The hidden health risks of air fresheners
UPdate Fall 2007

There’s nothing fresh about air fresheners. A new study reveals that common air fresheners contain chemicals which may affect human reproductive development. The study, conducted by the US based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), revealed that 12 of 14 air fresheners tested contained phthalates, chemicals known to be hormone disrupters. Phthalates were even found in one brand labeled “all natural” as well as an air sanitizer labeled “unscented.” None of the products tested included phthalates in the ingredients list, or anywhere else on the label.

“Consumers have a right to know what is put into air fresheners and other everyday products they bring into their homes,” says Dr. Gina Solomon, senior scientist with the NRDC. “There are too many products on the shelves that we assume are safe, but have never even been tested. The government should be keeping a watchful eye on these household items and the manufacturers who produce them.”

Phthalates are especially dangerous for young children and unborn babies. “More than anything, our research highlights cracks in our safety system,” Solomon notes. Neither the US or Canadian governments currently test air fresheners for safety or require manufacturers to meet any specific safety standards.

Consumers in North America purchase almost $2 billion of air freshening products every year. Use of air fresheners has increased 50 percent since 2003. An estimated 75 percent of households now use them, and they are being used in more rooms than before. Most recently, air fresheners are being designed to appeal to the 8-18 year old crowd, including a plug-in manufactured in “girl-friendly” colours and featuring a light show.

Exposure to phthalates in air fresheners comes from inhalation or absorbtion through the skin.

NRDC, along with the Sierra Club, the Alliance for Healthy Housing and the National Center for Healthy Housing have petitioned the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission to crack down on air fresheners. “Scented spays, gels and plug-in fresheners offer no public health benefits, yet contain harmful chemicals linked to breathing difficulties, developmental problems in babies and cancer in laboratory animals,” the petition states.

The petition asks that manufacturers be required to conduct health and safety tests, including determining the respiratory effects of breathing air freshener fumes. They also want the government to ban ingredients that would cause allergies, as well as those on the California list of chemicals linked to cancer and reproductive harm.

Phthalates are not the only ingredient in air fresheners which are serious threats to health. A study released by the California Air Resources Board in 2006 found high levels of terpenes in many air fresheners. Air fresheners were the most hazardous of all the household cleaning products tested. The study found that terpenes in air fresheners (commonly citrus or pine oils) combined with ozone, which occurs naturally in air, to form formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. The air fresheners also created ultra-fine particles, and released an array of other hazardous chemicals.

In 2005, a Consumer’s Union study in Europe found that air fresheners contained high levels of volatile organic compounds. It concluded that they substantially contributed to indoor air pollution. The European study of air fresheners detected benzene, known to cause leukemia in humans, as well as formaldehyde.

Air fresheners can have immediate health effects as well as long term ones. A study conducted by Bristol University in the UK found that babies who lived in households where air fresheners were used daily suffered 30 per cent more diarrhea than babies in homes where air fresheners were used once a week or less. The babies also had significantly higher levels of earaches. The study, which tracked the health and development of 14,000 children from before birth, found that the mothers who used air fresheners daily suffered 10 percent more headaches and had a 26 per cent higher risk of depression.

“ The smell of clean is nothing,” says Karen Robinson of Citizens for a Safe Learning Environment, who has been instrumental in having scent-free programs adopted in Nova Scotia schools. The best way to get rid of offending smells is to clean items, not cover the smell with a chemical odor.

Opening windows to bring in fresh air, putting baking soda in trash cans, and taking out compost regularly are ways to keep household air fresh. For those who want to add pleasant smells to the air at home, baking cookies or simmering cinnamon or lemon peel on the stove can do the trick, without creating unnecessary health hazards.

See also: Air fresheners create indoor smog