Recent research from the University of Washington (UW) has revealed that freshly-scented laundry comes with an unexpected price. In the first study to examine dryer vent exhaust, fragrance components in some of the best-selling liquid clothing detergents, fabric softeners and dryer sheets were found to infuse the vented air with a veritable rogue's gallery of hazardous pollutants, including two known carcinogens.

"This is an interesting source of pollution because emissions from dryer vents are essentially unregulated and unmonitored," said Professor Anne Steinemann, lead author of the study.

In previous work, the UW team examined the host of chemicals released by consumer goods such as scented laundry detergents, air deodorizers, household cleaners, body lotions and other personal care products. In this study, conducted in Seattle area homes, the focus was on dryer vents. Careful analysis yielded more than 25 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), several of which the EPA considers hazardous air pollutants: acetaldehyde, benzene, ethyl benzene, methanol, xylene and toluene. Two of those, acetaldehyde and benzene, are known carcinogens with no safe level of exposure.

"If they're coming out of a smokestack or tail pipe, they're regulated, but if they're coming out of a dryer vent, they're not," Steinemann adds.

It's interesting to note that the Environmental Protection Agency identified a lengthy list of polar volatile organic compounds in consumer products way back in 1991 and yet it appears to have taken a full twenty years before legitimate peer-reviewed science has begun to sound the alarm. Hopefully, the current UW study will effect some much-needed change to the current "anything goes" policy with regard to hazardous ingredients in household goods.

In the meantime, what's a chemically-sensitive consumer to do? While fragrance-free fabric softeners may seem to be the way to go, even that isn't always a safe bet. Sometimes, chemicals can be added to "mask" other unwanted scents, so the toxins are still there, without the tell-tale smell. Instead, when using scent-free detergent, try adding a quarter cup of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to the wash cycle to soften clothes. To eliminate static cling, pour a quarter cup of white vinegar in the rinse cycle. Your laundry may no longer be "meadow fresh," but your body and the environment will thank you!