Q. My neighbor does laundry several times a day. She uses dryer sheets and they permeate the air and get inside my house even if everything is closed.

I have had breast cancer and I read that the ingredients in these products are cancer-causing. She will not change her ways or her products. Are there any filters I could put on her exhaust pipe that would protect me from this chemical and its foul smell?

Marie M.
San Pedro, Calif.

A. Dearest Marie,

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I’m sorry you have to deal with this. Cancer survivors should be exempt from unnecessarily difficult neighbor situations for life. Alas, we don’t have that perfect world yet, so here you are trying to breathe easy in your own home and running into a noseful of “Fresh Meadow Rain.”

You’re right to be concerned about the Eau de Chemical coming from your neighbor’s dryer sheets, Marie. As you’ve read (maybe here?), these products contain such troubling ingredients as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), acetone, and fragrance chemicals such as limonene and linalool. Some of these are irritating at best, allergens at middle, and carcinogenic at worst. And it’s not confined to the laundry room: A 2011 study detected more than 25 VOCs in the dryer exhaust of machines using scented dryer sheets or scented detergents, including acetaldehyde and benzene. Not exactly “Clean Mountain Breeze,” is it?

And you’re far from alone in this predicament. I found quite a few people posing the same question on various forums. Some have issues with chemical sensitivity, while others find their asthma or allergies flare when the neighbor starts a tumble. An epidemiological survey found that nearly 11 percent of the population reports sensitivity to scented laundry products vented outdoors.

Knowing this, any neighbor would immediately cease and desist with the dryer sheets, right? Well, I’ve had neighbors too, and I know how they can be (Ms. B and your midnight drum sessions, I’m talking to you). Unfortunately, you will probably have to deal with your next-door nightmare directly on this issue. As far as I can find, there is no such filter you can install on her dryer vent. Such a product would need to be carefully designed so as not to interfere with the dryer’s airflow or worse, pose a fire hazard. Nor are there any legal regulations on the stuff, so you can’t call in the authorities. (Here’s one for the irony file: Many local governments do regulate clotheslines, which some people say are unsightly, even though they don’t pump any noxious fumes into the air, and aren’t energy hogs like clothes dryers are.)

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So, your best bet remains winning her over to your cause. I’m not sure what went down the last time you discussed this, Marie, but it can be quite helpful to come armed with scientific knowledge on the hazards of these dryer sheets. Try telling her just what you told me – you’ve had cancer, and you’re concerned about unnecessary exposure to chemicals. She might not have any idea about the risks and think you’re just a busybody, so set her straight (politely).

It may help to bring a holiday present along for your chat: How about a nontoxic wool dryer ball? They last for years, reduce static, and soften clothes without the side of VOCs. Perhaps you can at least persuade her to give it a whirl.

If all that fails – and if it does, I’m afraid you’re dealing with a real Dragon Neighbor – you might ask her to confine her drying to certain times of the day so you can arrange to be elsewhere. If she’s doing multiple laundry loads daily (aside: Why? Is she running a Laundromat?) this might not fly, but it’s worth asking. One more long-shot idea: Bring reinforcements. Maybe other neighbors are choking on the exhaust, too, and will join your appeal.

You might wonder if there’s some sort of air filter you can install in your own home. The short answer is yes, there are some HEPA air purifiers with activated charcoal, both portable units and whole-house systems, that can help capture some VOCs. But such devices are expensive ($500 and up), high-maintenance, and might not be filtering all the chemicals you’re worried about, anyway.

So I wish you luck in sweet-talking some sense into your neighbor. And I have a New Year’s resolution for all neighbors out there: Quit dryer sheets. You’ll reduce the chemical load on everybody – now that’s what I call freshening the laundry.


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