Respiratory toxicity of fabric softener emissions

J Toxicol Environ Health A. 2000 May 26;60(2):121-36. doi: 10.1080/009841000156538.


To determine whether there is any biological basis for complaints that fabric softener emissions can cause acute adverse effects in certain individuals, screening tests were performed in which groups of mice were exposed to the emissions of 5 commercial fabric softener products (antistatic pads used in laundry dryers) for 90 min. Pneumotachographs and a computerized version of ASTM test method E-981 were used to measure acute changes in several respiratory cycle parameters, especially the pause after inspiration, the pause after expiration, and the midexpiratory airflow velocity. From these changes, sensory irritation (SI), pulmonary irritation (PI), and airflow limitation (AFL) of differing intensities were measured with each of the five brands tested. At the peak effect, SI ranged from 21 to 58% of the breaths, PI ranged from 4 to 23% of the breaths, and AFL ranged from 6 to 32% of the breaths. After three exposures, histopathology revealed mild inflammation of interalveolar septae of the lungs. Gas chromatography/ mass spectroscopy (GC/MS) analysis of the emissions of one pad identified several known irritants (isopropylbenzene, styrene, trimethylbenzene, phenol, and thymol). Laundry that had been dried with one the fabric softener pads emitted sufficient chemicals to elicit SI in 49% of breaths at the peak effect Placing one fabric softener pad in a small room overnight resulted in an atmosphere that caused marked SI (61% of breaths). These results demonstrate that some commercial fabric softeners emit mixtures of chemicals that can cause SI, PI, and reduce midexpiratory airflow velocity in normal mice. The results provide a toxicological basis to explain some of the human complaints of adverse reactions to fabric softener emissions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Animals
  • Biological Assay
  • Clothing
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry
  • Household Products / toxicity*
  • Lung / drug effects*
  • Lung / pathology
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Respiration / drug effects*
  • Time Factors


  • Air Pollutants