Products with a distinct chemical odour - hazardous or not?

2.6.2016 9.47


Many consumers are concerned about products which emit an intensive chemical odour and may also cause allergic reactions, breathing difficulties, skin symptoms or headaches. In some cases, the problem is limited only to the intensity of odour. In this section we will describe what action you should take in such a case.

For example, textiles, furniture and various plastic packings with a distinct chemical odour have given rise to concern. In the spring and autumn of 2015, Tukes received an exceptionally high number of reports from consumers on scented sanitary napkins suspected to have caused symptoms of skin irritation.

''Whenever a consumer discovers any symptoms of skin irritation caused, for example, by a sanitary napkin, Tukes advises discontinuing using the product immediately and, if the symptoms persist, visiting your local healthcare centre. Consumers are also advised to contact the product manufacturer or importer whose contact information is available on the product packing. In general, if a product causes any symptoms of irritation or is otherwise unsuitable for you, it should not be used," says team leader Marilla Lahtinen of the Chemical Products Market Surveillance team.

"Purchase decisions made by consumers have a bearing on how much odorants producers use in their products. Tukes finds it vital that there are also odorant-free products available on the market," Lahtinen continues.

Legislation does not prohibit the use of odorants in articles 

Chemicals legislation does not prohibit using chemicals that cause sensitisation or irritation in articles, for example. Substances whose use is subject to restrictions can also be used providing that concentration of such a substance present in articles does not exceed the maximum allowed limit value laid down for the relevant substance. Individuals previously sensitised to a given substance may, however, react to exposure to concentrations falling below the maximum allowed limit value.

The use of odorants is permitted, and current legislation does not require, for example, itemising in the product data sheet or other markings by name the chemicals used as odorants in articles. In this context, product choices made by consumers, together with contacting the responsible economic operator directly, have a central role to play.

A great variety of different chemicals can cause either skin or eye irritation or skin and/or respiratory sensitisation, resulting in allergy-induced reactions. Common symptoms of respiratory sensitisation are rhinitis, asthma, conjunctivitis and hypersensitivity pneumonitis. Exposure to substances classified as skin sensitisers causes allergic dermatitis, which is characterised by local redness, itchy and scaly skin and swelling. Typically, prolonged or continuous exposure to these substances will only make symptoms more severe. Cosmetic products, hair colourants, detergents and even candles can contain sensitisers. Odorants used in various products can also contain sensitisers or irritants.

Odour can also be due to the production process

It is not at all uncommon that products contain residues of solvents or other chemicals used in production processes. For example, new shoes, curtains or other textiles can emit an odour of these process chemicals, that may in some cases cause headaches or even skin irritation. A strange odour in itself can be unpleasant. You should either put these products out to air or wash them if they are washable. If this does not resolve your problem, you should contact the retail store or producer to inform them of the issue related to the product so that they can sort out the matter with the customer.

The EU chemicals legislation safeguards consumers against substances causing sensitisation by regulating the labelling and placing, including consumer chemicals such as paints, detergents and cosmetic products, for example, on the market of chemical products. The requisite labels and markings on the product must indicate the name of the substance causing sensitisation.

The chemicals legislation does not, however, impose any restrictions on the use of substances causing sensitisation in articles, or require that articles carry any label or marking that would indicate the presence of these substances. Hence, the product data sheets do not provide consumers with any information on sensitisers that the articles may contain.

The Chemicals Act (599/2013) does not contain any provision on consumer's right to damages in the event that a chemical product causes harm to health or property damage. Tukes has no jurisdiction over liability for damages governed by civil law, and, thus, Tukes cannot, for example, order the economic operator responsible for a product to compensate the consumer for any medical costs, loss of income or other expenses arising from harm to health caused by a product, even in the cases where the product has been determined to be dangerous or non-compliant with the statutory requirements. In the event that the consumer who has sustained harm to health or property damage cannot settle the matter with the economic operator amicably, the consumer can bring a civil action for damages against the economic operator before a court of law.

Texts: Marilla Lahtinen, Elina Vaahtovuo, Paula Kuusio