Toxic Laundry

If you are looking to avoid toxic products in your household, you should look more closely at your laundry detergent and fabric softener.

The University of Washington recently tested 25 bestselling national brands of scented laundry detergent, some of which were labeled as “natural” brands, and found that every single one of them emitted at least one carcinogen along with several other hazardous air pollutants.

For the study, which focused on the fumes emitted through laundry vents, researchers first purchased and pre-rinsed new, organic cotton towels. They asked two homeowners to volunteer their washers and dryers, cleaned the insides of the machines with vinegar, and ran full cycles using only water to eliminate as much residue as possible.

At the first home, they ran a regular laundry cycle and analyzed the vent fumes for three cases: once with no products, once with a leading brand of scented liquid laundry detergent, and finally with both the leading detergent and a leading brand of scented dryer sheets. A canister placed inside the dryer vent opening captured the dryer’s fumes 15 minutes into each drying cycle. Researchers then repeated the procedure with the washer and dryer at the second home.

Their analysis of the captured gases found that more than 25 volatile organic compounds, including seven hazardous air pollutants, were coming out of the dryer vents at both homes. Two of the chemicals found in the captured gases – acetaldehyde and benzene – are classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as carcinogens with no safe exposure level.

“These products can affect not only personal health, but also public and environmental health. The chemicals can go into the air, down the drain and into water bodies,” said lead author Anne Steinemann, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs. The University of Washington didn’t disclose the specific brands of leading detergents they used or detail what the health effects of the toxic fumes are but merely informed consumers to be aware that they are there, even in detergents labeled “natural.”

Buying environmentally friendly products has become increasingly popular throughout the U.S. – sales in the healthy product market, which includes green products as well as those promoting personal health or benefiting the environment, totaled $722 billion in 2009, up 41% from 2004. The market is expected to hit $992 billion by 2014.

But with no regulations guiding terms like “green” and “natural” and no requirements for manufacturers to disclose the chemicals they use to add fragrance, consumers are often fooled into buying household products that are falsely advertised to be healthier.

Steinemann recommends using laundry products without any fragrance or scent, but you can also make your own laundry detergent with of a mix of Borax, all-natural soap and Arm & Hammer’s Washing Soda to ensure your laundry routine is safe and chemical-free. Making your own detergent can also be an incredibly cost-effective alternative that still fights stains. Trent Hamm, who blogs about managing money on, found that nine loads of laundry washed with his homemade detergent was the price equivalent to one load of laundry washed with Tide with Bleach Alternative.

Smart phone users can also download apps like GoodGuide, which scans a product’s barcode and quickly pulls up its health and environmental ratings, to help shoppers make informed decisions concerning which laundry detergent goes into their cart.