Are air fresheners bad for your health?

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Air fresheners sell like gangbusters in the United States. Around 75 percent of American homes use some form of them, racking up more than $1 billion in profits for the industry [source: NRDC]. In fact, since 2003, sales have doubled as the market has broadened to offer solid, aerosol and plug-in varieties in a smorgasbord of scents.

But the domestic fragrances and odor neutralizers have also received a bad rap for their chemical stewpots. Environmental groups repeatedly warn against using many types of air fresheners, citing a list of pollutants they claim can threaten our health. At the same time, industry representatives maintain that air fresheners pose no risk. U.S. government organizations, such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency, have not ruled on whether they should be legal since studies on their health effects are scarce.

A 2007 study by the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) spiked this public debate. In testing 14 different air fresheners sold at a Walgreens drug store, the study concluded that many contained chemicals that could cause developmental and reproductive problems, especially for infants [source: NRDC]. It highlighted the presence of phthalates, chemicals that manufacturers use as plastic softeners and to hold fragrances. California and Washington have banned the sale of children's toys containing phthalates because of their link to hormonal disruptions in additional studies on animals.

Although the organization didn't call for the removal of the air fresheners from the market, it set off a wave of mixed reactions. Walgreens, for instance, removed three of its generic brand air fresheners that the study found had the highest levels of phthalates [source: Meersman]. Some, however, called the NRDC testing procedures into question since it didn't take into account factors such as the size of the room it is dispensed in, a person's distance from the product and the time they stay in a room [source: Masters].

But the list of possible air freshener irritants doesn't stop there. On the next page, we'll cover the other offenders and natural ways you can halt odors at home.

Main Chemicals in Air Fresheners

If you're feeling queasy about your air freshener choices, perhaps go the natural route.
If you're feeling queasy about your air freshener choices, perhaps go the natural route.
Bernd Lippert/Getty Images

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), most store-bought air fresheners consist of formaldehyde, petrochemicals, p-dichlorobenzene and aerosol pollutants [source: EPA]. The agency's "Indoor Guide to Air Quality" also notes that air fresheners "release pollutants more or less continuously" [source: EPA].

The University of California at Berkeley performed a study on air fresheners and household cleaners in 2006 that discovered ethylene-based glycol ethers, classified by the EPA as hazardous air pollutants [source: ScienceDaily]. It also found the presence of terpenes, which are chemicals often derived from citrus oils that are not inherently dangerous, but react with ozone to form formaldehyde [source: UC Berkeley]. While these conclusions may seem like cause for alarm, the study also reported that health-related issues would apply mostly to professional house cleaners or janitors who are exposed to high levels of the products [source: ScienceDaily].

One of the active ingredients in mothballs, 1,4 dichlorobenzene, also is present in many air fresheners. The EPA's air quality guide lists this chemical as toxic since its vapors can affect respiratory function. Likewise, the U.S. National Institute of Health Sciences reported that the chemicals in air fresheners can reduce lung capacity and may hasten respiratory diseases [source: ScienceDaily].

Along those same lines, there appears to be a correlation between air fresheners and asthma problems. A University of Washington study on chemical hypersensitivity polled people about their reactions to air fresheners. Around a third of the participants with asthma said air fresheners will aggravate their condition, and 40 percent reacted negatively to scented products in general [source: Caress and Steinemann].

This could be connected to that combination of certain chemicals in air fresheners and ozone that form formaldehyde [source: Caress and Steinemann]. Why so many mentions of formaldehyde? The gas can lead to impaired breathing in people and can cause cancer in animals [source: EPA].

Nevertheless, the EPA has not advised against buying air fresheners, but rather that people should exercise care with usage. That's because many of the chemical-related studies simulated higher levels of indoor ozone and air freshener consumption than normally occurs in homes. Also, some companies now sell "greener" air fresheners for consumers who are concerned about the health effects with lowered levels of pollutants.

If you still aren't satisfied with your air freshener options, you can take the natural route. Proper ventilation, along with baking soda, coffee grounds or lemon peels (try grinding them up in your disposal) can all disperse and eliminate peevish odors.

For more information about air fresheners, follow your nose to the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Caress, Stanley M. and Steinemann, Anne C. "National Prevalence of Asthma and Chemical Hypersensitivity: An Examination of Potential Overlap." University of Washington. May 2005. (July 3, 2008) http://water.washington.edu/Research/Articles/2005.asthma.prevalence.pdf
  • "Chemical In Many Air Fresheners May Reduce Lung Function." National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. July 27, 2006. (July 3, 2008)http://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/releases/2006/airfreshener.cfm
  • "CPSC, SC Johnson Announce Recall of Glade Extra Outlet Scented Oil Air Fresheners." Consumer Product Safety Commission. April 19, 2002. (July 3, 2008)http://www.cpsc.gov/CPSCPUB/PREREL/prhtml02/02144.html
  • "Indoor Guide to Air Quality." EPA. Updated April 25, 2008. (July 3, 2008)http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/insidest.html
  • Masters, Coco. "How 'Fresh' Is Air Freshener?" TIME Magazine. Sept. 24, 2007. (July 3, 2008)http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1664954,00.html
  • Meersman, Tom. "Potential hazards spur Walgreens to pull air fresheners." Knight Ridder Tribune Business News. Sept. 27, 2007. (July 3, 2008)http://www.startribune.com/local/11590891.html
  • "Plug-in air freshener overheats and sparks house fire." Daily Mail. Nov. 29, 2007. (July 3, 2008)http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-497446/Plug-air-freshener-overheats-sparks-house-fire.html
  • "Understanding EPA's Study on Air Fresheners." EPA. Updated May 2, 2008. (July 3, 2008)http://www.epa.gov/ord/htm/air_fresheners.htm
  • University of California -- Berkeley. "Many Cleaners, Air Fresheners May Pose Health Risks When Used Indoors". ScienceDaily. May 24, 2006. (July 3, 2008)http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2006/05/060524123900.htm