Dryer Dangers

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A University of Washington study found air vented from dryers using scented products contain a mixture of some 25 harmful chemicals.

Freshly laundered clothing can smell wonderful, but that familiar aroma might be camouflaging a dirty secret. Your dryer vents may be spewing toxic chemicals into the air every time you use scented laundry detergent or fabric-softening sheets.

Air vented from dryers that use scented products contains a mixture of some 25 harmful chemicals, according to a new study from the University of Washington, published in a recent issue of Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health. Seven of these compounds are classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as hazardous air pollutants — toxins that can cause serious problems like reproductive issues or birth defects. Two chemicals, acetaldehyde and benzene, are classified as carcinogenic.

Earlier research has shown that 10 percent of the population experiences headaches, breathing difficulties, or other adverse health problems when exposed to dryer-vent emissions. And everyone else is affected to some extent. “The problem is like cigarette smoke,” says the study’s author, Anne Steinemann, PhD, professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs. She points out that kids, the elderly, and people with underlying diseases are especially sensitive to the emissions.

Perhaps most alarming? Fragrance chemicals are frequently hidden from shoppers. “In all the hundreds of chemicals I’ve found in these products, fewer than 1 percent were disclosed anywhere — not on the label, not on the material safety data sheet,” Steinemann says. “Consumers have no way of knowing what’s in these products.” And don’t be reassured by “green” or “natural” labels. Because of lax labeling regulations on nonfood “health” products, they don’t mean the products are necessarily any safer.

Steinemann recommends looking for fragrance-free (not “unscented”) versions. “Things called ‘unscented’ can be a fragranced product with the addition of a masking fragrance,” she warns. Or use simple products like baking soda and vinegar to clean your clothes and skip dryer sheets altogether. (For more DIY cleaning solutions, visit “8 Hidden Toxins: What’s Lurking in Your Cleaning Products?“)


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