Laundry’s Dirty Little Secret: Wearable Air Pollution

By Michael Dover Gazette Contributing Writer

Let’s try a little experiment. When you see the words “air pollution,” what pictures come to mind? Perhaps you envision a belching smokestack from a factory or power plant, or a tailpipe on a car or truck spewing exhaust. But what if I asked you to look in your own home? You might be surprised to learn that your laundry room is a possible source of toxic air pollution, and that you could be wearing the problem every day.

Last year, a reader of this column sent me an article describing a study done in Seattle. The authors, from the University of Washington and the Batelle Research Institute, tested the air coming from dryer vents and what they found wasn’t as clean as we’d like to think. The culprits appear to be the fragrances added to laundry detergents and dryer sheets.

Overall, the researchers found more than 25 so-called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in dryer-vent air. Of these, seven are listed as hazardous air pollutants by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including two—benzene and acetaldehyde—that are classified as probable carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals). The EPA says there is no safe level of exposure to these two compounds.

We might prefer to dismiss these findings as trivial—after all, how much can laundry contribute to air pollution? A lot, according to the Seattle researchers: They estimate that the acetaldehyde emitted by dryers in the Seattle area is about the same as the amount put out by 6 percent of all the automobiles in the region.

How many times have you walked by a house and smelled the fragrances coming out of its dryer vent? If you could smell them (and even if you couldn’t), you were inhaling these chemicals and some made their way into your bloodstream. Most likely, you didn’t notice any effect—unless you happen to be among a growing segment of the population that is chemically sensitive, usually experiencing multiple chemical sensitivities.

People with MCS are not oddballs or hypochondriacs; think of them instead as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. (Miners used to bring a canary into a mine because they were more sensitive to toxic gases. If the canary stopped singing, the miners knew they should evacuate.) Not only can VOCs cause cancer, but they can damage the nervous, respiratory and immune systems, as well as the liver and kidneys.

Chemically sensitive people react to VOCs and other substances sooner than most of us, but they are not alone in being affected. Far from it: They are warning signs that we all are exposed to risk.

It’s important to know the risk isn’t limited to the air coming from dryer vents. Clothes washed and dried with fragrances continue to exude VOCs into the space around the people wearing them. Everyone who comes in contact with someone wearing these clothes gets a dose of whatever chemicals are around the wearer. (Of course, the issue is compounded when people wear scents—perfumes, colognes, after-shave lotions, even shampoos. I don’t consider myself chemically sensitive, but I once felt ill just from being near someone who had washed her hair with a fragranced shampoo that morning.)

What can you do to stop adding to the toxins in the atmosphere? To begin with, don’t wear perfumes or other scents. Increasingly, public places such as offices and meeting places are declaring themselves fragrance-free, to be considerate of the chemically sensitive among us. You’ll be reducing your exposure to chemicals as well as helping others breathe easier.

You won’t be in the clear, however, unless you also eliminate fragrances from your laundry. Don’t buy laundry products with scents added. Look for detergents that say they are “free and clear” or similar wording to indicate they are scent-free. If you’re not sure, ask the store manager—and while you’re at it, let them know that you want them to offer more scent-free cleaning products, including soaps, shampoos and household cleansers.

Finally, don’t use dryer sheets, scented or unscented. If you can, air-dry your laundry; you’ll save energy and have fresh-smelling clothes without the expense and with no chemicals. We use an outdoor line in the warm weather and drying racks when we can’t hang the laundry outside. If you have to use a dryer, there are alternatives to dryer sheets. An online search will reveal numerous options, from putting a tennis ball or wadded-up aluminum foil into the dryer load (there are also commercially available “dryer balls” or instructions on how to make them yourself), to adding baking soda to the wash cycle and vinegar to the rinse cycle instead of fabric softeners.

It’s worth remembering that laundries got washed and dried for a very long time before these chemicals were available. Your clothes will get just as clean and dry without scented products—and you and your family will be healthier in the bargain.

Michael Dover is a retired environmental scientist and a member of the Hitchcock Center Board of Directors.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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