Nothing says “comfy” like chloroform!
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The answer, it turns out: plenty.
In order to achieve all these seemingly desirable effects, dryer sheets are impregnated with a laundry list of toxic chemicals. What precisely a given brand contains is both variable (since each formula is somewhat different) and hard to ascertain (because the ingredients are not typically listed, since the fragrance and chemical industry is not regulated by the FDA); however, according to the manufacturers’ own material safety data sheets (MSDSs), there are certain components common, in varying concentrations and proportions, to almost all conventional dryer sheets.
Some of the known compounds include:
- Benzyl Acetate: Linked to pancreatic cancer;
- Benzyl Alcohol: Upper respiratory tract irritant;
- A-Terpineol: Can cause respiratory problems, including fatal edema, and central nervous system damage;
- Ethyl Acetate: A narcotic on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste list;
- Camphor: Causes central nervous system disorders;
- Chloroform: Neurotoxic, anesthetic and carcinogenic;
- Linalool: A narcotic that causes central nervous system disorders; and
- Pentane: A chemical known to be harmful if inhaled.
Since these compounds are intended to keep clothes soft for some time, they outgas slowly, with some absorbing through the wearer’s skin and others becoming airborne to be breathed by the wearer and others nearby. However, they are most dangerous during the drying cycle, when they are heated by the dryer and released in concentrated form in the fumes discharged through the vent.
That these fumes are noxious and presumably harmful my family can attest, for in 2010 our former next-door neighbor to the north vented his dryer five feet from our north living room window, used dryer sheets heavily, and often ran his dryer for periods of four to six hours at a go (although his record is 17 straight hours). We covered that window with a sheet of heavy-duty plastic to minimize our exposure, but the fumes still leaked in there and through other chinks in our walls and around window frames, and we were directly exposed whenever we stepped outside.
Symptoms that we evinced after such exposure included severe and prolonged frontal headaches; trembling; facial flushing and sensation of heat; incoordination; drowsiness; disturbed equilibrium; emotional distress/sense of helplessness; impairments of memory and concentration; unpleasant and persistent taste in mouth and throat; eye irritation; pain in lungs, trachea, sinuses and eustachian tubes; tingling sensation in fingers; and nausea or loss of appetite. As a disclaimer, it is probable that thanks to past chemical exposures we are unusually sensitive to certain airborne contaminants; however, this does not imply that the toxic effects are not objectively significant, although unsensitized individuals may not as readily perceive them.
My suggested remedy, therefore, is to avoid commercial dryer sheets and fabric softener preparations altogether. The annoyances that they are intended to ameliorate are essentially trivial, so such products aren’t really necessary. But, if you feel a need to reduce static and impart a soft feeling, white vinegar added during the rinse cycle will offer these benefits without accompanying toxic exposure.