The Coastal Post - May 1999

Do Fabric Softeners Cause Crib Death?

By Carol Sterrit

Crib death, or sudden infant death syndrome, remains one of modern life's greatest mysteries, as well as every new parent's greatest fear. Here in Marin, a woman named Julia Kendall coped with her own multiple chemical sensitivities by extensively researching the components of many commercial products. By the time of her death, Kendall had come to believe that fabric softeners might be the kiss of death for some infants, rather than the cuddly "Snuggles" of sweetly fragranced, pot-bellied bears portrayed in soap ads.

By obtaining industry-generated Material Safety Data Sheets, (MSDS), she listed many ingredients found in fabric softeners and also their direct impacts on health. Reading her research, one wonders why researchers currently involved in the SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) issue have not yet carefully examined the role of softeners and other laundry products on SIDS. Granted that SIDS, when its puzzles are finally solved, will most likely be found to have multiple presentations rather than be one simple reaction to one simple event, none-the-less, the cautions spelled out by the MSDS literature make it hard to not hold fabric softeners accountable as a major cause of SIDS.

For example, about alpha-terpineol: the substance causes central nervous system disorders, "highly irritating to mucous membranes." "Aspiration into lungs can produce pneumonitis;" can "also cause excitement, ataxia (i.e. loss of muscular coordination), hypothermia, central nervous system dysfunctioning, and respiratory depression." "Prevent repeated or prolonged skin contact," advises the MSDS. And that is just for starters.

Second on the fabric softener list is benzyl acetate. This is called a carcinogen, and it is linked to pancreatic cancer. Next up is benzyl alcohol. This substance causes central nervous system disorders irritating "to the upper respiratory tract, headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and drop in blood pressure, and death in severe cases due to respiratory failure."

Reading this, I immediately got on the phone with Dr. Ron Harper, of the UCLA Medical School Brain Research Institute. Dr. Harper is a leading SIDS researcher. His focus has been the examination of an infant's brain's ability to overcome falling blood pressure rates, which occur normally as the child drifts into sleep. He has theorized that some SIDS babies may die from an inability to recover from this sudden loss of blood pressure. I explained about Julia's fabric softener research. He knew of no research mentioning a correlation between the use of fabric softener and SIDS. However, he asserted that it is his belief that an anaphylactic reaction is responsible for some SIDS cases, and that fabric softener, with its myriad of chemical components, could not be ruled out as a possible causative agent. The information that he was most comfortable in claiming as fully proven is the relationship between smoking and SIDS. It is well documented that babies whose mothers smoked during the pregnancy had a higher likelihood of falling victim to SIDS. And babies whose parents continued to smoke after the child's birth faced even greater risk.

While discussing SIDS with Harper, I admitted my own prejudices on the issue. Twenty-three years ago, when my own son was a wee tot, I thought nothing was finer than seeing him sleeping with his baby butt up in the air, and his nose to the ground, while he blissfully slept on his tummy. One day, an eminent yogi from India overheard my remark that this sight was just "too cute." His reply delighted me. "Not simply "cute" but extremely wise. A baby's lungs are not fully developed at the time of its birth, and so the baby intuitively seeks out the traditional yoga position which will propel his lungs into their proper growth pattern."

So a few years ago, when the first media campaign began extolling the virtues of putting infants to sleep on their backs, I recoiled at the idea. Why are people being asked to defeat their child's basic instincts? Later, after hearing about Julia Kendall, and talking to a friend of hers, my worst paranoia was confirmed. If what Julia believed to be true is indeed so, we are being told to conform our children to an unnatural position, because it is the only position allowing them to escape full contact with the toxics emitted in the laundry they are sleeping upon, and whose vapors they are breathing in. Rather than industry re-formulating its products, or telling us the truth so we can switch to alternative products, they would rather have us attempt to re-design human nature itself.

This accomplishes two things for industry: one: the consumers will continue to offer their dollars for these products, and two: when someone's child becomes a SIDS statistic, it is possible the parents will blame themselves for not being ever vigilant in keeping their child in the unnatural body posture. With the victims holding themselves liable for the disaster, they most likely won't seek out a court settlement involving the manufacturer's liability.

Luckily it is not only Julia Kendall who has sounded the alarm about the safety of fabric softener anti-cling sheets. "The New Reactor," the newsletter for The Environmental Health Network (EHN), reported in March-April of 1997 that fabric softener sheets have as their active ingredient a compound called quaternary ammonium. This cationic surfactant may be extremely hazardous to animal and human health. According to Carol Sholin's article, "cationic surfactants are highly toxic and are used as biocides (herbicides and pesticides, etc.). It is this type of surfactant that is also used in fabric softener sheets."

So what exactly is going on? Why are we as consumers in this predicament? Perhaps a quick look at life since the turn of the century can explain a few things. We started the century with a tremendous explosion of knowledge related to chemical production of nifty new things. Technology had arrived, and it was great! Read any textbook from the early days of new science, and you will be caught up in sheer excitement. Everything was possible and nothing could possibly go amiss. Airplanes would fly, and no one envisioned years in which they would do little but drop bombs on civilians' heads. Fluoride would help you keep your teeth, and its proponents never thought about it hardening capillaries in your brain. Herbicides and pesticides would quadruple crop production and keep pesky flies away. And cars on freeways would allow us to zip wherever we wanted whenever we needed to go at 60-miles-an-hour-plus without so much as a rush hour slow down.

However, eventually (and early on) the other side of the coin began to be seen. During the Spanish American War, meat packers sold rotten meat to the government for distribution to our fighting men. The government's reaction to subsequent illnesses brought about the creation of the FDA. At that time we realized only partial truths. Although we knew we needed to regulate our food and drug industries, it was simply not realized that things could hurt you even if you didn't eat them. So the regulations had critical flaws built into their very foundations.

And just thirty years ago our culture believed that childhood leukemias were not related to toxics showing up in the water supply. No, leukemia was a virus, not a result of ingesting dangerous pollutants. But we now know differently. And again and again current researchers point out that skin absorption and our inhalation of outgassing fumes from products can be as potent a disturbance to our bodies as ingesting poison in food or drink. But the regulations were created before this knowledge was obtained. And most importantly, due to big industry's big buck strategy of owning legislators, and controlling through advertising dollars, most of the media, the regulations and our information about the dangers of products will not be changed anytime soon.

Thus we have fabric softener. A good idea initially, but one needing reconsideration. In addition to its potential for robbing the cradle, it severely affects the senior population. In many institutions, the need and desire to give Grandma fragrant sheets to sleep on means that Grandma is exposed to neurotoxins at a time when she is most vulnerable to the exposure. Stroke is one aspect of neurological dysfunctioning. And even when the elderly live in their own home, family members or hired home health aides do them "the favor" of scenting the sheets with a goodly amount of the chemical soup named above. Although chloroform (whose inhalation can be fatal) and ethyl acetate (which is known to cause anemia with leukocytosis) were not mentioned earlier as part of the fabric softener soup, they are indeed among its components.

Fabric softener seems to be a case of what you don't know can surely surely harm you.

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