm the brain, the lungs, the central nervous system and they're associated with cancer," she said.
Professor Steinemann chose not to name the brands she tested in the study, only describing them as "widely sold and used in homes workplaces and schools."
"I didn't find any significant difference in the types of potentially hazardous chemicals emitted from the fragranced products that called themselves 'green' versus the ones that were regular."
She said greater regulation was needed to ensure brands disclosed exactly what was in their products and what those ingredients meant for consumers.
What’s in a name?
Adam Wilson, Chairman of the Organic Federation of Australia, told SBS that all products labeled "Certified Organic" in Australia needed to adhere to a national standard. But there was a loophole.
"In this country we have a unique situation where then word 'organic' is not actually domestically legislated," he said.
In other words, brands can use words like 'green,' 'organic' (rather than the official "Certified Organic" label) without having to back them up.
He said that people typically paid more for organic food because they thought those products were safer.
"According to the 2014 market report, nearly 80 per cent of people are buying organic because it's chemical free," he said.
Tom Godfrey, spokesperson for consumer website Choice, said many brands were using this to their advantage.
''Greenwashing' is widespread across our supermarket shelves," he said, "and I think consumers might reasonably expect that a green product is more environmentally friendly than a regular product, particularly if it's an air freshener, for example, that’s going into the air we breathe. However there’s no regulation around what 'green' means."
Professor Steinemann said she felt the public was being misled because many brands did not disclose all the ingredients in their products.
"I think consumers might reasonably expect that a green product is more environmentally friendly than a regular product - particularly if it’s an air freshener, for example, that’s going into the air we breathe - However there’s no regulation around what 'green' means."
"I think there should be full disclosure on cleaning products just as there is on food because we're exposed to these chemicals," she said.
Professor Steinemann said her study showed that scented products were problematic, and advised consumers to be cautious of them.
"Basically a fragrance in a product is a mixture of several dozen chemicals and most of them are synthetic," she said.
"The fragranced products [I tested] all contained class of chemicals called terpenes while unscented products did not."
"Terpenes are of concern because many have inherent toxicity but they also produce secondary pollutants when they react with ozone in air including formaldehyde and ultrafine particles, which are linked with heart and lung disease."
She advised people to opt for fragrance-free products, when possible.
"I've seen a real prevalence of air fresheners in Australia," she said. "But air fresheners don’t actually clean the air."
Tom Godfrey said it was up to the consumers to look closely at what they bought.
"Basically a fragrance in a product is a mixture of several dozen chemicals and most of them are synthetic."
"I think the key message for consumers is don’t believe all the marketing hype," he said. "Just because a product is shouting to you that it’s green doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the safest choice or most environmentally friendly option on the market. You need to do your homework."
But if you’re feeling confused about what’s safe to buy, Professor Steinemann said there was a simple solution.
"Go back to use what our grandparents used," she said. "Simple products like vinegar, bicarbonate soda - food products."
The products tested by Professor Steinemann included:
- Air fresheners and deodorisers: Sprays, wall-mounted air freshners, plug-in oil dispensers and air-freshner discs (commonly used in airports).
- Laundry products: Detergents and fabric softeners.
- Cleaning products: All-purpose cleaners, floor cleaners, window-surface cleaners, disenfectants and dishwashing liquids.
- Personal-care products: Lotions, baby lotion, soaps, hand sanitisers, deodorants, sunscreens, shampoos and baby shampoos.
Read the full report below: