Fabric Softeners Become a Health Issue in Japan

The popularity of scented fabric softeners is creating a backlash in Japan, the Wall Street Journal reports in a December 2013 front-page story. The Japanese media calls it an issue of "smell harassment." Clean-air advocates say it's a matter of public health.


The Japanese are extremely aware of indoor air quality and chemical intolerance. In July 2013, I presented information on TILT, or Toxicant-induced Loss of Tolerance, to receptive audiences at Chiba University and in the cities of Tokyo and Osaka. Japan's largest homebuilder, for example, is teaching the public about indoor air quality, and building new homes designed to protect the most vulnerable groups -- children, pregnant women and chemically intolerant individuals.

Fabric softeners such as U.S.-made Downy have grown in popularity in Japan in recent years. For decades, Japanese consumers shunned perfume, cologne and other scented products. Sales in Japan until recently were a fraction of those in the United States.

In Japan, the issue culminated last summer. At the time, Japan was dealing with energy shortages caused by its loss of nuclear power plants. The environment ministry, offering ideas to cope with hot temperatures, suggested that office and factory workers wash their clothes with scented fabric softener to mask body odor. Calls to consumer hotlines spiked. People complained about getting sick. The government backpedaled on its recommendations

The Journal quoted a leading activist: "The environment ministry's suggestion 'made my mouth drop open in disbelief,' wrote Machiko Tsuji, head of the Tokyo Anti-Pesticide Group, in a letter to the ministry that the group disclosed online. 'Didn't you know that a lot of people suffer health problems from fabric softener and fragrance?'"

Indeed. Chemicals in scented fabric softeners are potent and hazardous to a variety of people, not just those with chemical intolerances. Clothing itself is a common culprit. However I've received complaints from people who get ill from the hot air venting from a neighbor's clothes dryer.

My colleague, Dr. Anne Steinemann, led a landmark study on scented products in 2010. She followed up in 2011 with a report on associated hazards from dryer vents.

In her inital study, Dr. Steinemann and researchers at the University of Washington discovered that 25 commonly used scented products emit an average of 17 chemicals each. Of the 133 different chemicals detected, nearly a quarter are classified as toxic or hazardous under at least one federal law. But fewer than 1 percent of all ingredients were disclosed on any product label or material safety data sheet (MSDS). The article was published in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review.

"We analyzed best-selling products, and about half of them made some claim about being green, organic or natural," said Dr. Steinemann, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and of public affairs. "Surprisingly, the green products’ emissions of hazardous chemicals were not significantly different from the other products."

People often misunderstand the smell issue because it's not about smell. It's about chemistry. People like to stop and smell the roses. And they do smell lovely. But the man-made scent of a rose can make people sick because it may contain acetaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane, formaldehyde, methylene chloride or a raft of other unsavory chemicals.

So, with apologies to Gertrude Stein, a rose is not always a rose.

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Dr. Claudia Miller
Department of Family & Community Medicine
University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio
7703 Floyd Curl Drive (222 MCS)
San Antonio, TX 78229-3900

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