Fume with a view: consumer products and your indoor air quality
From our archives: What are the hidden hazards of everyday fragrances?
This is Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia.
I'm Dr Andi Horvath. Thanks for joining us. Today we bring you up close to
investigations about our indoor air quality. Living in urban environments we're often
very conscious of pollutants outdoors, yet the indoor air environment can be a
greater hazard to human health. Listeners may be familiar with the term "sick
building syndrome". It was coined a few decades ago. It's often used to describe
unhealthy office workspaces. The combination of air conditioning ventilation
systems, moulds, gases from chemicals used in building materials, office machinery
and fabrics are increasingly under scrutiny. Meanwhile in the home, consumer
products like air fresheners as well as cleaning, laundry and personal care products
all emit a range of what are known as ?volatile organic compounds?, or VOCs.
Some of these can cause harm to human health and indoor air quality yet the
ingredients are not often disclosed to the public. This is something civil and
environmental engineer Anne Steinemann, our guest today on Up Close, would like
to see change.
Anne is an internationally recognised expert on environmental pollutants, who's also
found that current consumer products marketed as green, all natural, non-toxic or
organic were not significantly different from conventional products when it comes to
hazardous VOCs. Anne is now Professor of Civil Engineering and the Chair of
Sustainable Cities in the Department of Infrastructure and Engineering, University of
Melbourne. Welcome to Up Close, Anne.
Thank you so much, Andi.
Now Anne, what does indoor air quality actually refer to and why should we be
concerned about it?
Indoor air quality refers to the health of our indoor air environment. It's very
interesting because we tend to think that most of our exposure to pollutants occurs
outdoors but in fact more than 90 per cent of our exposure to pollutants that affect
our health and productivity and wellbeing occur in our indoor environments, which
can include our homes, schools, offices as well as transportation.
What makes this so-called sick building sick?
Well a sick building means that the indoor air quality is causing adverse health
effects in its occupants and buildings can be sick for any number of reasons and
types of pollutants. Some of the most common sources are the building materials
and furnishings and consumer products used indoors.
Can you describe for us some of the poor air quality and its effect on human health?
I know quite a few people email you. What sort of medical issues are they coming
Well I've received more than 3000 emails from people around the world telling me
that they became sick from their indoor air environments and the types of health
effects are diverse from headaches, dizziness, breathing difficulties, asthma attacks,
seizures, nausea, flu-like fever symptoms, cold-like symptoms, gastrointestinal
problems - so a range of adverse health effects due to exposure to indoor air
How pervasive is poor indoor air quality and how does it differ to say the home
environment or the office environment, school, shopping centre or even public
Well let me just say that indoor air quality problems are pervasive. They're
ubiquitous. They're around the world. They are common to virtually all indoor air
environments whether it's a home, school, office, a car, a train. The types of
pollutants may be different but the underlying theme is the same, it is that people are
becoming sick from exposure to pollutants that are common indoors. And the irony
is that most of our exposure to hazardous pollutants occurs precisely in those
environments that we consider safe, our homes, in our offices, our indoor air
environments. That's what my research is investigating, is what are the sources of
these pollutants and what can we do about it?
Anne, take us into an office and portray the chemical environment. Where are the
chemicals emanating from?
The chemicals can be coming from any number of places but the primary sources
are building materials and consumer products such as cleaning products, air
fresheners, and personal care products used by people indoors. It can be from the
building materials like the paints and the carpets and the furnishings, manufactured
wood products, varnishes. The types of pollutants that we find indoors that are
causing health problems are actually quite different than they were 50 years ago
because we have a lot more volatile organic compounds, semivolatile organic
compounds and new types of materials that didn't exist 50 years ago.
This is quite separate to microbial infestations, fungal infestations and ventilation
problems as well as carbon dioxide?
Right so I have focused on the chemical pollutants but things such as mould can also
cause problems with indoor air quality.
People have different levels of sensitivity to these chemicals but nevertheless when
you see patterns of people getting sick in these environments it normally indicates
there's something there.
