Hidden hazards found in green products

A University of Melbourne researcher has found that common consumer products, including those marketed as ‘green’, ‘all-natural’, ‘non-toxic’, and ‘organic’, emit a range of compounds that could harm human health and air quality. But most of these ingredients are not disclosed to the public.

Dr. Anne Steinemann, Professor of Civil Engineering, and the Chair of Sustainable Cities, from the Department of Infrastructure Engineering, Melbourne School of Engineering, is a world expert on environmental pollutants, air quality, and health effects.

Professor Steinemann investigated and compared volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from 37 different products, such as air fresheners, cleaning products, laundry supplies, and personal care products, including those with certifications and claims of ‘green’ and ‘organic’. Both fragranced and fragrance-free products were tested.

The study, published in the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health found 156 different VOCs emitted from the 37 products, with an average of 15 VOCs per product. Of these 156 VOCs, 42 are classified as toxic or hazardous under US federal laws, and each product emitted at least one of these chemicals.

Findings revealed that emissions of carcinogenic hazardous air pollutants from ‘green’ fragranced products were not significantly different from regular fragranced products.

In total, over 550 volatile ingredients were emitted from these products, but fewer than three percent were disclosed on any product label or material safety data sheet (MSDS).

“The paradox is that most of our exposure to air pollutants occurs indoors and a primary source is consumer products. But the public lacks full and accurate information on the ingredients in these products. Our indoor air environments are essentially unregulated and unmonitored,” Professor Steinemann said.

The most common chemicals in fragranced products were terpenes, which were not in fragrance-free versions. Terpenes readily react with ozone in the air to generate a range of additional pollutants, such as formaldehyde and ultrafine particles.

At this time, consumer products sold in Australia, the US and around the world are not required to list all ingredients, or any ingredients in a chemical mixture called ‘fragrance’.

“Given the lack of information, consumers may choose products with claims such as green, natural, or organic, but those claims are largely untested,” Professor Steinemann said.

Professor Steinemann will continue to investigate how and why we’re exposed to pollutants and ways to reduce risks and improve health.

Additional Information:

  • Products selected are commonly used in Australia, the US, and other countries in a range of environments (e.g., homes, schools, hospitals, workplaces, hotels, restaurants, stores, residential buildings, parks, child care and aged care facilities, gyms, homeless shelters, government buildings, airports, planes and public transport).
  • Gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) headspace analysis was used to identify VOCs emitted from 37 products, representing air fresheners and deodorizers (sprays, gels, solids, oils, and disks), laundry products (detergents, dryer sheets, and fabric softeners), cleaning supplies (all-purpose cleaners, window and surface cleaners, disinfectants, and dishwashing liquids), and personal care products (soaps, hand sanitisers, sunscreens, lotions, baby lotions, deodorants, shampoos, and baby shampoo).
  • Ingredients in consumer products and in fragrance formulations, are exempt from full disclosure to the public.
  • For laundry products, cleaning supplies, and air fresheners, labels do not need to list all ingredients, or the presence of a fragrance in the product.
  • For personal care products and cosmetics, labels need to list ingredients, except the general term “fragrance” or “parfum” may be used instead of listing the individual ingredients in the fragrance.
  • For all products, material safety data sheets do not need to list all ingredients.
  • Fragrance ingredients are exempt from full disclosure in any product, not only in Australia and the US but also internationally.

The full article “Volatile Emissions from Common Consumer Products” is available on Professor Steinemann’s website.

Professor Steinemann is available for interview. For more information, contact Annie Rahilly (Media office): 9035 5380/0432 758 734 or on

In the media:

“University of Melbourne study warns of harmful compounds found in cleaning products” by Lucie Van Den Berg, Herald Sun, 3 March 2015.

“”Green’ cleaning products may not be what they seem”, by Alana Schetzer, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 March 2015.

 “”Green’ cleaning products may not be what they seem”, by Alana Schetzer, Canberra Times, 3 March 2015.

“Australian researchers find some so-called ‘green’ and ‘organic’ products are toxic” by Chris Pash, Business Insider, 4 March 2015.

“”Green’ cleaning products may not be what they seem”, by Alana Schetzer, The Age, 3 March 2015.

“‘Green’ household products aren’t eco-friendly: study”, by Meredith Engel, New York Daily News, 3 March 2015.

“Toxic threat lurks in many cleaners”, Press Reader, Courier Mail, 4 March 2015.



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  1. Iapplaud Dr. Steineman’s great work uncovering the hazards of fragrance chemicals in particular.
    As a person with severe sensitivities to fragrances, it is discouraging to see how the essential oil business is pretending their products are “green” etc. One of their essential oil lines is even called the “Terpenes”, which are every bit as toxic as formaldehyde in non-plant-based fragrances. In the milling and distilling process they become like turpentine, a highly toxic, plant-based solvent. No one should breathe these toxic chemicals.

  2. Yvonne Buchanan says:

    I was glad to read this article on potentially toxic airborne pollutants as I suffer with eye allergies, often unexplained. Always dismissed as “hay fever” whether anything locally is blooming or during a recognised “hay fever” season.
    I’d been recently made aware of microbial/preservatives in household and skin care products that have had a big impact on the rise of allergies from babies to adults. In particular the Methylchloroisothiazolinone and Methylisothiazolinone {MCI/MI) chemicals.
    I have found on reading product labels that more often than not these chemicals are not listed as well as on the MSDS here in Australia. Only after some exhaustive searching, you may be able to find some complete list of ingredients, but that is rare.
    I think it is criminal that disclosure is not law.
    I hope that further research into these chemical pollutants will expose this inadequacy in the regulation and for the safety sake of everyone that will be rectified. Regards.

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