Could scented hand lotion make several middle school children nauseous?

November 20, 2014

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Could paint used to cover a moldy wall cause serious breathing problems?

By Lynda Knobeloch, Ph.D., SafeMinds Guest Blogger

I used to enjoy shopping. I rarely read labels and bought the tried and true brands I had grown up with along with a few newly formulated products. As a young mom, I trusted that the foods, household cleaners, furnishings and personal care products I purchased were safe for my family’s use. I assumed that if I shopped in mainstream stores and chose products made in the US or approved for import, someone had inspected them. I thought laws were in place to ensure my safety.

My confidence was shaken when I started to work as a toxicologist for the Wisconsin Bureau of Public Health.  I was only on the job a few weeks when I received my first call from a school janitor who complained of becoming dizzy after using a commercial cleaner for several days. As similar complaints came in over the coming months, I remember wondering whether the illnesses these people described were actually caused by the products they had used or whether there was another explanation.

Could paint used to cover a moldy wall cause serious breathing problems?

Could scented hand lotion make several middle school children nauseous?

Could a room air freshener cause dizziness and headaches?

Could a skin cream cause numbness and tingling?

While each report of a product-associated illness was anecdotal and couldn’t prove cause and effect, the number of calls I received and similarities among them suggested a pattern of exposure and illness that concerned me. I wondered, could this be part of the bigger problems we were seeing with autism and neurodevelopmental disorders?1–4 I had no reason to doubt the callers’ since their only requests were for information and advice. I followed up on most of their complaints by contacting the product manufacturer.  Most of them were very helpful and I was often advised that the products could cause illness if they misused or over-applied.

I’ve often thought that I learned more from the people who called my office than they learned from me.  It’s certainly true that their reports made me much more aware that many of the products and foods I bring home contain substances I know nothing about.  These ingredients act as preservatives, colorants, flavorings, fragrances, emollients, deodorants, hardeners, softeners, wetting and drying agents, stain repellants and fire retardants. I used to assume that these substances had been tested and approved for use by some government agency. I’ve since learned that testing and approval are only required for certain products like foods, drugs, and cosmetics.  Researchers have recently linked many additives to serious health problems, including autism. Brominated flame retardants, for example, have been shown to increase the risk of thyroid disease, a condition that resulted in the death of two of my beloved feline companions. I sometimes wonder whether the foam mattress I slept on every night for more than 8 years might have played a role in their illnesses.

Parents should be concerned about this as well since these same flame retardants are now being linked to neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs) including autism.  Infant and children’s products have been found with these same flame retardants in them, but without any labeling to indicate their presence – except in California.5,6

Since retiring, I find that I have a lot more time to read ingredient labels. I try to eat unprocessed, organic foods and avoid artificial sweeteners, colors, or flavorings. But my efforts are often stymied by labels that are hard to find or impossible to read. Just yesterday I noticed that my breakfast yogurt contained an artificial sweetener which was listed in very small print near the end of the label. I was annoyed because I had already eaten the yogurt and remembered checking the label in the store and seeing sugar prominently listed as the third ingredient. So why did it also contain an artificial sweetener?

Buying household items, personal care products, and cosmetics poses a new set of challenges since there is no labeling requirement for most of these items. I’ve recently replaced a variety of cleaning products with ammonia, vinegar, peroxide and baking soda and taught my husband to buy paints and paint thinners that are low in volatile chemicals.

I’m still learning how to select shampoo, deodorant, and cosmetics that are free of artificial fragrances, dyes and preservatives. I admit that I miss the sweet smell of lavender and roses on occasion and continue to search for organic products that smell like something other than the plastic bottle they occupy.  But the cost to those who suffer sensitivities is huge. Aggravation of asthma, eczema, sleep disorders and other conditions can be significant. Without knowing what’s in products, consumers cannot logically avoid their presence.

In response to consumer demand, some local governments and large retailers are demanding better product labeling.

The State of Vermont is moving to require labeling of genetically-modified foods.  I see they are being sued for trying to provide information to their citizens.

For parents concerned about pesticide residues in food products and possible links to NDDs from pesticides and GMOs, efforts at getting more information is good news. Studies have linked pesticides, food additives and potentially genetic modifications in foods to autism and other associated health problems.7–11

Walmart has initiated a Sustainable Chemistry Policy, which will require cleaning and personal care product suppliers to disclose ingredients online by product starting in January 2015.

Target has stated it will reward manufacturers for disclosing ingredients in the products they sell.

These actions are significant in the face of the U.S. government’s reluctance to require product labeling despite significant pressure to do so.  Numerous consumer advocates have called for labeling of genetically-modified foods.  Experts have also recommended labeling for upholstered furniture, mattresses and infant car seats. This is important because these items are required to meet strict flammability standards. Product labels would allow consumers to know whether these items were treated with a chemical flame retardant and if so, which flame retardant was used.

Personally, I would love to see our government do more to protect consumers from dangerous products.  But I realize that in a democracy, government policy reflects the will of the people. Although the health risks to families and children justify efforts for getting full disclosure,12,13 there isn’t yet enough demand to support the cost of government labeling regulations. Unfortunately, this situation leaves me and other concerned consumers on our own to select products we believe are safe.

While additional labeling would make shopping easier, it’s also important to support businesses that practice ethical methods of food production, treat their employees and customers fairly, and limit ingredients in their products to substances that are known to be safe. I don’t enjoy shopping as much as I used to—it feels overwhelming to figure out what to buy and which brands to trust. But there is good news on the horizon as the number of retailers that offer organic foods and low-toxicity products is increasing steadily.

In the lexicon of the recent political realignment “trust, but verify” there are several watchdog groups that screen retailers and manufacturers for bad behavior. Here are some helpful websites:

Center for Science in the Public Interest (

Women’s Voices for the Earth (

Environmental Working Group (

Collaborative for Health and the Environment (

Support SafeMinds in continuing to bring you important information like this for the health of your family.  Donate now.

lyndaLynda Knobeloch, Ph.D., has more than 35 years of experience in the fields of medical research and public health specializing in the areas of toxicology and epidemiology.  She has authored more than 50 scientific articles describing findings from her work.  Dr. Knobeloch has served on numerous federal advisory committees and currently serves as a scientific advisor for SafeMinds.  She recently retired from her position with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services where she was senior toxicologist and currently resides in Mount Dora Florida.

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2. Landrigan PJ, Sonawane B, Butler RN, et al. Early Environmental Origins of Neurodegenerative Disease in Later Life. Environ. Health Perspect. 2005;113(9):1230–1233. Available at: [Accessed February 27, 2013].
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8. Paganelli A, Gnazzo V, Acosta H, Lo SL, Carrasco E. Glyphosate-Based Herbicides Produce Teratogenic Effects on Vertebrates by Impairing Retinoic Acid Signaling. 2010:1586–1595.
9. Samsel A, Seneff S. Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases. Entropy. 2013;15(4):1416–1463. Available at: [Accessed September 3, 2014].
10. Carman JA, Vlieger HR, Steeg LJ Ver, et al. A long-term toxicology study on pigs fed a combined genetically modified ( GM ) soy and GM maize diet. 1996:38–54.
11. Grandjean P, Landrigan PJ. Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity. Lancet Neurol. 2014;13(3):330–8. Available at: [Accessed July 11, 2014].
12. Muir T, Zegarac M. Societal Costs of Exposure to Toxic Substances : Economic and Health Costs of Four Case Studies That Are Candidates for Environmental Causation. 2001;(January):885–903.
13. Chil N, En H. Economic Valuation of Environmental Health Risks to Children.
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