Exactly. Everyone is chemically sensitive to some extent. Some people have very
severe acute reactions such as seizures or asthma attacks or headaches where
other people may be affected by they don't realise they're being harmed by the
chemicals. This is why I call this problem the ?hidden hazards? because the
hazards are hidden in three main ways. First is the chemicals. We don't necessarily
see the potentially hazardous chemicals in our indoor air environment. Another
reason that they're hidden is that the effects are often very subtle and cumulative and
subclinical. They don't manifest in a dramatic disease the minute you're exposed
because we're exposed to these chemicals chronically from many different sources
throughout our daily life. Another reason that they're hidden hazards is that these
potentially hazardous chemicals are not generally disclosed on product labels or
material safety data sheets. Again it's this paradox. It's where most of our exposure
to hazardous pollutants that affect our health occurs indoors but these indoor
environments are not regulated and the primary sources of pollutants are not
required to disclose all of their ingredients.
During this interview, Anne, you've used to the term potentially hazardous. Are
things hazardous or are they potentially hazardous? Can you just clarify that term for
Thank you so much for asking that question, for the opportunity to explain a bit more
about hazards and toxicity. Chemicals that are found in the products such as
formaldehyde are a known carcinogen and they're in the products. Now the extent of
the hazard or toxicity depends on the exposure situation. Just because a chemical is
in a product doesn't necessarily mean it poses a hazard or it will cause an adverse
effect in a human. When we think about hazardous or potentially hazardous I just
wanted to make sure to emphasise that everything depends on the exposure
situation even though chemicals may have known toxicity or known to be
If I compared outdoor air quality to indoor air quality which is worse?
Well in most urban areas and industrialised countries the concentrations of
hazardous air pollutants indoors are often several times if not several hundred times
greater indoors than outdoors. If we look at it from a total exposure perspective,
where are we exposed to our pollutants, more than 90 per cent of it occurs in indoor
I'm Andi Horvath and you're listening to Up Close. In this episode we're talking about
indoor air quality and human health with Civil and Environmental Engineer Anne
Steinemann. I want to move now to air quality and the related issues specifically in
the home. In addition to some of the same issues we find in office buildings there
are all those consumer products that are advertised to keep our environment and our
bodies clean like air fresheners, deodorants, shampoos and the like. For most of us
by the time we open our doors to head off to work we've already interacted with a
dozen or so products. Anne, take us on a tour of consumer products. What's in
them and how do they affect indoor air quality?
Well I might preface this by saying I got interested in this topic because I had
received emails from people around the world telling me they were becoming sick
from common consumer products, products such as air fresheners, laundry supplies
including detergents and fabric softeners and dryer sheets, personal care products,
sunscreens, hand sanitisers, lotions and shampoos and a wide range of cleaning
products. I'm trying to figure out what's in these products that are causing these
effects because these are products that are supposed to be pleasing to people but
people were reporting that they were becoming sick when exposed to them. So what
I did is I analysed a wide range of consumer products to try to figure out what was in
them. In my most recent study I analysed 37 of the best selling consumer products
in the categories of air fresheners, laundry products, cleaning products and personal
care products. About half of these had some claim of being green, organic, natural
or non-toxic. What I found was surprising. These 37 products emitted collectively
more than 550 different volatile organic compounds or VOCs. A VOC can be
thought of as like a fume. Nearly one-fourth of these VOCs are classified as toxic or
hazardous under US federal laws. However, these chemicals are not necessarily
regulated in the products meaning they're either considered toxic or hazardous if
they're found in other environments or other media. For instance, if it's coming out of
a smoke stack or a tailpipe it would be regulated. If it's coming out of an air
freshener it was not regulated.
Anne, how do we know that these VOCs become pollutants that become real
neurotoxins and carcinogens that have an effect on the human body?
Well this is a fascinating question because toxicity is very complicated as you might
imagine. Chemicals can be toxic in and of themselves. They can also have
additional or synergistic toxicity when combined with other chemicals and also the
most common chemical I found in the fragrance products were terpenes, things such
as limonene, alpha pinene, beta pinene. Now what's interesting is that terpenes
themselves can have some inherent toxicity but when they get into the air they
readily react with ozone to generate a range of secondary hazardous pollutants such
as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde in ultra fine particles which are linked with lung and
heart disease. This is very interesting because the chemicals individually can be
toxic, together in mixtures they can have synergistic toxicity and then when they
react in the air they can have a whole different range of secondary pollutants that
Wow so it's not just the VOC in the air freshener, it's how it reacts to ozone in the air
and creating a cocktail and a soup of VOCs that didn't exist before.
