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Take a sniff around your home. Are you proud of your pine-fresh floors, the floral scent of your bathroom, or the cinnamon candle in your bedroom? Advertisements remind us of the necessity of a “fresh smelling home,” making us feel self-conscious about the everyday smells in our lives.

Fragrances are designed to make you, your car, your home and offices smell good, but are there serious side effects? In a recently released study of 17 name-brand fragrances co-authored by EWG and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, fragrances were found to contain secret ingredients, chemicals not listed on the label, with troubling hazardous properties.

Tests found 38 unlisted chemicals. The average fragrance tested contained 14 secret chemicals. Among them are chemicals associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions, and many substances that have not been assessed for safety in personal care products by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the industry’s own safety panel.

In 1973 Congress passed the federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. The law, which requires companies to list cosmetics ingredients on the product labels, specifically exempts fragrances. Since then, the vague word “fragrance” is all you’ll find on the label. If there’s anything to be grateful for in this, “fragrance” is a recognizable word that is easily avoided by label readers.

The FDA has not assessed the vast majority of these secret fragrance chemicals for safety when used in spray-on personal care products and of the chemicals that have been tested, there isn’t a lot of good news. The vague term “fragrance” covers chemicals that can be linked to reproductive damage, hormone disruption, can trigger allergic reactions and even cause birth defects.

In a world of anti-bacterial and squeaky clean, we’ve become afraid to embrace our natural scents. We perfume ourselves silly, and it’s costing us more than the cost of these products.

In fear of body odor, pet smells, foot stench and bad breath, some feel we’ve lost control of our senses.

Perfumes are so pervasive that we’ve stopped even noticing their presence. Have you ever tried to buy shampoo without a fruit or floral scent? How about laundry detergent? Now they’re being injected into floor and bathroom cleaners, placed in our shoes, on fabric softeners, and sprayed onto our home’s “soft surfaces.”

According to the National Academy of Sciences, 95 per cent of chemicals now used in fragrance are synthetic compounds, often petroleum based. (Medical News Today, 19 Jun 2004).

Research suggests these chemicals may act as hormone disrupters (possibly causing birth defects in boys and early puberty in girls), carcinogens (causing cancer), and neural damage to those who apply them.

The use of some phthalates has been questioned, and indeed banned from products in the European Union.

Paul Fox, a spokesperson from Proctor and Gamble, assures that his company has rigorous safety protocols, which ensure that all their household items and packaging are safe for both consumers and the environment. He confirms that all requirements are met for each country in which their goods are marketed and sold.

Stacy Malkan, Communications Director for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, is less confident. She’s been fighting for increased awareness and government regulation surrounding the personal care products industry. She says that no level of exposure is safe, and that the political climate of deregulation has fostered the growth of cheap ingredients, to the extent that we’ve lost control over our own exposure.

“Now we’re in a mess where all these chemicals are everywhere and there’s not a good safety net that requires companies to be responsible for the chemicals they use and choose the safest alternatives.”

Most consumers are unaware that their products could be unsafe, and Malkan challenges that most chemicals have not been tested for health effects. This is in contrast to the European Market, which Malkan reports is making drastic changes to the way chemicals and household products are regulated. “Europe has passed REACH, which will require companies to safety test chemicals that have been used for decades. This will result in changes in the market globally, as awareness increases about the toxic nature of chemicals.”

REACH stands for “Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals.” The European Commission reports that the system, which was adopted in June, 2007, strives to improve human health by minimizing exposure to dangerous chemicals. Europe has also banned toxic substances from electronics, personal care products and other consumer goods.

Malkan worries what will happen in the North American market is that all the products that don’t pass European safety standards will be sold in North America. “We’ll become a dumping ground.”

In the meantime, for the sake of personal health she recommends avoiding unnecessary exposure to synthetic chemicals by choosing products with simpler ingredient lists, avoiding synthetic fragrances, and avoiding unnecessary products like scented soaps, bubble bath and air fresheners, which provide “gratuitous exposure to chemicals.”

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