scent

Toxic Air Fresheners – The Scent of Danger in the Air

by: Lynn Stratton

Breathe deeply, wherever you are, and what do you smell? Chances are you’re surrounded by a pleasing scent, whether it’s floral, or woodsy, or fruity (Thai Dragon Fruit, anyone?). Or perhaps it’s the scent of fresh linen or ocean breeze, or any one of dozens of euphemistically named “air fresheners” marketed by dozens of companies in an industry that brings in about $7 billion a year worldwide. Yes, that’s billion. 

The manufacturers of these air fresheners tells us we must “fragrance” our world-Eliminate dog odor in your car!-with hundreds of products, lest we inadvertently smell something icky, and these same manufacturers insist their products “eliminate” odors.

Well, no. They don’t. They simply give you something else, something stronger, to smell, which covers up the previous odor. It’s still there, but all you notice now is the new smell. And lately, fragrances have been added to such everyday, ordinary products as paper towels-after all, you wouldn’t want your paper towels to smell like, well, paper towels. Febreze, a Procter and Gamble product, offers its Scented Reed Diffuser, Soy Blend Candle and premium Room Spray, promoting its Febreze Home Collection as ” more than décor. It’s a breath of fresh air.”

Well, no. It isn’t. Not unless your normal breathing air is a toxic soup of chemicals: petroleum distillates (what we’re not supposed to breathe in when filling our gas tanks), terpenes, aldehydes, ketones, toluene, styrene, alcohol, and the list goes on and on. Happily for the manufacturers, less happily for humans and their pets, that list of toxic ingredients is not required to be posted on the product labels.

Also less happily for us, the manufacturers are the ones responsible for telling us, and the government agencies that don’t bother to regulate those products, that they are safe; think of the fox guarding the henhouse. Procter and Gamble, for instance (although they’re certainly not the only manufacturer of toxin-in-a-can) is simply allowed to state that their formulas are harmless, and that’s the end of it. No further proof is required.

Thankfully, some folks aren’t quite so willing to take the corporate word for it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, has noted repeatedly that one ingredient in many air fresheners (and by that I mean sprays, candles, gels, cute little pearly beads, and so on) is formaldehyde, which is classified by the International Agency for Cancer Research as a Group I carcinogen. It should be noted that such a designation is reserved for those substances that have been shown by research to definitively cause cancer in human beings.

The EPA also notes that air fresheners release what is called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs (a term you may have seen in connection with household paints, for instance). VOCs cause the following laundry list of symptoms: eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches; loss of coordination; nausea; liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage; allergic skin reactions; dyspnea, or shortness of breath; declines in serum cholinesterase levels; emesis, or vomiting; epistaxis, or nosebleeds; fatigue, visual disorders, and memory impairment. The list of symptoms tied to these chemicals is so extensive, in fact, that some air freshener labels say the product should be kept out of the reach of children. Yet children, adults and pets breathe these chemicals in, day after day, at work and at home, because we’ve all believed the hype from the manufacturers: Fragrance your world. Our products are safe, you can trust us.

Among those who don’t believe the safety hype is a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Dr. Gina Solomon, who has noted that another common ingredient in these products, phthalates, are “hormone-disrupting chemicals that can be particularly dangerous for young children and unborn babies.” She writes, “Exposure to phthalates can affect testosterone levels and lead to reproductive abnormalities, including abnormal genitalia and reduced sperm production.” She also notes that young children and pregnant women especially should avoid contact with these chemicals-and, by extension, air fresheners in general. You can read her statement here: http://www.nrdc.org/media/2007/070919.aspx 

The NRDC tested 14 different brands of common household air fresheners and found that 12 contained phthalates, including some marketed as “all natural” and even unscented. Of course, phthalates were nowhere listed on the labels. A word here about the physical part of smelling something: When you inhale, you’re not simply breathing in some mysterious “scent” that you can’t see or feel. You’re inhaling molecules of a substance, in this case a dangerously toxic substance, which travel into your nose and then to your brain. The sense of smell is a physical thing. Why does a cocaine user get high? The drug goes into the nose, then right to the brain, where it does its work. For better or worse, the act of smelling something means ingesting minute particles of it. The same principle applies to inhaling air fresheners.

After I wrote a newspaper column on fragranced products, I received numerous emails from people thanking me for bringing the subject out into the open, including one from a woman who told me she’d had to go to the hospital more than once after being exposed to perfumes, which include many of the same ingredients, and some others, as well.

To your body, though, fragrance is fragrance, whether you’re dabbing it on your wrist at work or spraying it on your sofa at home. Most of us have inhaled the scent of real fresh air, of pine woods, of ocean breezes. We know they’re outdoors, and not in a can, a bottle, or a block of toxic gel.

Given the physical aspects of the sense of smell, perhaps a new slogan is in order for these particularly fragrant times.

You are what you breathe…

A few links you might find informative:

-The NRDC: www.nrdc.org

-The full report of the NRDC on air fresheners: http://www.nrdc.org/health/home/airfresheners/contents.asp

-The EPA: www.epa.gov

-And finally, an excellent article on the results of a study done by the University of California, Berkeley, with links: Air Fresheners

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Lynn Stratton

Lynn Stratton

Lynn Stratton worked for the St. Petersburg Times as a news archivist, copy editor and staff writer until recently, when she started her own writing and editing business. Before that, she taught at USF for 15 years. Originally from NYC, she spends her spare time walking her standard poodle, Harry, and working in her butterfly garden, where she's had 6 species of caterpillars so far this year.
Lynn Stratton