Correct and we have very little information and knowledge about the toxicity of
mixtures. Now when you asked your good question about how do we know VOCs
are toxic well the question of what is toxic again is very complex because chemicals
can have different effects on different people. The same chemical can cause
someone to have a migraine headache or an asthma attack; there can be links with
endocrine disruption, immune system dysfunction. Any chemical or mixture of
chemicals can have a range of different effects in different people and then some
individuals are more susceptible to chemical exposures as well. Another interesting
point is the problem with low levels. People may think well these chemicals are at
low levels and we shouldn't worry. Well not necessarily. Low levels can mean high
risks for several reasons. One is we're not just exposed to one chemical at one low
level at one time in our life. We're exposed to these chemicals in multiple
environments, in multiple products and often times chronically and cumulatively
throughout our lives. If we can think of cigarette smoking, people who smoke a
couple of packs of cigarettes a day for their life it ends up in disease. So we have to
think about the cumulative effects of chronic exposure to these chemicals. Another
problem is that these chemicals are not in isolation. They're in mixture with other
chemicals and we have very little information on how these mixtures of chemicals
can ultimately harm human health.
There's another issue too and that's that some of these chemicals have nonmonotonic
dose-response relationships, which means lower levels can actually have
a more hazardous effect on human health. Things like endocrine disrupting
chemicals can be hazardous at very low levels. There's a final point too; is that
people have adverse reactions when exposed to small amounts of these products.
So, instead of asking the question - well these chemicals are at low levels, people
shouldn't be having effects, I look at it the other way, that we have significant and
substantial scientific evidence that people have adverse health effects when exposed
to these products and these mixtures of chemicals so what's in the products and
what are the mixtures of chemicals and what are the exposure situations that are
causing people to have these adverse health effects.
Anne, tell me about products that are labelled non-toxic or organic and green. Are
they any better?
Well I'm glad you asked that question because that was the real focus of my study,
this most recent one. I analysed 37 products. About half of them made some claim
of being green, organic, all natural, non-toxic or with essential oils. Now what I found
was that first of all, all products emitted potentially hazardous chemicals. There
wasn't a single product that didn't. But another more striking point is there was not
any significant difference in the potentially hazardous chemicals emitted from the
fragrance products that were regular versus the fragrance products that claimed to
be green, organic, natural or with essential oils. Basically if it had a fragrance in it it
emitted potentially hazardous chemicals.
What about aromatherapy products?
There have been numerous studies that have analysed aromatherapy products and
found that essential oils can emit potentially hazardous chemicals such as benzene
and toluene, which are known carcinogens. Also from the epidemiologically studies
that I've conducted, people do report adverse health effects when exposed to these
products. Again I would caution people just because something says aromatherapy
or essential oils it doesn't mean that it doesn't emit potentially hazardous chemicals.
I'm Andi Horvath and our guest today is engineering Professor Anne Steinemann.
We're talking about environmental pollutants in consumer products and the problem
of indoor air quality right here on Up Close. Anne, is stricter regulation of indoor air
quality the key?
There is widespread recognition among government agencies that indoor air quality
is a major problem. It's a major unaddressed health risk. In fact there have been
studies indicating that indoor air quality is now the number one global environmental
health risk. In Australia there's been a report citing that it leads to more than $12
billion annually in lost worker health and productivity and the statistics are similar
around the world. There is recognition that it's a problem, that it's an unaddressed
health risk but right now there are no major regulations addressing indoor air quality
or even programs to monitor indoor air quality in Australia or in other major
That's again the paradox. Even though there may be some laws to address worker
health in certain occupational environments but in general our indoor environments
are essentially unmonitored and unregulated yet it's a primary health risk. All that
said there have been some voluntary movements to try and improve indoor air
quality. An example of this are the fragrance-free policies which are sweeping the
countries around the world, the recognition that reducing or avoiding exposure to
fragrance can help those who are both sensitive to fragrance chemicals as well as
help the general worker population.
