Over 5,000 tons of dangerous fumes escaped from consumer products, study finds

A new study finds that over 5,000 tons of volatile organic compounds linked to cancer, reproductive and development harm escape from consumer products sold in California.

Over 5,000 tons of dangerous fumes escaped from consumer products, study finds


When exposed to sunlight and air, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are solids or liquids that are used in consumer goods. They turn into gases. Some VOCs are linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental harm, as well as liver, kidneys, and central nervous system damage.

These chemicals can be found in thousands of products, including shampoo, body lotions, dishwashing detergents, caulking compound, room deodorizers and household cleaners. They may also be present in flooring, carpets, pressed wood, and paint removers.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, exposure is usually higher at home. The EPA states that 'concentrations are up to ten-times higher indoors' than they are outdoors.

The study, released on Tuesday, found that in 2020 over 5,000 tonnes of 33 potentially harmful VOCs will be emitted by the state of California. It measures exposures to carcinogens as well as volatile organic compounds present in consumer products.

Imagine an ounce (or more) of water that has evaporated. The weight of the gas doesn't change, even though it's now a liquid, said Dr. Meg Schwarzman. She is the lead author of the study and associate director of Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry, at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

She said: 'We calculated the total weight in liquid or solid form of 33 volatile organic chemicals in consumer products, and we found that 5,000 tons were released as volatile gases in 2020. "That's not pounds, but tons."

Schwarzman pointed out that although the California analysis focused on products sold throughout the United States, it is possible the same products may be sold internationally.

It's a warning. The regulatory focus on workplace exposures has been so narrow that it has not considered what happens at home. The public is unaware of how many toxic chemicals they are exposed to in their home environment.

Jane Houlihan is the national director for science and health at Healthy Babies Bright Futures. This coalition of advocates works to reduce the exposure of babies to neurotoxic chemicals.

Houlihan said that the use of toxic VOCs in everyday products, which is a violation of our public health regulations, poses a particular danger to pregnant women, babies and young children who are particularly vulnerable.

Consumer Brands Association (which represents many manufacturers of personal care, household, and pet products) did not comment on the report.

Telly Lovelace is the director of issue communication for the American Chemistry Council. The council represents the US chemicals, plastics, and chlorine industries. He told CNN by email that his members take their responsibility seriously to create chemicals that are safe.

Lovelace said, "Our members conduct extensive scientific analyses in order to assess the potential risks of their chemicals from conception through to use and disposal."

The 'clever study'

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) tracks the types and amounts of volatile organic compounds that manufacturers use in their products sold in California.

Homer Swei is the senior vice president for healthy living science and environmental health at Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization. Swei and EWG were not involved in the new research.

Swei stated that the manufacturers are required to report, and this is a unique source of information. This database had never been used before for this type of information, which was quite clever.

The team turned to California’s Right-to-Know Law – the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (commonly known as Prop 65) – which maintains a listing of chemicals that are believed to cause cancer, reproductive and developmental harms. Thirty-three of those chemicals were classified as volatile organic substances. Because Prop 65 doesn't monitor asthma, it was not possible to examine the effects of VOCs.

Analysis revealed that over 100 products contained VOCs identified by the Prop 65 database. The VOCs used in personal care products are also found in insect repellents and disinfectants. They can be found in laundry detergents and auto and boat care products.

Schwarzman stated that consumers can't find this information on labels unless the label contains one of 33 chemicals that are of concern according to Prop 65.

She said, "You've probably seen warnings on labels that state, "This product contains a substance known to California to cause cancer, reproductive harm or other concerns." "This is good for the rest of the nation, as manufacturers do not create a label specific to California products."

Schwarzman said that the lack of information on safety can also make it difficult for companies to formulate their products using nontoxic chemicals.

She said that there is no central list of safer substitutes, and companies who want to reformulate must work hard to gather the information. It's very difficult to claim safety without mentioning your previous versions of a product.

I can't think of a label that says: "New non-carcinogenic formulation" is now available.

Chemicals of concern

Researchers ranked 11 of the Prop65-listed chemicals as a high concern due to their widespread use in products for consumers and workers, and the health risks they pose.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Medicine, mothballs are made from 1,4-dichlorobenzene. This chemical can be broken down into toxic vapors such as hydrochloric and carbon monoxide.

The study determined that mothballs made up 300 tons of the 5,000 tonnes of VOCs expected to be released by 2020.

According to the US Centers for Disease Protection and Control, methylene chloride may cause cancer and damage the liver, eyes, skin, and heart.

The CDC states that exposure can cause nausea, dizziness, numbness of the limbs and tingling. Severe exposure may cause death and loss of consciousness.

The study concluded that in 2020, consumer products emitted about 2.75 tons of methylene-chloride per day. Paint removers were the main source of exposure. Schwarzman says that this was unexpected because the EPA banned the use of methylene Chloride in paint strippers by 2019.

Formaldehyde is the most commonly used VOC on the skin. It can be found in nail polishes, shampoos, cosmetics and other personal care items. According to the US National Toxicology Program, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, formaldehyde has been proven carcinogenic. Formaldehyde was found in 17 different product categories including carpet, pressed wood furniture, household and industrial cleaning products, and other cleaners.

The study found that the most VOCs were found in art supplies, laundry detergents, and general purpose cleaners. Adhesives, just one product, exposes users to almost half of the chemicals that are of concern.

Schwarzman stated that adhesives were the best example of a product category where you could use one and be exposed to multiple chemicals. There were 17 different Prop65 potentially toxic volatile organic chemicals in adhesives.

According to the study, benzene is the third most common VOC in consumer products. Benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, is used in the manufacture of plastics, dyes and detergents as well as pesticides and drugs.

A study in 2021 found benzene present in more than half of the 108 batches tested of deodorant and antiperspirant body sprays. The brands involved were 30. Procter & Gamble, the manufacturer of Old Spice and Secret Antiperspirant, recalled 17 different types in 2021 out of an abundance of caution.

Take Action

Experts say that finding alternatives to potentially toxic fumes is the best way to avoid them. Swei noted that the growing interest of consumers in green products have led to a variety of safer options.

He said that he thought there were safer alternatives to general-purpose cleaners as well as personal care products. I wouldn't worry if you used a few cleaning products from time to time.

Swei explained that if you are required to use too many cleaning products or VOCs at once, for a long period of time, this could be an issue.

Birnbaum, former director of the National Toxicology Program, says that consumers need to be vocal about their concerns with regard to lack of regulation.

She said that although we regulate outdoor or ambient air, many people, including babies, children, and the elderly spend 90 percent of their time inside.

Birnbaum stated that "we need adequate labeling." But even then they might say that the chemical is "inert" and not mention its potential to become vaporous. Federal policy must be changed to allow consumers to make informed choices that will protect them and their families.