Why air fresheners stink

Obsession with cleanliness clouding the air and our judgment

Don’t worry about taking out the garbage, bathing your dog or throwing your sneakers in the wash — simply mask household odours with any number of toxic aerosol spray, candle, gel, potpourri and plug-in air freshening products. The global air freshener industry is a multibillion-dollar business sector.

Canadians spend 90 per cent of their time inside, and evidence suggests the use of common household air fresheners is causing more harm than good to indoor air quality. Neither the American nor Canadian government require manufacturers of these products to test them or meet any specific safety standards.

A study published this year in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review, found that top-selling air fresheners were releasing chemicals regulated as toxic or hazardous, but the chemicals were not being disclosed to consumers on the product labels.

Some of the chemicals commonly found in air fresheners include formaldehyde, ethanol, camphor, phenol, petroleum-based artificial fragrances and benzyl alcohol. These chemicals can cause a variety of symptoms including headaches, rashes, dizziness, migraines, asthma attacks, mental confusion, coughing and more.

A 2007 study conducted by the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology at the Municipal Institute of Medical Research in Barcelona, Spain found that using air fresheners increased the risk of developing asthma by an average of 30 to 50 per cent depending on the frequency of use. The study was published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

In September 2007, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released results from a study of 14 brands of popular household air fresheners finding that most contain chemicals that may affect hormones and reproductive development, particularly in babies and pregnant women. “More than anything, our research highlights cracks in our safety system,” said Dr. Gina Solomon, NRDC senior scientist in a recent press release.

The air freshener industry has grown by more than 50 per cent since 2003, and an estimated 75 per cent of households use air fresheners. Despite the size of the industry, it is totally unregulated.

“Consumers have a right to know what is put into air fresheners and other everyday products they bring into their homes,” Solomon argues. “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.”

Twelve of the 14 brands tested contained the hormone-disrupting chemicals known as phthalates. Of these, one was marketed as “all-natural” and “unscented.” And none of them disclosed the ingredient on their labels. The chemicals pose the most risk with long-term repeat exposure.

Some Calgary stores, like Community Natural Foods, pre-screen products for harmful ingredients. Kim Ryrie, health and body care category manager, says the store has quality standards that products must meet before being put on its shelves. Phthalates are an unacceptable ingredient, and products containing these chemicals simply don’t make the cut. Ryrie recommends using pure essential oils with an aromatherapy diffuser or a ready-made air freshener like Orange Mate Mist, a non-aerosol product made with biodegradable citrus ingredients and without fluorocarbons, hydrocarbons or propellants.

Growing herbs indoors will keep your space smelling fresh, and some plants, such as aloe vera, chrysanthemum, spider plants, fig trees and English ivy not only add green to your indoor areas but also work to remove toxins such as formaldehyde, benzene and carbon monoxide.

The Organic Consumers Association recommends simmering cloves and cinnamon in water or putting out sachets of natural dried flowers if you’re looking to add an appealing smell to your home. The group also advises burning beeswax or soy candles with lead-free wicks as a greener, petroleum byproduct-free alternative to conventional candles.

The NRDC, meanwhile, suggests people try to reduce home odours by addressing the root cause of the offending smell and improving ventilation by opening windows.

“There are plenty of good alternatives,” writes Dr. Solomon. “The best way to avoid the problem is to simply open a window instead of reaching for one of these cans.”

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