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Health Risks of Fabric Softeners

© Echo/Ecological Housing, 1998


There are many potentially dangerous products used in the home. To list the chemicals in each of them and the health risks for each of these would produce a truly huge volume. We have chosen fabric softener as the prime illustrative example for a number of reasons.

It is the most toxic product produced for daily household use. It has been found to be associated with numerous illnesses and chronic conditions.

            1. It is widely advertised, widely used.
            2. The effects of its toxicity are insidious; a user becomes "chronically maladapted" to it. The exposure is so constant that it can be difficult to connect the product with the signs of reactivity it causes. Neurostimulant/irritants and central nervous system toxins used in these products are known to produce an addictive-type response that may cause the user to experience a feeling of pleasure when the product is directly inhaled. Regular users of fabric softeners (and perfumes) also often claim they "can hardly smell it". This too is an effect of chemical ingredients on neural receptors.
            3. The product is designed to impregnate fibres and slowly re-release for an extended period of time. That re-releasing affects the health not only of users, but those around them.

The following information contains a partial list of the chemical ingredients of fabric softeners and the potential effects of exposure to them as quoted from manufacturers' Material Safety Data Sheets. For the purposes of this document, Central Nervous System has been abbreviated to CNS. CNS toxin exposure symptoms include: dizziness, disorientation, nausea, headaches, mood swings, numbness in face or extremities, pain in neck or spine, memory loss, aphasia (difficulty speaking), confusion, irritability. CNS disorders include: Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Dementia, Seizures, Multiple Sclerosis, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Hyperactivity, Strokes, Attention Deficit Disorder, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

A good alternative to fabric softener or fabric softener sheets is a piece of aluminum foil.

Risks of Perfumes and Scented Products

The chemicals listed on the following page (along with Methylenechloride, Ethanol, Formaldehyde, and other petrochemicals and neurotoxins) are among the 4,000 chemical ingredients used in the manufacture of perfumes and scents. The Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) collected samples of every perfume sold in North America in 1993. Every sample contained Toluene (a proven carcinogen and neurotoxin designated as Hazardous Waste worldwide). Many also contain chemicals to mimic the pheronones (sex hormones) of insects, musk ox, apes, and pigs. (Sounds romantic, doesn't it) The health risks of these products are so varied and extreme it almost defies comprehension.

Chemical Ingredients in Fabric Softeners/Dryer Sheets:

Alpha-Terpineol: "Causes CNS disorders. Highly irritating to mucous membranes. Aspiration into lungs can produce pneumonitis or fatal edema. Lesser exposures can cause decreased circulation, headache, depression of CNS and/or respiratory function, ataxia (loss of muscle coordination), behavioral changes. Prevent repeated or prolonged skin contact."

Benzyl Acetate: "Carcinogenic. Vapors irritating to eyes and respiratory passages, exciting cough. In mice, pancreatic cancer, hyperanemia of the lungs. Can be absorbed through skin causing systemic effects. Do not flush to sewer system."

Benzyl Alcohol: "Associated with CNS disorders. Irritating to upper respiratory tract. Can cause headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, sudden drop in blood pressure, CNS depression, death due to respiratory failure."

Camphor: On E.P.A.'s Hazardous Waste list. "Avoid contact with eyes, skin, clothing. Do not breathe vapours. Inhalation can be fatal. Properties: anesthetic, neurotoxic, carcinogenic. Chronic effects of exposure may include liver and/or kidney damage. Medical conditions aggravated by exposure. Kidney disorders, liver disorders, heart disorders, skin disorders, allergic or respiratory conditions. May cause headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness, irritation of respiratory tract, loss of consciousness. Conditions to avoid: heat".

Ethyl Acetate: On EPA.'s Hazardous Waste list. "Narcotic, may cause headache, narcosis, stupour. Irritating to eyes and respiratory tract. May cause anemia with leukocytosis and damage to liver and kidneys. Wash thoroughly after handling."

Limonene: "Prevent contact with skin or eyes. Properties: irritant, sensitizer, carcinogenic. Always wash thoroughly after using, especially before eating, drinking, applying cosmetics. Do not inhale."

Linalool: "Narcotic. Associated with CNS disorders and respiratory disturbances. Attracts bees. In animal testing: ataxic gait, reduced spontaneous motor activity and depression, depressed heart activity, development of respiratory disturbances leading to death."

Pentane: "Danger: Harmful if inhaled. Inhalation of vapor may cause headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, irritation of respiratory tract and loss of consciousness. Contact can cause eye or skin irritation."

Safe Alternatives to Common Household Products:

These alternatives may require a little more "elbow grease", however the benefits are worth it-improved indoor air quality, decreased exposure to chemicals, fewer waste disposal concerns, convenience and lower costs.

