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Student, staff strive to make laundry a healthier practice at CMU

Troy senior Samuel Connors stands in front of dryers on Nov. 20 in the Wheeler Hall laundry room.

As a junior in 2017, Troy senior Samuel Connors and his roommate Damon Rubley had to keep their Trout Residence Hall room window shut during what Connors described as an “unusually hot fall” because there was dryer exhaust being expelled into their room. 

“The fumes exhausted from the (dryer vents) created an environment that was very difficult to be comfortable in,” Connors said. “I had to keep my dormitory window closed whenever the dryers were running, typically from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.” 

The 128-150 degrees Fahrenheit exhaust contained environmentally hazardous chemicals and fragrances, which Connor said heightened his self-diagnosed Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) — an allergic reaction to being highly exposed to irritable chemicals. 

According to "Multiple Chemical Sensitivity" by Johns Hopkins Medicine, a wide variety of symptoms have been reported by those with MCS including changes in heart rhythm, muscle stiffness, skin rash, confusion, trouble concentrating and memory problems. The ladder two being especially punishing for college students.  

Connors said his symptoms comprised of dizziness and asthma-like issues, such as congestion, sneezing and throat soreness. 

Connors first contacted Isabella County to learn about dryer exhaust regulations and later spoke with Central Michigan University student safety personnel.

John Kassuba, director of Facilities Operations at CMU, worked directly with Connors to re-direct the exhaust and come up with solutions to the problem.

After little resolve, Facilities Operations installed secondary lint traps to dilute the hazardous effects of the exhaust and prevent lint buildup on window screens in Trout Hall. The lint traps, which cost about $60 each, were also installed in Wheeler Hall. Kassuba called it a "test run" before installing them campus-wide.

Although exhaust emissions into his bedroom ceased, Connors said the lint traps did not solve the emission of harmful chemicals found in laundry detergent, dispensed by CMU's "environmentally hazardous dryers." 

Connors suggested the university switch to using condenser dryers to solve this issue and said the installation of condenser dryers would significantly decrease the emission of harmful airborne chemicals that "negatively impact student health."  

While these dryers are more sustainable, they also have drawbacks Kassuba said. For example, a normal dryer typically has a dry time of 45-50 minutes while a condenser dryer, which can cost upwards of $1,700, has about a two-hour dry time.

A condenser dryer also has a hard time converting humidity into water, which would cause the laundry rooms on campus to become very humid, Kussaba said. 

Jon Kujat, CMU's risk management and environmental health and safety emergency management manager, said the humidity would raise concerns regarding mold growth.

Kassuba told Connors Coinmarch Service Corporation (CSC) – CMU's washer and dryer vendor – currently does not offer condenser dryers. CMU’s contract with CSC disallows the purchase of the vent-less dryers from another supplier.

However, while Kassuba was researching solutions, he came across a new technology.

"(The heat-pump dryer) is the future of vent-less technology," Kassuba said. "It uses the refrigeration cycle to get a quicker dry time with less humidity."

The technology is not currently offered at a commercial level, but Kassuba said it might be a solution for the future.

While there is no foreseeable change in CMU's laundry appliances, there are other ways to subdue the emission of harmful airborne chemicals, Connors said. One of these is to restrict or ban the use of certain laundry products in residence hall laundry rooms. 

Kujat said this would not be the first time CMU restricted or banned certain fragranced products. The university currently outlaws the use of scented candles in residence halls, partly due to the fragrances they expel, he said.

The university also had an incident where a student was masking the smell of cigarette smoke with perfume, Kujat said. The university has since regulated the use of cologne, perfume and incense.

According to research by Anne Steinemann, a professor at the University of Melbourne and an expert on pollutant exposures and associated health effects, fragranced laundry products can contain "up to several hundred chemicals, many of them hazardous even at low levels." 

One of these fragrances is faint, sweet-smelling chloromethane. When breathed through the lungs even for a brief period of time, the chemical has been known to have serious affects on the human nervous system, including convulsions, coma and death, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Other harmful products commonly found in laundry products include acetaldehyde, phthalates and formaldehyde. The EPA considers many of these "hazardous air pollutants" unsafe in any level of exposure.

"Manufacturers are not required to disclose toxic chemicals in their fragranced products," Steinemann said in her research.

Her research suggests 30 percent of the U.S. population reports having health problems directly affected by fragrances found in laundry products. From this percentage, it is possible that 5,400 on-campus students might be experiencing symptoms of MCS.

However, Kujat said MCS has not come up in his 22 years at CMU, and he understands there are harmful chemicals in commonly used products.

Because of Connors concerns, Kujat researched data sheets from laundry products like Tide and Bounce.

"In all airborne concentrations, there is no health and safety issue," he said. "The tricky part comes in when people have sensitivities with products, but it may not be a regulatory issue."

Kujat said the concentration of carcinogens, like formaldehyde, have been tested in residence halls and are usually low enough they do not cause problems.

"In large quantities, even things helpful to us can be harmful. Water, for example, if you drink it in large quantities can be harmful," Kujat said. 

"There is no concern in the residence hall laundry rooms," he added.

Kujat said researchers usually take samples at the highest concentrated area, which many times makes chemicals seemingly more intense in all areas. The reality is, the further away you get, the more the chemical is diluted.

"If you've got the product up at your face and are breathing it in 24 hours a day, it may be a problem, but that is being facetious," Kujat said. "For the most part, students throw in their laundry and go back to their room. Exposure is very small."

Still, as an alternative to fragranced products, Connors uses natural, unscented products, but said these are typically more expensive, which may be hard for students with a strict budget to buy.

Other products, like fabric softeners, are unnecessary Connors said. Dryer sheets, which are made of mostly plastic, should be recycled or left unused, keeping them out of landfills and the ocean he said.

"It is not just laundry products that are harmful to our skin and bodies," Connors said. "Cleaning supplies, air fresheners, shampoos, perfumes (can also be harmful)."

Connors is in the process of having signs hung in residence hall laundry rooms to educate students about harmful chemicals in laundry products.

"I like how Samuel took it in a direction of education for other student organizations and groups," Kassuba said. "He made something good from his situation and I admire him for that"