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In a world where consumers are increasingly warned about the consequences of poor air quality, and that we should be making more informed decisions about what could be healthier for us, it seems like we are still not making the best decisions. But it is not necessarily our fault. Upon analysing a range of common consumer products and comparing them with ‘non-toxic’, ‘green’, or ‘organic’ products, Professor Anne Steinemann found that there was no significant difference in the types of hazardous chemicals emitted between regular products and the green products – if they had a fragrance. For the products that have a fragrance – common items such as air fresheners, cleaning products, laundry supplies, and personal care products–her research found that they all emit hazardous chemicals like formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, which are carcinogens. Limonene is another common ingredient found in these products. When limonene reacts with ozone in the air, it generates formaldehyde and other hazardous pollutants.

These findings are from Steinemann’s study, Volatile emissions from common consumer products, 2015. The study rapidly gained momentum as news outlets reported on her findings. Its outcomes had clearly resonated with a lot of people as she found herself inundated with emails from people all over the world expressing their frustration with the products, and their gratitude for her research. “A lot of people would tell me that they felt sick around these common consumer products, and they couldn’t figure out why, but my study really confirmed it for them,” said Steinemann. “The problem is that the products are fragranced. Fragrance-free options can be better, because they don’t have the fragrance chemicals, but even fragrance-free doesn’t guarantee non-toxic.”

“One of my concerns about these so-called ‘natural’, ‘green’, ‘essential oils’, ‘plant-based’ products is that their claims may be misleading. People are trying to do the right thing and make good choices, so they buy these ecological products thinking that they’re somehow better or healthier, but not necessarily,” she said. “Even if the labels say that they have ‘organic’ elements and so on, they may also have hazardous chemicals.”

Non-disclosure of ingredients is a problem. Professor Steinemann refers to two women who were having chronic breathing difficulties and migraine headaches at work and they couldn’t figure out why. Conducting some research, they came across Professor Steinemann’s work and realised it was the air fresheners in the office that were making them sick. Upon looking at the ingredient list on the bottle, as well as the safety data sheet, and the website, the product only listed organic perfume. How could that be they wondered. What they found was relatively distressing: consumer products, Professor Steinemann told them, are not legally required to disclose all the ingredients that compose a certain fragrance. When we see ‘fragrance’ (or ‘perfume’) listed on an ingredient list, what we may not realise is that this ‘fragrance’ is typically made from several dozen to several hundred chemicals.

“It’s that way around the world,” said Professor Steinemann. “It’s not unique in Australia. Regulatory protection exists on ingredient disclosure for regular consumer products, for fragrance formulations, and even for flavour formulations.”

“That’s something that I want for public awareness and education, is that when people look at a label, and they think they are seeing all ingredients, actually they’re not. My studies found that typically fewer than three percent of all ingredients are disclosed on a label, or the safety data sheet, or the website,” she said.

Concerning air fresheners, Professor Steinemann explained that they just mask an existing air quality problem, they don’t necessarily clean or freshen, or disinfect the air, and they generate hazardous air pollutants. “People think that air-fresheners are used for hygiene, but actually it’s the other way around – the air fresheners can be primary cause of indoor air pollutants, and they’re associated with asthma attacks, migraines headaches, and other health problems.” In fact, explained Professor Steinemann, there is quite the menu of symptoms that arise from fragrance based products. When we begin to experience symptoms from fragranced products (like dizziness, or breathing difficulties – even general unease), our body is telling us that there is something wrong. “If we look at the pollutants indoors, and the studies that we have of indoor air quality, one of the dominant air pollutants are fragrance chemicals, and one of the dominant sources of these fragrance chemicals are the fragranced consumer products,” said Professor Steinemann. “The real questions then is why are these fragrance products associated with such a range of adverse health effects? This is what my research is investigating.”

