Endocrine Disruptors and Asthma-associated Chemicals in Consumer Products

Robin E. Dodson; Marcia Nishioka; Laurel J. Standley; Laura J. Perovich; Julia Green Brody; Ruthann A. Rudel


Environ Health Perspect. 2012;120(7):935-943. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Background: Laboratory and human studies raise concerns about endocrine disruption and asthma resulting from exposure to chemicals in consumer products. Limited labeling or testing information is available to evaluate products as exposure sources.
Objectives: We analytically quantified endocrine disruptors and asthma-related chemicals in a range of cosmetics, personal care products, cleaners, sunscreens, and vinyl products. We also evaluated whether product labels provide information that can be used to select products without these chemicals.
Methods: We selected 213 commercial products representing 50 product types. We tested 42 composited samples of high-market-share products, and we tested 43 alternative products identified using criteria expected to minimize target compounds. Analytes included parabens, phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), triclosan, ethanolamines, alkylphenols, fragrances, glycol ethers, cyclosiloxanes, and ultraviolet (UV) filters.
Results: We detected 55 compounds, indicating a wide range of exposures from common products. Vinyl products contained > 10% bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and could be an important source of DEHP in homes. In other products, the highest concentrations and numbers of detects were in the fragranced products (e.g., perfume, air fresheners, and dryer sheets) and in sunscreens. Some products that did not contain the well-known endocrine-disrupting phthalates contained other less-studied phthalates (dicyclohexyl phthalate, diisononyl phthalate, and di-n-propyl phthalate; also endocrine-disrupting compounds), suggesting a substitution. Many detected chemicals were not listed on product labels.
Conclusions Common products contain complex mixtures of EDCs and asthma-related compounds. Toxicological studies of these mixtures are needed to understand their biological activity. Regarding epidemiology, our findings raise concern about potential confounding from co-occurring chemicals and misclassification due to variability in product composition. Consumers should be able to avoid some target chemicals—synthetic fragrances, BPA, and regulated active ingredients—using purchasing criteria. More complete product labeling would enable consumers to avoid the rest of the target chemicals.


Chemicals contained in consumer products are ubiquitous in human tissues, sometimes at high concentrations [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 2009] and in household air and dust (Rudel and Perovich 2009; Rudel et al. 2003, 2010; Weschler 2009). Studies of pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in homes provide some information about sources, exposure pathways, and exposure reduction options (Dodson et al. 2008; Lorber 2008; Rudel et al. 2008; Zota et al. 2008). However, for many common commercial chemicals, limited information is available about how specific consumer products contribute to exposure. In particular, little information is available about exposures from personal care and cleaning products.

Many of these products may be sources of chemicals that have a diverse spectrum of health effects, including endocrine disruption and associations with asthma. Endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs) are chemicals that can alter hormonal signaling and have potential effects on developing reproductive and nervous systems, metabolism, and cancer (Colborn et al. 1993). Some phthalates inhibit testosterone synthesis (Howdeshell et al. 2008), and antimicrobials such as triclosan suppress thyroid hormone (Paul et al. 2010) and are estrogenic (Stoker et al. 2010) in mammalian models. Some parabens, alkylphenols, cyclosiloxanes, ultraviolet (UV) filters, and synthetic musk fragrance compounds are weakly estrogenic in a variety of experimental models (Bitsch et al. 2002; Bonefeld-Jørgensen et al. 2007; Quinn et al. 2007; Routledge et al. 1998; Schlumpf et al. 2004; Schreurs et al. 2005). Factors related to home environments are associated with asthma, although there has been limited study of the role of chemical contaminants (Douwes and Pearce 2002). Fragrances have been shown to exacerbate asthma (Kumar et al. 1995). The phthalate bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) in dust was associated with asthma and wheezing in children (Bornehag et al. 2004), and several phthalates show an adjuvant effect in animal studies (Bornehag and Nanberg 2010). The sum of propylene glycol and glycol ethers was associated with increased asthma prevalence in preschool-age children (Choi et al. 2010). The ethanolamines monoethanolamine and diethanolamine are occupational asthmagens (Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics 2010).

Previous research suggests that consumer products are a source of these compounds in homes. We found a wide range of phthalates, alkylphenols, parabens, flame retardants, PCBs, and current-use and banned pesticides in air and dust samples from homes, with 13–28 compounds in air and 6–42 compounds in dust (Rudel et al. 2003). Analysis of paired indoor and outdoor air samples in California demonstrated that indoor concentrations were considerably higher than outdoor concentrations for many compounds, indicating the constant presence of indoor sources (Brody et al. 2009; Rudel et al. 2010).

Efforts to identify the contribution of specific products to home environments or personal exposure are hindered by limited and inconsistent disclosure of chemical ingredients in consumer products. Regulations require only limited labeling. For example, sunscreens, antiperspirant deodorants, and antibacterial hand soaps are regulated as over-the-counter drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and "active" ingredients must be labeled (Fair Packaging and Labeling Act 1967; Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act 1938). For cosmetics, the FDA requires the listing of ingredients in order of predominance, except chemical constituents of fragrances and "incidental ingredients" do not need to be listed (Fair Packaging and Labeling Act 1967; Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act 1938). For cleaning products, ingredient labeling is required only for compounds, such as antimicrobials, that are regulated by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA 1972). The labeling terms "natural," "nontoxic," and "green" are unregulated and require no standardized ingredient information. Indeed, in a recent study Steinemann et al. (2011) found that the VOC composition of "green"-labeled fragranced products was not significantly different from that of other fragranced products with regard to number of hazardous chemicals as defined under U.S. federal laws.

Gaps in ingredient information are problematic from multiple perspectives. Regulators rely on product ingredient concentrations for exposure modeling. Consumers want ingredient information so they can make precautionary choices consistent with personal values; although environmental health organizations have developed rating systems to advise consumers, these ratings are limited to information on product labels (Environmental Working Group 2011; GoodGuide 2012). In addition, researchers need ingredient information to interpret health studies and test exposure reduction strategies. In an effort to fill this gap, in 2007 we provided a list of EDCs to 34 manufacturers and asked them whether specific personal care and cleaning products contained those EDCs, but many were unwilling to provide the information (Dunagan et al. 2011).

To develop information about exposure sources, we characterized the concentrations of 66 chemicals in 50 types of household products, focusing on cleaners and personal care products. We also aimed to identify the predominant exposure sources in order to target for product substitution in an intervention study. Such intervention designs are powerful approaches to exposure assessment and have been used to estimate exposures to bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates via food packaging (Rudel et al. 2011) and pesticide exposure from food (Lu et al. 2006). To identify substitute products for use in an intervention study, we tested samples of "alternative" products selected because their labels indicated that they might be free of the chemicals of concern. Thus, results also provide insight into the usefulness of product labeling for consumers seeking to reduce exposures.


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