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Chemical Reaction: A Deep Breath

By: Steve Herman
Posted: December 10, 2008

For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth.—Sanskrit Proverb

Fragrances are safe. Really safe. Work by the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) in the past decade has been extraordinary. The main challenge with the sophisticated methods that RIFM now employs is that, as the science gets deeper and deeper, it is harder for mere mortals to keep pace. Some key concepts important to understanding the current activities of RIFM center on risk assessment, environmental and aquatic safety, QRA (Quantitative Risk Assessment) for skin sensitization and respiratory effects. In addition, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) issues yearly updates with captivating titles such as “43rd Amendment to the IFRA Code of Practice.”

There are more than 2,000 chemicals used in fragrances, and as more safety data is required, there must be a guide to allow the testing of the most critical ones first. RIFM has identified a simple numerical system to combine volume of use, concentration level in product and structural alerts to prioritize materials. The process was summarized in 20001. A molecule with a high priority is not necessarily bad, but it certainly moves to the top of the list for further evaluation.

Structural alerts, “structural moieties that elicit alerts for potential toxic effects,” are parts of molecules that have appeared in other suspect molecules. Structural alerts are divided into topical effects, acute/systemic effects and carcinogenic/mutagenic effects. The numbers weigh heavily toward potential carcinogenic/mutagenic effects. The values assigned for volume of use and concentration in finished products are shown in Figure 1. For the structural alert total, the value of each end point is added (2+4+6 would be the highest score for the structural alert part of the equation).

Getting to Know the Acronyms

The following paragraphs will contain quite a few acronyms. At first contact, it may seem to make the subject incomprehensible. Viewed another way, acronyms are an important portal into the subject. Learning what each acronym stands for is a valuable initial step in understanding, and popping them into Google is a great way to begin learning about the underlying science and technology.