Air Fresheners’ Real Impact On Indoor Air Quality

Surprisingly, despite the economic downturn, the global sales of air fresheners are on the rise. According to the Wall Street Journal, "[c]ertain life events prompt consumers to buy more air fresheners. Getting a pet, moving to a new home, getting married and having children all motivate shoppers to pick up more air-care products…This will continue to be a key growth contributor…"

Perhaps if consumers were more aware of the real impacts these products have on indoor air quality and health, they would think twice. Here's the unvarnished truth:

Air fresheners almost never "freshen" the air. They just mask odors, either with synthetic fragrance or by interfering with your ability to smell by coating your nasal passages with an oil film or releasing a nerve-deadening agent. In rare cases, they will actually break down the offensive odor.

What's in them and what's the risk?

Known toxic chemicals that can be found in air fresheners include camphor, phenol, ethanol, formaldehyde, and artificial fragrances (which contain their own mix of toxic chemicals). These chemicals can cause symptoms like headaches, rashes, dizziness, migraines, asthma attacks, mental confusion, coughing and more. Some of the substances in air fresheners are linked to cancer or hormone disruption.

Mindy Pennybacker reports in "Synthetic Air Fresheners' Toxic Taint":

A study published on July 10, 2010 in Environmental Health found that women who used more household cleaning products, including air fresheners and mold removers, had a 2x higher risk of breast cancer. Many aerosol air fresheners contain toxic phthalates, which have been linked to birth defects and reproductive harm. A Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study found the hormone-disrupting compounds in 12 out of 14 common air fresheners and none of these products listed phthalates on their labels.

Symptoms and sensitivities vary from person to person, but children are particularly susceptible.

What to do?

Pennybacker recommends:

  1. Look Before You Spray. Read labels. If you see the word "Fragrance," it's likely that the manufacturer is taking advantage of an FDA labeling loophole that allows users of synthetic fragrance to avoid mentioning specific ingredients-including phthalates, used in synthetic scents. Look instead for specific essential plant oils, preferably organic.
  2. Do a Sniff Test. Before buying any fragranced product, natural or not, spray some from a tester to see whether it produces sneezes or itchy eyes. Strong fragrances, particularly citrus or pine, can provoke irritation and allergic/asthmatic reactions. And remember, when it comes to any perfume, a little goes a long way, so you needn't overdo it.

Healthy Child also recommends freshening indoor air naturally by doing things like:

  • Opening windows.
  • Growing indoor plants.
  • Using natural and non-toxic products. (Read more.)

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