Health vs. Soft Clothes...an Even Trade?
by Hana Haatainen Caye
The Bad Guys
Although it is difficult to trace a particular disease back to its source, health-related issues with a proven link to the chemicals found in fabric softeners are numerous. Based on information from Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) from the Environmental Protection Agency, these chemicals, including known carcinogens and toxins, have been linked to a variety of central nervous system disorders, respiratory ailments and a multitude of other issues. Disorders ranging from Alzheimer’s and ADD to Strokes and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome are among the many disorders on the lengthy list. Many of these only occur following chronic exposure, some after inhaling the vapors, and others are a direct result of contact with the skin. Since we’re talking fabric softener here, that seems to be a big issue.
Some of the toxic culprits, like benzyl acetate and alpha-terpineol, are worse than others. Benzyl acetate, for instance, is directly linked to pancreatic cancer. It causes damage by being absorbed through the skin. The EPA warnings on alpha-terpineol include, “prevent repeated or prolonged skin contact.” Other harmful chemicals in dryer sheets include benzyl alcohol, camphor, chloroform, ethyl acetate, limonene, linalool and pentane. The warning from the EPA to “always wash thoroughly after using this material and before eating, drinking and applying cosmetics” seems almost bizarre when you consider you are touching traces of it daily if your clothing and/or sheets are laundered in it.
Environmental and Filter Factors
As your dryer sends steam and heat outdoors through the vent, and all those toxins are emitted into the air, another problem arises. According to a report by Professor Anne C. Steinemann, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Public Affairs, University of Washington, OSHA has identified some of the toxins in fabric softener as air contaminants. The Clean Air Act links them to hazardous air pollution.
Compounding issues even further, fabric softener sheets can also create problems with your dryer. Because they are so laden with chemicals, they can and do cause a film to develop on your lint filter over time. Unless you wash your filter every month or so, the build-up can eventually cause a fire. Additionally, with a clogged lint catcher, your dryer has to work harder and harder as time goes by. This is such an issue that the manufacturers of new dryers are now advising against fabric softener sheets, and the use of them will nullify the warranty on the appliance.
Now that you have been given the bad news, it is time for the good. There are green alternatives,
- Line Drying – Why use a static-causing, energy-using dryer when the sun and wind can dry your clothes for free? The added bonus here is the amazing fragrance of sun-dried laundry. No chemical fragrance has ever been able to match it!
- PVC-Free Dryer Balls – Dryer balls not only eliminate static cling, they also fluff up your laundry, reduce wrinkles and reduce drying time by up to 25%, which naturally lowers your energy consumption. They can be found at True Green2, Nellies All Natural, and many local retail stores.
- Static Eliminator – A box of these non-toxic fabric softener sheets will last up to 500 loads and are safe for your dryer, as well as for everyone in your family, including infants! Not only do they soften clothes and work on any heat setting, they are safe for all washable fabrics, 100% hypoallergenic and will not stain clothing.
- Natural Substitutes – If you are simply set on using fabric softener, look for natural alternatives, but be suspicious of misleading terms like “green” and “eco-friendly”. Read the ingredients and find a brand that’s free of the chemicals listed above.
Photo courtesy of Heather Desuta