Human Stink Bombs Hit Bottom in Fragrant Violation of Nature

OK, the use of "fragrant violation" is a bit over the top. But, the studies we're about to introduce you to have some of the hallmarks of the stuff we heard so much about in the late 1970's. According to a research paper recently published by the American Chemical Society, and discussed with related work in Environmental Science and Technology - Onine, production of synthetic fragrance compounds has doubled since the 1990s. As noted in the research report, much of what we North Americans buy that contains synthetic fragrance goes down toilets and sinks, through sewerage systems, and into lakes and streams. In the US Great Lakes, which have huge volumes and relatively little flow-through, compounds with low solubility, and which can't be biodegraded easily, may well end up "partitioning" somewhere unexpected: like in animals and/or sediments. Historically, high rates of "partioning" by a synthetic chemical typically get noticed before the hazards are fully understood. Thus, it's a big attention getter when someone finds that fragrance compounds, from everyday household and personal care formulations, are accumulating in Great Lakes sediments.

From the report: "Researchers dated sediment cores from Lake Erie and Lake Ontario and analyzed the concentrations of five polycyclic and two nitro musk fragrances. They found that HHCB concentrations actually declined slightly from 1979 to 1990; however, from 1990 to 2003, levels of HHCB doubled in only 8 years "

Compounds such as the studied HHCB are found in detergents, soaps, shampoos, and cosmetics. The report from ES&T; also mentions "they [fragrance compounds] have also been detected in human fat and breast milk". One of the principal researchers stated that she has "detected fragrances in rural air at levels higher than those of the most commonly used pesticides".

As with all synthetic substances, risk should be evaluated by matching hazard (the toxicity part) with exposure (where it ends up, and in what concentration). Exposure already seems well understood. We've long known who uses this stuff; and now we know about new places it ends up. Whether risk is actually increased for humans and aquatic organisms will certainly be up for more debate and discussion in coming years. Whether restriction are needed is a decision likely to be delegated to the European Union. It's the the new American regulatory regime.

Caution: Before you jump to a conclusion on risk, perhaps changing your shopping habits as a result, TreeHugger recommends you thoroughly read the linked ES&T; article and its sub-linked stories. If, the science seems unclear, and you wish to work from the "personal precautionary principal" in your shopping selections, then, let these three simple rules assist.

First screen - Avoid products advertised or packaged with outrageous colors that rarely occur in nature (cheap stink often correlates with eye-catching power).

Second screen — if you must buy fragranced or odor "masked" products, select those made with mostly natural ingredients and consume as little as possible.

Third screen - when reaching for a product that lists "fragrance" as an ingredient, ask yourself "Do I need this?"

If the subjective answer is "yes", see if you can list rationally provable reasons why. Whisper the reasons to yourself: "It will make my house smell nice, so visitors will like me more." or "Presence of fragrance proves that bad germs are not present." If you can convince yourself that these are good reasons to buy synthetically fragranced products, you may have already passed the toxic exposure threshold. (:->

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