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For Joyce Miller, one sniff of scented laundry detergent can trigger an asthma attack.

“What happens is I feel like someone is standing on my chest,” the 57-year-old professor of library science in upstate New York said. “It’s almost like a choking feeling—pressure and choking. And then the coughing starts.”

Miller is among the many Americans sensitive to “fragrance,” the cryptic ingredient added to thousands of products, from cleaning supplies to toiletries. The term encompasses thousands of combinations of chemicals that give consumer goods their pleasant odors. But specific chemicals in any given product rarely are disclosed to consumers.

For decades, fragrance makers have insisted on treating their recipes as trade secrets, even as complaints about negative health effects have become more common. A 2009 study, for example, found that more than a quarter of Americans were irritated by the smell of scented products on other people while 19 percent experienced headaches or breathing difficulties from air fresheners.

The industry, with estimated global sales of $40 billion per year, says that it ensures the safety of fragrances through a rigorous system of self-regulation administered by its trade group, the International Fragrance Association. But a tiny women’s advocacy organization in Missoula, Montana, recently outlined what it says are troubling flaws in the industry’s science as well as scores of toxic chemicals used in its mixtures.

The industry association’s North American branch declined to speak to FairWarning about the findings. Chemical giant BASF, an association member, also declined comment. Calls to four other membersPhoenix Aromas & Essential Oils, Premier Specialties, Flavor & Fragrance Specialties Inc. and Bedoukian Research—were not returned.

“There’s a real kind of state of ignorance on the part of scientists, on the part of researchers, on the part of consumers, on what is in fragrance and how safe fragrances are for your health,” Alexandra Scranton, the director of science and research at Women’s Voices for the Earth, a nonprofit seeking to eliminate toxic chemicals that predominately affect women, said. “We were trying to pick apart the claim that the industry is making that they are ensuring the safety of fragrance.”

Questions about the safety of fragrances are not new. A 2005 California law, the California Safe Cosmetics Act, requires cosmetics manufacturers to report any products that contain ingredients known or suspected to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. The data is posted on a website at safecosmetics.cdph.ca.gov. However, the public database does not list ingredients identified as trade secrets, including fragrances. The program also has met with complaints from experts that some cosmetics firms failed to report their ingredients.

At the federal level, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Consumer Products Safety Commission have limited oversight of fragrances. The FDA, which has authority over cosmetics and cosmetic ingredients, doesn’t require cosmetics makers to prove their products or ingredients are safe before putting them on the market. It’s up to the agency to prove harm before a product can be pulled from the shelves. The FDA also requires cosmetics to list their ingredients, but allows a trade secret exemption for chemicals deemed to be fragrance or flavor.

Meanwhile, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has authority over other scented products, such as laundry detergents and air fresheners. The commission, however, does not have an active program to screen fragrances.

“Government has failed to provide a real regulator,” which is a problem, Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, said. “There are plenty of examples of where counting on the good graces of industry has wound up being a mistake.”

In 2008, Women’s Voices began pressing the industry to reveal the specific ingredients. Two years later, the International Fragrance Association posted on its website a list of some 3,000 chemicals used by its members.

Late last year, Women’s Voices published a review of those chemicals, finding that a large number of them appear on official lists of hazardous chemicals or are banned or restricted in consumer products. For example, a comprehensive classification of chemical hazards adopted by the United Nations tags 1,175 chemicals on the fragrance list with the word “warning” and labels another 190 fragrance chemicals as a “danger,” according to Women’s Voices.

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