SUMMIT COUNTY — Unregulated chemicals in laundry products emit more than 20 volatile organic compounds when they’re used in household dryers. The compounds include seven hazardous air pollutants and two known carcinogens — acetaldehyde and benzene — for which the EPA has not established safe exposure levels.
The University of Washington research suggests that, based on the amount of laundry products used in the region, household clothes dryers could account for the equivalent of 6 percent of the amount of acetaldehyde emissions coming from automobiles.
The study was done by Anne Steinemann, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and of public affairs. Steineman previously used chemical sleuthing to deduce what chemicals are being used in fragranced consumer products.
Steinemann says she was spurred to do the study by people reporting adverse reactions to fragranced air coming from laundry vents. The project’s website includes letters from the public reporting health effects from scented consumer products.
“This is an interesting source of pollution because emissions from dryer vents are essentially unregulated and unmonitored,” Steinemann said. “If they’re coming out of a smokestack or tail pipe, they’re regulated, but if they’re coming out of a dryer vent, they’re not.”
The research builds on earlier work that looked at what chemicals are released by laundry products, air fresheners, cleaners, lotions and other fragranced consumer products. Manufacturers are not required to disclose the ingredients used in fragrances, or in laundry products.
The latest study focused on chemicals 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 inside 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 the leading brand of scented liquid laundry detergent, and finally with both the detergent and a leading brand of scented dryer sheets. A canister placed inside the dryer vent opening captured the exhaust 15 minutes into each drying cycle. Researchers then repeated the procedure with a different washer and dryer at a second home.
“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,” Steinemann said.
“We focus a lot of attention on how to reduce emissions of pollutants from automobiles,” Steinemann said. “And here’s one source of pollutants that could be reduced.”
Steinemann recommends using laundry products without any fragrance or scent.