Who’s Afraid of Snuggles the Bear?

As the East Coast braces to be pummeled by Hurricane Irene, a new study in the Journal Air Quality and Atmosphere Health, gives consumers yet another thing to fear:  Snuggles the bear’s fabric-softening sheets. The study claims that lurking in your washing machine and dryer are dangerous chemicals from fragrances in fabric softeners for which there is “no safe exposure level.”

Are you quivering? Don’t bother. If you buy this line a bunk, don’t ever have a glass of wine again, nor enjoy whole milk, non-fat milk, whiskey, sake, apple juice, soy sauce, or beer. These are just some of the foods that contain at least one of the “dangerous” chemicals listed in this study: acetaldehyde. According to the study, this chemical flowed in the air from dryer vents at levels up to 47 parts per billion.

Supposedly, that warrants more study (and perhaps government research dollars flowing to these researchers’ budgets) to assess the potential impact on human health. Snuggles should file a defamation lawsuit for such wrongheaded fear-mongering.

The levels reported were too tiny to be of any real consequence. And despite the claim that there are no safe levels, these chemicals are not as dangerous as the authors suggest. The study focuses a good deal on acetaldehyde because it had some of the highest concentrations in the samples tested under conditions set by the study, which may or may not be typical in real life.

Acetaldehyde is a naturally forming chemical that is ubiquitous in the environment. In California, it has been detected at 32 parts per billion in outdoor air, according to EPA. It is released by plants through the process of respiration, is a byproduct of alcohol fermentation, is released in burning of wood, and is a by product of industrial processes as well. Humans are exposed to it in our food, air, and water but there is little evidence that it causes harm from these trace sources at levels that are tens of thousands of times higher than those found in this silly study. It is even used as a food additive, which the World Health Organization has determined poses little risk.

According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) there is “inadequate evidence” that acetaldehyde causes cancer in humans and “sufficient evidence” that it causes cancer in experimental animals (so does broccoli, carrots, and many other healthy foods when animals are given massive doses). IARC classifies acetaldehyde as “possibly carcinogenic” to humans, the same low-risk rating it gives to pickled vegetables and salted fish.

According to research at the University of California, a typical glass of wine may contain 70 milligrams per liter of acetaldehyde — an amount that is equal to 70 parts per million or 70,000 parts per billion. Compare that to the meager 47 parts per billion that raised alarm bells in the study. But some wines contain even higher levels as the chart from the University of California below shows.

Table I.  Acetaldehyde levels in alcoholic beverages

Acetaldehyde (mg/L)

Red Wine …..4 – 212
White Wine….11 – 493
Sweet wine….88 – 248
Sherry……..90 – 500
Brandy……..63 – 308

Data summarized from: Liu S.Q. and G.J. Pilone. 2000. “An overview of formation and roles of acetaldehyde in winemaking with emphasis on microbiological implications.” International J. of Food Science and Technology 35:49-61.

Nonetheless, the Journal Air Quality and Atmosphere Health study employs a host of assumptions — i.e., assuming that everyone in the nation uses one of the “top five brands” of fabric softeners for every load of wash and that each load releases the same levels found in this study — to assess total annual release into the environment of acetaldehyde from laundry. Its sourcing is a bit sloppy and it’s unclear as to whether this applies to just one region in Washington State or the entire country. Nonetheless, it reports annual laundry washing could release as much as 3,545 pounds per year of the substance, which they claim is about 6 percent of what cars release in their exhaust. If this somewhat doubtful scenario were true, this amount is still small. Consider that  “roasting coffee” releases an estimated 4,411 metric tonnes or 9,724,590 pounds of annual emissions in the United States, according to the World Health Organization.

Lesson? Enjoy your wine in moderation and don’t unfairly condemn Snuggles.