I imagine some individuals need to avoid the perfume department in department
Yes, fragrance is a term that really refers to a combination of several dozen to
several hundred chemicals. Most of these chemicals are synthetic. Even fragrances
called natural fragrances nonetheless have synthetic chemicals. So a fragrance is
not just one chemical. It's a very complex mixture of chemicals and is often added to
products, added to our consumer products, our shampoos, our soaps, our cleaning
products or detergents.
Anne, if we got the labelling right we could create new markets for better consumer
This is what's so interesting. For foods all ingredients are required to be disclosed
except for certain things such as flavours, which are very similar to fragrances.
However, for general consumer products such as air fresheners, cleaning products,
laundry products, those products do not need to disclose all ingredients and there is
no law anywhere in the world that requires a disclosure of all ingredients in a
chemical mixture called ?fragrance?. Now for the class of products like personal
care products and cosmetics they do need to disclose their ingredients but they
again can just say the term ?fragrance? rather than disclosing the ingredients in the
I've noticed some building ratings around the country and this tends to refer to how
green they are in terms of how energy efficient they are but they haven't addressed
indoor air quality, have they?
Well not necessarily. Some of these green building programs do have sections that
provide credits for indoor air quality but they tend to be a very small part of the
overall program. The focus on green buildings has traditionally been on energy
efficiency. Now what's interesting is that very energy efficient and tight buildings can
concentrate the indoor air pollutants. There's been kind of this trade off between
energy efficiency and indoor air quality. However, there's a trend now in green
building to recognise the importance of health. Healthy buildings has now become
like the new green buildings because companies and public agencies and the
occupants of the buildings themselves are realising the benefits of having healthy
indoor air quality because it leads to improved worker health and productivity,
reduced healthcare costs.
It makes economic sense.
How can we spur greater public awareness of the issues?
First of all by programs such as this where you could have researchers speaking
about what they have found in their research because even though I consider it's an
epidemic, there are buildings around the world that have indoor air quality problems,
in fact it's hard to find a building that doesn't have some sort of indoor air quality
problem but the public is now just gaining awareness of it. It's really three parts of
this and one is the public, another is government agencies and another is industries
and the manufacturers. With greater public awareness, when they become aware of
the links between exposure to pollutants and health effects and also what they can
do to improve their indoor air environments then I think that will bring around more
attention by government agencies, more regulations and then the industry may start
to reformulate products to make them acceptable to greater numbers of consumers.
What can I do as an individual? For example, do indoor plants actually work?
This is a great question because the good news is that there are things that we can
do as individuals to improve our indoor air environment and there has been
significant research done on plants and the ways that they can improve indoor air
quality. Thinking about consumer products, people ask me well what should we
use? Given that you've tested all these consumer products and they all emit
potentially hazardous chemicals, what can we do? Well one recommendation is to
go back to using what our grandparents used, very simple products to clean with
such as vinegar and baking soda, what's called bicarbonate of soda because you
can clean perfect well with combinations of these types of very simple products. You
don't necessarily need combinations of chemical mixtures to clean well, also to think
about dealing with the source of the pollutants rather than trying to mask them. For
instance, instead of air fresheners which can emit a range of potentially hazardous
chemicals and air fresheners are not designed to disinfect or clean the air. Instead
of using chemical products to mask the problem, instead increase ventilation. Open
up a window.
Anne, we all like to be fresh and clean but we may not want to use vinegar or bicarb
so where do we go?
A common question I get is given that I've tested all these consumer products and all
the ones I tested emitted potentially hazardous chemicals, what options are there?