For this Try this
Cleaning Products  
All purpose cleaner 1 tsp soap + 1 tsp borax + squeeze of lemon + 1 quart of warm water
For tough grease add ½ cup of ammonia
Bleach borax
Dish detergent natural liquid soap or phosphate free product, such as VIP
Drain cleaner ½ cup of white vinegar + ½ cup of baking soda. Cover tightly 1 minute then flush. Next ½ cup of salt + ½ cup of baking soda + 6 cups boiling water. Let sit several hours then flush with water.
Disinfectant ½ cup borax + 1 gallon hot water
Glass cleaner white vinegar + water - wipe with old newspaper
Hand cleaner (paint/grease) baby oil
Laundry detergent 1 cup of pure soap flakes or powder+ 3 tbsp washing soda
Linoleum floor cleaner 1 cup of white vinegar + 2 gallons of water
Oven cleaner 2 tbsp of liquid soap + 2 tsp borax + warm water
For baked on grease mix paste of baking soda + salt + water
Rug or carpet cleaner 2 cup cornmeal + 1 cup borax - sprinkle, leave for about 1 hour then vacuum
Scouring powder Baking soda
Toilet bowl cleaner Paste of borax + lemon juice - let stand then scrub
Tub/tile cleaner ½ cup of baking soda + ½ up of white vinegar, or drop 1000mg Vitamin C, leave overnight then scrub
Spot/Stain Remover  
Aluminum spot remover 2 tbsp cream of tartar + 1 quart of hot water
Coffee cup stain remover moist salt
Coffee pot stains mix ice + salt
Grease removal borax on damp cloth
Ink spot remover cold water + 1 tbspn cream of tartar + 1 tbsp lemon juice
Mildew remover equal parts of white vinegar + salt
Oil stain remover white chalk rubbed into stain before laundering
Porcelain stain remover baking soda
Rug/carpet stain remover club soda
Rust spot removal (clothing) carbonated beverage
Scorch mark removal grated onion
Spot removal club soda + lemon juice or salt
Upholstery spot removal club soda
Water mark removal toothpaste
Wine stain removal salt
Ant killer Red chili powder at point of entry or mix 1 tbspn sugar + 1 tbspn borax + 2 tbspn water to make syrup. Place in flat dish near infestation.
Fertilizer compost + vermiculture
Flea killer (on pets) feed animals garlic, tablets of Vitamin B or brewers yeast - talk to vet regarding quantity for your pet.
Fly killer well watered pot of basil
Insects on plants 3 tsp pure soap + 4 litres of water - spray on plant leaves and pests
Mosquito repellent burn citronella candles or citronella oilmoth repellent
Moth repellent cedar chips enclosed in cotton sachets
Nematode repellent plant marigolds
Roach repellent chopped bay leaves + cucumber skins or place borax in cracks
Slug/snail repellent onion + marigold plants
Brass polish Worcestershire sauce
Chrome polish apple cider vinegar
Copper polish lemon juice + salt
Furniture polish 1 tbspn of lemon oil + 1 pint mineral oil or linseed oil
Shoe polish banana peel
Silver polish place in container: 1 quart warm water + 1 tbspn baking soda + 1 tbspn salt + piece of aluminum foil
Stainless steel polish olive oil
Air freshener simmer cinnamon + cloves
Decal remover soak in white vinegar
Garbage disposal deodorizers used lemons
Grease fire (small) baking soda
Paint brush softener hot vinegar
Refrigerator deodorizer open box of baking soda

Another approach. Here is a list of some common household products and how they can be used as cleaning agents.

Baking soda: This is an all-purpose cleaner that is especially effective on glass coffee pots and glassware; removes red-wine stains from carpeting. A paste made with water can shine stainless steel and silver; the paste also can remove tea stains from cups and saucers. Make a paste with a castile- or vegetable-based liquid soap and a drop of essential oil (tea tree or lavender) to clean sinks, countertops, toilets and tubs. Pour 1 cup down the sink to clear a clogged drain, followed by 3 cups of boiling water.
Boiling water: Use weekly to flush drains and avoid clogs.
Coarse salt: Cleans copper pans and scours cookware. Sprinkle salt on fresh spills in the oven, then wipe off. Sprinkle salt on rust stains and squeeze a lime or lemon over them, let sit for several hours and wipe off.

Grapefruit-seed extract:

Add to water in a spray bottle for an odorless way to kill mold and mildew.
Lemon juice: Use as a bleaching agent on clothing, and to remove grease from your stove and countertops. Add 2 Tbsp lemon juice to 10 drops of (real) lemon oil and a few drops of jojoba oil to clean and polish wood furniture.
Olive oil: Use to lubricate and polish wood furniture (three parts olive oil to one part vinegar; or two parts olive oil with one part lemon juice).
Potatoes: Halved potatoes can remove rust from baking pans or tinware – follow with a salt scrub or dip the potato in salt before scrubbing.
Tea tree oil: Can be added to vinegar/water solutions for its antibacterial properties. Use it to kill mold and mildew, and on kitchen and bathroom surfaces instead of chemical products. Add 50 drops to a bucket of water to clean countertops and tile floors.
Toothpaste (white, plain): Cleans silver; can remove water stains on wood furniture – dab on, allow it to dry and wipe off
Water: Mix with essential oil (lavender or tea tree) and spray on kitchen or bathroom surfaces for an environmentally and people-friendly antibacterial spray.
White vinegar: Cleans linoleum floors and glass (from windows to shower doors) when mixed with water and a little liquid soap (castile or vegetable). Cuts grease and removes stains; removes soap scum and cleans toilets (add a bit of baking soda if you like). Pour down drains once a week for antibacterial cleaning. Add to water in a spray bottle to kill mold and mildew.



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EHA does not recommend or endorse any treatment, test, procedure, product, opinion, service or other information appearing on this site or any other site to which it may be linked. Reliance on any of the aforementioned is solely at your own risk.

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