Is “Fragrance” Making Us Sick?

February 2, 2016

For decades, fragrance makers have insisted on treating their recipes as trade secrets, even as complaints about negative health effects have proliferated. A 2009 study, for example, concluded that nearly one-third of Americans were irritated by the smell of scented products on others, and 19 percent experienced headaches or breathing difficulties when exposed to air fresheners or deodorizers.

The fragrance industry, with projected global sales of $40 billion this year, insists it ensures the safety of its products through a rigorous system of self-regulation administered by its trade group, the International Fragrance Association. But Women’s Voices for the Earth, a small consumer advocacy group in Missoula, Montana, recently outlined some troubling flaws in the industry’s methods and identified scores of chemicals used in its mixtures as toxic substances.

The Fragrance Association’s North American branch declined to comment for this story, as did association member BASF, the chemical giant. Four other members—Phoenix Aromas & Essential Oils, Premier Specialties, Flavor & Fragrance Specialties Inc., and Bedoukian Research—did not return phone calls.

“There’s a real kind of state of ignorance on the part of scientists, on the part of researchers, on the part of consumers, on what is in fragrance and how safe fragrances are for your health,” says Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research at Women’s Voices, whose mission is to eliminate toxic chemicals that predominately affect women. “We were trying to pick apart the claim that the industry is ensuring the safety of fragrance.”

This problem isn’t new. In 2005, California passed the Safe Cosmetics Act, which compels manufacturers to report any product containing ingredients suspected to cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm. But the reporting database doesn’t include ingredients, including fragrance chemicals, that the companies identify as trade secrets—and experts worry some manufacturers are failing to comply altogether.

At the federal level, the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees cosmetics, doesn’t require manufacturers to prove in advance that their ingredients are safe—the FDA must demonstrate harm before requesting a recall. And while the agency compels cosmetics makers to disclose their ingredients, it, too, has a trade-secret exemption for fragrance or flavor chemicals. Products such as laundry detergents and air fresheners fall under the purview of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, which does not actively screen fragrances for safety.

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