Photo: Stock Connection/REX USA.
When life stinks, the $8.3 billion global air-freshener industry is here to mask its scent. But, as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and leading pollutant exposure researchers are finding, there’s a price to pay for making a pungent post-party dorm room suddenly smell like a morning meadow. Turns out, many air fresheners release toxic chemicals and organic compounds that can rough up everything from our skin to male reproductive systems.
After testing 14 air fresheners from major brands, the NRDC found phthalates in nearly all of them (86% to be exact) —including trace amounts found in an all-natural brand that lists essential oils as its only ingredients.
Why are phthalates so ugly? Some are known to mess up the production of testosterone, which can cause reduced sperm production and penis malformations. The State of California has also declared that five types of phthalates are “known to cause birth defects or reproductive harm.” The chemicals can also trigger asthma and allergies as well.
These discoveries are scary enough. But, the use of phthalates can be particularly dicey in air-freshener products, which often release the chemicals into the air. These little particles are inhaled and absorbed after landing on skin, causing them to enter the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, they can change hormone levels and trigger other adverse health effects.
Finally, since phthalates are commonly used in lots of other products, like nail polishes, perfumes, and soft plastics in children's toys, the NRDC worries that, “phthalates may act in combination to have a more toxic effect than they would alone,” according to a 2007 report.
After its test, the NDRC recommended that consumers avoid using air fresheners altogether. And, Civil and Environmental Engineer Anne Steinemann, Ph.D, came to a similar conclusion after discovering a number of chemicals that were emitted in some fragranced products, including air fresheners, and the prevalence of fragrance sensitivity in some Americans.
Photo: Courtesy of Target.
In one study, she found that nearly 20% of subjects exposed to air fresheners, which can contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other ultrafine particles, reported to have experienced adverse health problems including headaches and breathing difficulties after exposure. The number of self-reported asthmatics and those who consider themselves sensitive to chemicals who reported health problems after exposure to air fresheners jumped to about 34% and 58%, respectively.
“You can think of VOCs as fumes,” Steinemann explains. ”VOCs can cause acute damage and long-term damage. I’ve seen people lose consciousness, have asthma attacks, break out in rashes, and not be able to think around instantaneous exposure to an air freshener. And, these same chemicals can cause long-term damage like cancer, reproductive effects, endocrine problems, and immune system abnormalities.”
With this in mind, can’t we just turn to natural brands to fight the funk? Maybe. But, it’s not as simple a solution as one might think. Some natural formulations contain phthalates because they dissolve and carry the smell of fragrances. And, since essential oils can emit VOCs and trace amounts of phthalates, air fresheners that use essential oils aren’t necessarily a best choice either.
“I analyze air fresheners labeled ‘green,’ ‘organic,’ or ‘made with essential oils,’ and many emit hazardous chemicals,” Steinemann says. “Even if an air freshener were to be made with only essential oils, it could still emit hazardous chemicals. More often than not, there are solvents, petrochemicals, and terpenes (which generate formaldehyde, something known to cause cancer) in essential oils.”
“Essential oils are aren’t necessarily like squeezing an orange. There’s a difference between limonene found in an orange and limonene made in a lab: one is natural, and one’s synthetic. Most of the chemicals in these fragrances are synthetic. And, the body doesn’t know how to deal with synthetic chemicals and mixtures of synthetic chemicals.”
The bottom line: “Air fresheners can add hazardous chemicals to an existing air quality problem. They do not clean or purify the air,” Steinemann says. “An effective way to improve the air quality is ventilation.”
If opening a window isn’t an option, or if you're looking for a less toxic way of masking a little stink, fresh flowers, ground cinnamon sticks, mint peels, or orange leaves can do the trick. It turns out that when looking for a greener air fresheners, nature can provide some of the safest formulations around.