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Cleaning products, even "green" ones, emit chemicals that may impact health, study finds

Cleaning products you may be using in your home — even the "green" options — could impact your health, according to new research from a nonprofit advocacy organization.

In a peer-reviewed study by the Environmental Working Group that was published in the journal Chemosphere, scientists found everyday products may release hundreds of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

VOCs are emitted by a wide array of thousands of products, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including cleaners, paints, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, and certain cosmetics.

"VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short and long-term adverse health effects," the EPA says on its website.

In the EWG's study, a total of 530 unique VOCs were detected in the 30 cleaning products analyzed. These products were divided into three categories: "conventional" products, "green" products with fragrance, and "green" fragrance-free products.

Among the total VOCs detected, 193 were considered hazardous to health based on either the California's Department of Toxic Substances Control Candidate Chemicals List or the European Chemical Agency's Classification and Labeling Inventory, according to the study. 

The "green" products still emitted VOCs, but at a lower level than their "conventional" counterparts.

While researchers did not name specific brands, they described "green" products as those "advertised as healthier, non-toxic, or free from harmful chemicals as well as products with a third-party certification for safety or environmental features." "Conventional" cleaners were those that fell outside that category. 

On average, the study found fragrance-free "green" products emitted four chemicals classified as hazardous, compared to about 15 in "green" products with fragrance and 22 in "conventional" cleaning products.

"This study is a wake-up call for consumers, researchers and regulators to be more aware of the potential risks associated with the numerous chemicals entering our indoor air," Alexis Temkin, a senior toxicologist at EWG, said in a news release.

Temkin said she hopes the findings show a way to reduce exposure "by selecting products that are 'green,' especially those that are 'green' and 'fragrance free.'"

The American Lung Association also suggests adding ventilation when using products with VOCs indoors. 

In a statement to CBS News in response to the study, the trade group American Cleaning Institute said the findings need to be put into the context of changes manufacturers have made in these products.

"The fact is, in California  — which is referenced in the study — regulators have placed limitations on the VOCs in most consumer products over the past three decades," the statement said. "Industry has been working with government and regulators for decades to minimize VOC concentrations to keep them below levels that would be considered hazardous."

The trade group also took issue with the authors' "arbitrary criteria for judging products as 'conventional' or 'green.' Green is a marketing term, not a scientific one."

"The proper use of cleaning products contributes to public health and quality of life in homes, offices, schools, health care facilities, restaurants and throughout our communities every single day. Everyone who has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic can certainly recognize this fact."

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