Posted on May 03, 2023, 12 p.m.
Most people assume that the products they buy and use on a daily basis are safe, but this study published in Environmental Science & Technology conducted by the Silent Spring Institute and the University of California-Berkely indicates that this is not always the case, and shows how much people come into contact with toxic chemicals used at home and work that could harm their health.
According to the researchers, over 5,000 tons of toxic chemicals are released inside both homes and workplaces every year, in California alone, from consumer products such as shampoos, mothballs, cleaners, paint removers, and body lotions leading to unwanted effects like birth defects and even cancer. This can happen because many products contain toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that the consumer can unknowingly be exposed to through touch or inhalation as they travel in the air.
“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,” says lead author Kristin Knox, a scientist at Silent Spring Institute. “Making this information public could incentivize manufacturers to reformulate their products and use safer ingredients.”
The researchers examined data from the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which has been tracking pollutants including VOCs in consumer products to help reduce smog for over 30 years. VOCs react with other air pollutants in sunlight to form ozone, which is the main ingredient in smog. The data included information on VOCs concentration in a variety of products and the sales of each product in California with a focus on 33 VOCs that are listed under Prop 65 the right-to-know law which is in place because these chemicals could cause birth defects, reproductive problems, or cancer.
Analysis of the data revealed that over 100 types of products contained these types of harmful VOCs, identifying 30 products which includes 12 different types of home personal care products containing VOCs that are especially harmful and may pose serious health risks.
Workplace products are particularly concerning, as workers use different types of chemical-containing products throughout the day on a daily basis. For example, salon workers may use nail polishes, polish removers, adhesives, and cosmetics which are types of products that were revealed to contain as many as 9 different Prop 65 VOCs. Custodians use a combination of cleaners, detergents, degreasers, and maintenance products that could potentially expose them to over twenty Prop 65 VOCs.
“The same thing goes for auto and construction workers. All these exposures add up and might cause serious harm,” says study co-author Meg Schwarzman, a physician and environmental health scientist at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “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.”
Prop 65 lists 33 VOCs, and researchers have identified the top 11 chemicals that should be eliminated from products. Formaldehyde was the most common of these chemicals which can be found in products used on the body such as makeup, shampoo, nail polish, and other personal care products. Adhesives were found to contain more than a dozen VOCs, exposing users to many chemicals in one product. Art supplies, laundry detergents, and general-purpose cleaners were found to contain the most VOCs for home prodcts.
“Although Prop 65 has reduced the public’s exposure to toxic chemicals both through litigation and by incentivizing companies to reformulate their products, people continue to be exposed to many unsafe chemicals,” says co-author Claudia Polsky, Director of the Environmental Law Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law. “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.”
In addition to eliminating 11 chemicals from products, the researchers suggest that the EPA consider regulation of 5 additional chemicals under the Toxic Substance Control Act: Ethylene Oxide which is found in detergents and antifreeze, Styrene which can be found in foods ranging from fried chicken to nectarine, 1 3-dichloropropene which is used in pesticides, diethanolamine which can be found in perfumes and shampoos, and lastly cumene which is used as a thinner in paint as well as in the manufacture of steel, iron, and rubber.
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