By Dawn Merritt
Laundry isn’t usually a favorite household chore. So if you’re looking for a reason to skip it, we have one: The “clean” smell of your laundered clothes may give you cancer or trigger asthma symptoms.
A University of Washington study of top-selling laundry products (a dryer sheet, a fabric softener and a detergent) and air fresheners (a solid deodorizer disk, a liquid spray and a plug-in oil) found that the “smell of freshness” may have serious health effects.
“I was surprised by both the number and the potential toxicity of the chemicals that were found,” said study author Anne Steinemann, a University of Washington professor of civil and environmental engineering and of public affairs. “Nearly 100 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were emitted from these six products, and none were listed on any product label. Plus, five of the six products emitted one or more carcinogenic ‘hazardous air pollutants,’ which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to have no safe exposure level.”
Two national surveys published earlier by Steinemann and a colleague found that 20 percent of respondents reported adverse health effects from air fresheners and about 10 percent complained of adverse effects from laundry products vented to the outdoors. Among people with asthma, the numbers were almost double. VOCs can irritate sensitive airways and cause asthma symptoms to flare up.
“Fragrance chemicals are of particular interest because of the potential for involuntary exposure, or secondhand scents,” Steinemann said. “Be careful if you buy products with fragrance, because you really don’t know what’s in them.”
You don’t need artificial fragrance or chemical cleaners to get rid of common household smells. Try these alternatives!
De-stink your socks: Add a half-cup of baking soda to your laundry during the rinse cycle for softer, odor-free clothing.
Dispose of disposal smells: Pour a half-cup of salt into the garbage disposal and run the disposal (following manufacturer’s directions). Or make white vinegar ice cubes, feed enough cubes into the disposal to fill it and then turn on the disposal; run cold water through afterward to rinse it clean.
Deodorize your drain: Pour baking soda down any drain to eliminate odors. (Do it with your kids – it bubbles up like a volcano!) For kitchen drains, you can pour a cup of white vinegar down the drain once a week, let it stand 30 minutes and flush with cold water.
Grapple with garbage: Pour baking soda directly into your garbage to eliminate odors.
Deodorize your car: Soak a piece of bread in white vinegar. Place it in a bowl or on a plate and leave it in the car overnight.
Freshen for all: Slice a lemon and put it into a pot of boiling water for an hour to refresh your whole home. If burnt toast left you with an unpleasant smoky smell, soak a towel in white vinegar, wring it out and swing it around the room to remove the odor of smoke from the air.
You can clean just about anything using baking soda, lemon, salt, white vinegar and/or Borax (a natural mineral). For more tips, check out The Humble Art of Zen-Cleansing by Michael De Jong (Sterling Publishing, Toronto, Canada) or visit www.vinegartips.com/cleaning.
An Ounce of Prevention
Prevent household stenches by eliminating musty books, boxes, cluttered closets and funky old appliances.
Ready for a clean sweep? Pick one room and bring in three bins labeled “Keep,” “Give Away/ Sell” and “Trash.” If you can’t even get your bins into the room due to clutter, empty the room out to the backyard. (Neighbors will think you’re on one of those reality shows!) Get the whole family involved – it will make the project go faster and help everyone feel responsible for keeping the space clean in the future. A few tips to help you make decisions on what to keep:
- Getting rid of books you’ve already read will greatly reduce clutter. Donate them to a school or library, pass them on to friends or set up a book swap at work.
- Boxes often aren’t necessary to return items to a store. Empty boxes just collect dust and make a nice home for mold and pests. Throw away boxes once you know an item works.
- Lend or donate baby clothes and toys to family or friends to give them a second life while decluttering your closets.
- Just because something was a gift doesn’t mean you have to keep it. Sell it at a yard sale, on eBay or through craigslist.org. Or regift it – just not to the person who gave it to you!
- House paint doesn’t last more than a year or so. Keep a file of sample paint chips for the colors you used instead.
- Kitchens can fill up quickly. Purge appliances and utensils that never see the light of day.
First published: The MA Report, October 2008
Updated: February 2009