Well what I recommend is that whenever possible choose fragrance-free versions of
the products. Now the fragrance-free versions don't have the mixtures of fragrance
chemicals that the studies have shown to be problematic for individuals. For
instance, I conducted two national epidemiological studies in the United States and
found that over 30 per cent of the population surveyed reported adverse health
effects when exposed to fragrance products. These products are particularly a
problem for people with asthma and other sensitive individuals. Even though a
fragrance-free doesn't guarantee a non-toxic product because there can still be
potentially toxic chemicals in the main product base, nonetheless it reduces the
hazards associated with the addition of the fragrance chemicals. That's my main
recommendation is to choose fragrance-free versions whenever possible and also in
cases to avoid using things such as air fresheners which aren't designed necessarily
to clean the air but instead add a range of chemicals to an existing air quality
Anne, a lot of people wear fragrances but there are a lot of people who are very
sensitive like asthmatics. Can you comment on that?
That's one of the most comment things I hear from people around the world is that
they have adverse health effects due to other people wearing fragrance, using
fragranced products, cleaning with fragranced products, using air fresheners, even
washing their clothes in scented laundry detergents and dryer sheets. It's a problem
that I've called "second-hand scents" referring to the adverse health effects caused
by one person's wearing a fragranced product on other people. Now I've done
several epidemiological studies of the links between exposure to fragranced products
in asthma. What I've found is that fragranced products are a primary trigger of
asthma attacks. I've found that air fresheners triggered asthma attacks in 40 per
cent of asthmatics and scented laundry products triggered attacks in 20 per cent of
Yes, in fact it's a problem for people in the workplace who have asthma because
they often have to go home, they can't go to work, they love their jobs but they can't
be in the office because of the use of scented products. A typical scenario, in fact
I'm dealing with a case right now, is that there are two asthmatic women in a
workplace here and they're unable to be in the office because of the use of scented
products in the workplace. Now they love their jobs, they want to be there but every
time they go into work they get sick. They told their supervisors about the
problematic products such as air fresheners. The supervisors look at the labels of
the air fresheners and it says things such as organic perfume and essential oils.
Then the supervisors say well look at these air fresheners, they're perfectly safe.
They just have these very simple sounding ingredients but what people don't realise
and this is what my studies revealed, is that these products don't disclose their
ingredients. In my studies fewer than three per cent of any ingredients were
disclosed and also claims such as green, organic, all natural, essential oils are very
misleading and essentially meaningless because there are no regulations of these
terms on consumer products. I should say that when it concerns foods ?certified
organic? means something when it concerns food. There are very strict regulations
for ?certified organic? but oftentimes consumer products and even some food
products may toss around the term organic, green, natural, non-toxic in hopes
perhaps to increase sales but what my studies have found is that chemically there's
no real significant difference between these products and the other ones and that all
the products emitted potentially hazardous chemicals.
Anne, thanks for being our guest here on Up Close.
Thank you so much, Andi.
We've been speaking about indoor air quality and consumer product emissions with
environmental pollutants expert, Anne Steinemann. She's Professor of Civil
Engineering and the Chair of Sustainable Cities in the Department of Infrastructure
and Engineering at the University of Melbourne. You'll find a full transcript and more
info on this and all of our episodes on the Up Close website. Up Close is a
production of the University of Melbourne, Australia. This episode was recorded on
23 April 2015. Producer was Eric van Bemmel, audio engineering by Gavin
Nebauer. Up Close was created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. I'm Dr
You've been listening to Up Close. For more information, visit
upclose.unimelb.edu.au. You can also find us on Twitter and Facebook. Copyright
2015, the University of Melbourne.
After more than 400 episodes, we’re taking a look back at some of the gems in our archives.
In this episode, civil and environmental engineer Professor Anne Steinemann outlines the causes and consequences of poor indoor air quality, and in particular the potentially hazardous fumes generated by home cleaning and personal care products.
“The types of pollutants may be different but the underlying theme is the same, it is that people are becoming sick from exposure to pollutants that are common indoors. And the irony is that most of our exposure to hazardous pollutants occurs precisely in those environments that we consider safe, our homes, in our offices, our indoor air environments. That’s what my research is investigating, is what are the sources of these pollutants and what can we do about it?” – Professor Steinermann
Producer: Eric Van Bemmel
Audio engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Recorded: 23 April 2015
Banner image: Pixabay
This episode was first published on Up Close on 8 May 2015
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