Environment

The hidden dangers of fragrance chemicals and why no one is protecting you from them

By  | 
Children in soft warm pajamas playing at home

Image: Shutterstock/Alena Ozerova

After his wife, Heather, died of cancer, Jon Whelan had to take on new responsibilities in the family—like deciding what to buy his two young daughters for Christmas. Doing what a lot of parents do, he ended up at the computer ordering presents online from some of the girls’ favorite stores. Since their top favorite spot at the time was Justice, a nationwide ‘tween’ girls’ clothing chain, Jon stopped by their website first and ordered some items including pajamas for the girls. Sadly, the excitement of opening presents didn’t last long past the girls’ opening their pajamas from Justice on Christmas morning. Jon knew something was very wrong when an overwhelming smell of chemicals came out of the pajamas’ package—and it was all over the pajamas. He set out at that moment to find out what the smell was, and over the course of several months discovered a multitude of issues related to the chemical industry, laws, lobbying and the labelling of “fragrance” in this country. His discoveries are shared in a documentary appropriately named “STINK.”

Fragrance chemicals are protected as proprietary

One of the first of Jon’s discoveries was that no one at Justice could, or would, answer his questions about the pajamas’ smell—including the CEO. As it turns out, companies are not required to disclose information they consider to be “proprietary,” which apparently covers the fragrance chemicals. This information is protected by the federal government as a ‘trade secret,’ and covers the fragrance in an outstanding number of products from household cleaning supplies to scented plug-ins, fabrics, body lotions, cleansers, feminine hygiene products, shampoos and even cosmetics. These chemical ingredients are not required to be on the label of the products we use, even when they have specifically been linked to health concerns like cancer, infertility, asthma and obesity, among others. And while the loophole in labelling law allows ‘fragrance’ to be listed as a single ingredient, it often comprises hundreds of synthetic fragrance chemicals, many of them toxic.

So, Jon decided to take the pajamas to a laboratory for a chemical analysis. The results were astounding—but first, an explanation of how we got to this point with chemicals is in order.

A history of fragrance chemicals in the U.S.

In the 1960s a woman’s risk of cancer was about 1 in 20. Today, it’s about 1 in 8. Perhaps the obsession over how we smell (men included) and the subsequent slathering of our bodies with the chemicals in scented colognes, body sprays and lotions is partly to blame. While we fantasize that our fragrances are made from vanilla and flower petals, the fact is they are actually made from chemicals produced in factories which are created to mimic natural smells. Petroleum or plants are usually the main ingredients in our fragrances, whether they are natural or synthetic. While natural fragrance makers often list their ingredients on the label willingly, synthetics are typically not listed as they are not required to be. Why not? The short answer: because the companies using them don’t want to get sued for liability if you get sick and they know you might.

Fragrance chemicals in the environment seep into our bodies and our unborn babies’ bodies

In a study which tested umbilical cord blood from ten babies born in the United States, 287 chemicals were found to be present, a number very close to the amount found in most adult blood tested, according to Jane Houlihan of the Environmental Working Group, who Whelan personally interviewed in his documentary. Houlihan explains that such chemicals as teflon, scotchguard, flame retardants and fragrance chemicals, as well as waste from burning gasoline and garbage were all identified in the umbilical cord blood—solid evidence of how these harmful chemicals seep through our environment, into our bodies, and then make their way into our babies’ unborn bodies.

Phthalates and endocrine disrupting chemicals

According the Whelan’s movie, phthalates are some of the chemicals of greatest concern out of the 80,000 chemicals used in our every day products. Phtalates are found in everything we use from cleaning products to fragrances, plastics to pesticides. They are members of a group of man-made molecules called Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals, or EDCs. These EDCs bind to our cells and mimic our body’s natural systems, particularly those involving hormones, to influence our bodies’ responses. This mimicking causes various problems interfering with normal processes, such as disruptions in our body’s hormonal secretions or other activity after receiving chemical signals from EDCs, which usually invade our bodies through the nose, mouth and skin. In addition, mutagens lead to changes in the DNA molecules themselves which tell the body to turn on or off certain genes—and, thus, according to Whelan, we are “quietly becoming genetically modified by toxic chemicals.” Of course, these mutagens are hidden from the public and government regulators for obvious reasons, and are likely linked to increases in autism, breast cancer, reproductive problems, childhood cancer, diabetes, obesity and more as we are gain exposure to the fragrance chemicals over time—a term for which is the “body burden.”

The pajama analysis: Phthalates and compound six

When the Justice pajamas were analyzed, the lab chemist reported to Jon that problematic compounds were found—including two phthalates, which are toxic to young girls, even in very small amounts. Compound Six was also found—basically a flame retardant which was banned thirty years ago in children’s clothing for being a mutagen and carcinogen.

Flame retardants and other chemicals are not tested—except on us

Flame retardants being placed in pajamas and other household items originated due to the problem of cigarette smoking causing fires. At first, cigarettes themselves were targeted to solve the problem, and a substance was created to make them self-extinguish. However, smokers did not like the taste of the substance. So, rather than lose profits, the tobacco companies approached the chemical companies to request a flame retardant that could be used on mattresses and other fabrics instead of including the self-extinguishing substance in cigarettes. The flame retardant industry was soon created, and now flame retardants are included in countless household products, including children’s pajamas. But unfortunately, many in our government, including some government regulators, don’t know the harm in this, and there is no ‘FDA’-type entity for chemicals in our products. There is no such protection for consumers—and that is by design, according to Andy Igrejas, Director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. The co-founder of Seventh Generation, Jeffrey Hollender, further insists that there is no entity testing these chemicals to ensure they are safe. We, the consumers, are testing their safety—but not as volunteers. As guinea pigs.

These are only a few of the horrifying issues explored in Whelan’s movie, and are already sufficient enough to cause most consumers to stop buying anything with the mysterious “single ingredient” of ‘fragrance’—if that much is even listed on the label. The fragrance chemicals industry is extremely powerful, and you will see in the movie both how and why these abuses of our bodies and the environment continue. As you watch this movie, take notes and be sure to visit the “take action” section along the top of the website at stinkmovie.com for ways you can get involved, hold the fragrance chemicals companies accountable, and make our products, and world, safer for us all.

Kristen lives in the Michiana area, where she enjoys lake-effect weather, apple orchards and occasional South Shore rides into Chicago. She can probably tell you more about apple cider vinegar than you'd ever want to know. You can reach her at: http://lakesedge.wix.com/lakesidewriting