Professor Steinemann has conducted two national studies in the United States, and has just completed a national study in Australia, to learn about the prevalence of health effects associated with fragrance products. The results from her US based studies found that 20 percent of the general population and 40 percent of asthmatics suffered from adverse health effects such as headaches and breathing difficulties when exposed to fragranced products. On top of this, indoor air quality has significant economic consequences. A study by the CSIRO showed that poor indoor air quality costs Australia an estimated $12 billion per year in lost worker health and productivity. And this is just about productivity, not all the other types of expenses associated with poor indoor air quality, like medical expenses. Additionally, the toxicity of products changes according to what it reacts with. It all depends on reactive chemistry, explained Professor Steinemann. “Everything depends on your exposure setting, so you could have a chemical that can have toxic effects but if it’s mixed with other chemicals, it can have a whole other set of toxic effects. And children, the elderly, asthmatics, and vulnerable individuals can be more affected by the chemicals. So it all depends on individual susceptibility as well,” she said.

It’s troubling when you think that indoor air quality is not regulated, especially when there is an abundance of research and cases indicating the harm that it does not only to people, but also the economic consequences. Professor Steinemann finds it to be an incredible paradox that more than 90 percent of our exposure to pollutants occurs indoors, yet the indoors is not regulated and monitored, and that one of the primary sources of our exposures indoors are consumer products, yet those products are also not regulated and monitored for their emissions, nor required to disclose all ingredients.

“Oftentimes when people start to feel unwell, they often think that’s just life, when instead they could be asking whether there’s something they’re being exposed to that’s causing the effects,” said Professor Steinemann. She has now received now over 3,500 emails (and counting) from people around the world, on the basis of her research detailing the kinds of health effects they were having from common products.

“We shouldn’t be made to feel that we need all these multi-coloured chemical products. We think we need them to be clean and to disinfect, but we don’t. The best smell is no smell.”

“But they also told me – and this is the good news – that when they stopped using certain products, the ill health effects went away,” she said. “Or people in the workplaces tell me – when their employer stopped using air fresheners and scented cleaning products, their health problems went away.”

We also need to learn to question the products that we use. “We’re exposed to things in consumer products just like we are in foods. Whether we ingest or inhale them, or put them on our skin, they still get into our bodies. And so my motto is that if you can’t eat it or drink it, don’t clean with it because it’s eventually going to get into your body,” she explained.

Concerning cleaning products, she says, “I’m really concerned about the marketing. We shouldn’t be made to feel that we need all these multi-coloured chemical products. We think we need them to be clean and to disinfect, but we don’t. The best smell is no smell.”

“What I want to do is be optimistic,” said Professor Steinemann. “My message is one of hope, and solutions, because you can’t go through life thinking everything is toxic, because it’s not. Nor can we go through life thinking that living with the symptoms is part of life. What my real message is that the major sources of pollutants are ones that we can substitute with safer, healthier, and less expensive alternatives.”

For instance, for cleaning you can clean perfectly well with vinegar and bicarb – vinegar disinfects very well and bicarb is good to scrub with. These are things that are inexpensive, effective and they are not necessarily associated with the types of health effects that other cleaning products are. There is a simple alternative for air fresheners: just open a window, turn on a fan, rather than spraying a product around that only worsens air quality and poses health risks.

For every letter of the thousands that Professor Steinemann receives, she always responds, and posts some letters on her website (with the writers’ permission) because it can give hope to other people. “Other people can read their stories and see that they’re not alone, and see that things can get better,” she said. (Her website is www.drsteinemann.com, and stories are under “Testimonials”.)

“I’m just happy if I can help one person in one way. I would feel that my life and my research are worthwhile. I’m very blessed, I’m very lucky to be here, I just feel very fortunate.” She loves being a civil and environmental engineer. All of her degrees are in civil and environmental engineering and she has always loved science and math, and wanted to find a way to make science and math to help society, to have a public focus. Engineering was perfect, she found, because engineering is a link between science and society, giving her the ability to work on analytic and mathematical problems but with a societal solution. “A lot of my work involves talking with people, talking with industries, talking with public agencies, talking with people to find out how can research help, because I’m really interested in how as an engineer and a scientist I can do research that can help society,” she said.

“That’s what’s so rewarding, what makes me feel very happy about the work that I do: if I can help just one person, if one person just tells me that their kids don’t have asthma attacks any more, or that their migraine headaches went away, or that they can keep working at their job, or that they feel so much healthier just because of a simple change, it makes my work worthwhile.”