By Brian Joseph, FairWarning

For Joyce Miller, one sniff of scented laundry detergent can trigger an asthma attack.

“What happens is I feel like someone is standing on my chest," the 57-year-old professor of library science in upstate New York said. “It's almost like a choking feeling—pressure and choking. And then the coughing starts."

Miller is among the many Americans sensitive to “fragrance," the cryptic ingredient added to thousands of products, from cleaning supplies to toiletries. The term encompasses thousands of combinations of chemicals that give consumer goods their pleasant odors. But specific chemicals in any given product rarely are disclosed to consumers.

For decades, fragrance makers have insisted on treating their recipes as trade secrets, even as complaints about negative health effects have become more common. A 2009 study, for example, found that more than a quarter of Americans were irritated by the smell of scented products on other people while 19 percent experienced headaches or breathing difficulties from air fresheners.

The industry, with estimated global sales of $40 billion per year, says that it ensures the safety of fragrances through a rigorous system of self-regulation administered by its trade group, the International Fragrance Association. But a tiny women's advocacy organization in Missoula, Montana, recently outlined what it says are troubling flaws in the industry's science as well as scores of toxic chemicals used in its mixtures.

The industry association's North American branch declined to speak to FairWarning about the findings. Chemical giant BASF, an association member, also declined comment. Calls to four other membersPhoenix Aromas & Essential Oils, Premier Specialties, Flavor & Fragrance Specialties Inc. and Bedoukian Research—were not returned.

“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," Alexandra Scranton, the director of science and research at Women's Voices for the Earth, a nonprofit seeking to eliminate toxic chemicals that predominately affect women, said. “We were trying to pick apart the claim that the industry is making that they are ensuring the safety of fragrance."

Questions about the safety of fragrances are not new. A 2005 California law, the California Safe Cosmetics Act, requires cosmetics manufacturers to report any products that contain ingredients known or suspected to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. The data is posted on a website at safecosmetics.cdph.ca.gov. However, the public database does not list ingredients identified as trade secrets, including fragrances. The program also has met with complaints from experts that some cosmetics firms failed to report their ingredients.

At the federal level, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Consumer Products Safety Commission have limited oversight of fragrances. The FDA, which has authority over cosmetics and cosmetic ingredients, doesn't require cosmetics makers to prove their products or ingredients are safe before putting them on the market. It's up to the agency to prove harm before a product can be pulled from the shelves. The FDA also requires cosmetics to list their ingredients, but allows a trade secret exemption for chemicals deemed to be fragrance or flavor.

Meanwhile, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has authority over other scented products, such as laundry detergents and air fresheners. The commission, however, does not have an active program to screen fragrances.

“Government has failed to provide a real regulator," which is a problem, Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, said. “There are plenty of examples of where counting on the good graces of industry has wound up being a mistake."

In 2008, Women's Voices began pressing the industry to reveal the specific ingredients. Two years later, the International Fragrance Association posted on its website a list of some 3,000 chemicals used by its members.

Late last year, Women's Voices published a review of those chemicals, finding that a large number of them appear on official lists of hazardous chemicals or are banned or restricted in consumer products. For example, a comprehensive classification of chemical hazards adopted by the United Nations tags 1,175 chemicals on the fragrance list with the word “warning" and labels another 190 fragrance chemicals as a “danger," according to Women's Voices.

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The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, classifies seven fragrance chemicals as possible carcinogens in humans, the organization said. Fifteen chemicals on the fragrance association's list are barred from use in cosmetics in the European Union, Women's Voices said.

Scranton, who authored the Women's Voices study, is careful to note that the industry's list gives no indication of how much these chemicals are used, making it difficult to know if consumers are in actual danger.

“When I see styrene (a possible carcinogen) on the list of chemicals in fragrance, that's a red flag," she said. “Is it only used very, very rarely, in very small amounts? Possibly and maybe it's not as much of a problem. Is it used in every fragrance that you come across? Then it's going to be a problem."

In a brief paper available on its website, the fragrance association touts the industry's ability, through self regulation, to ensure “the highest levels of safety of fragranced products." It says the industry can adapt to new scientific findings “more quickly and efficiently through self-regulation as opposed to diverse legislation in different countries on different continents."

The industry association works with its research arm, the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials, to produce standards that it says are based on science. Women's Voices, however, says there are several shortcomings in the system.

For one, the group maintains that the vast majority of scientific studies exploring fragrance safety are produced by fragrance houses themselves or the industry's research institute. Rarely are these studies published or even peer reviewed, the organization says. No one is independently reviewing laboratory practices or levels of significance or ensuring “that the results of these studies have not been manipulated," Women's Voices said.

Over the last year, the European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety reviewed studies by the research institute and repeatedly noted failings in the institute's methods, including incomplete data and invalid protocols.

Women's Voices also says that an independent expert panel that reviews the industry's research bases its safety opinions on information curated by the fragrance industry itself. The expert panel meets in secret and no transcripts or meeting minutes are publicly available, Women's Voices said.

“The Research Institute for Fragrance Materials is like a black box," Janet Nudelman, the director of program and policy for the Breast Cancer Fund and the director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, said. “They attempt to assure the public that they have the safety of fragrance chemicals under control, that they're looking at all of the safety data regarding fragrance chemicals. But none of their safety studies are publicly available."

The industry has either banned or restricted the use of 186 substances in fragrance products. But Women's Voices says the industry does little to ensure that its standards are actually being followed.

The fragrance industry has not commented directly on Women's Voices' research, but a few days after the organization released its report in November, the research institute put out a statement saying “the industry is committed to addressing consumers' interests through a continuous health and environmental safety review."

The industry, however, remains opposed to greater transparency of its ingredients. In California, the industry association has opposed Assembly Bill 708, by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat, which would require cleaning products to disclose their ingredients on their product labels. In a letter, the industry said it was worried about counterfeiters.

“It would be very helpful if companies could list on labels the chemicals that they use for their fragrances," Miller, the professor from the Glens Falls area of New York who suffers from fragrance sensitivity, said. “Fragrance is not just some pretty concept. It actually can be a fairly nasty combination of chemicals."

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