Choking on freshness

If air “fresheners” clear the air, why are we gagging?

Dried oranges, cinnamon and cloves are a natural alternative to chemically based air fresheners.

Dried oranges, cinnamon and cloves are a natural alternative to chemically based air fresheners.

There they are, dangling from a car rearview window, or masking scents in a public bathroom, or emitting little smells from a home light socket. If air “fresheners” are intended to clear the air, why do they cause some people to gag?

According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commissions, some air fresheners “release pollutants more or less continuously.” For starters, there are phthalates. Phthalates are hazardous chemicals that have been linked to hormonal abnormalities, birth defects and reproductive problems. When released into the air, phthalates can be inhaled or absorbed by the skin. In a well-publicized study in 2007, the Natural Resources Defense Council evaluated 14 air fresheners from a Walgreens store and found phthalates in 86 percent of them, even those labeled as “all natural” or “unscented.”

The chemicals don’t stop with phthalates, however. A 2008 University of Washington study of six name-brand air fresheners and laundry products found that each gave off at least one chemical regarded by federal law as toxic or hazardous, and yet none of the chemicals were listed on the product labels. Manufacturers aren’t required to list ingredients, including what can be the several chemicals labeled simply as “fragrance” on the product. One plug-in air freshener in the study carried more than 20 different volatile organic compounds, seven of which are regulated as toxic or hazardous by federal law.

“Nearly 100 volatile organic compounds were emitted from these six products, and none were listed on any product label,” UW professor and researcher Anne Steinermann told Science Daily. “Plus, five of the six products emitted one or more carcinogenic ‘hazardous air pollutants,’ which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to have no safe exposure level.”

In a separate study, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found that exposure to the volatile organic compound 1, 4 dichlorobenzene, which is found in some air fresheners, may reduce lung function and exacerbate respiratory diseases.

Despite this research, regulators say there’s no clear evidence for ill health effects of conventional air fresheners, partly because of a lack of conclusive studies.

Does this mean you have to start baking cookies every day to make your home smell better? Not necessarily.

There are a number of nontoxic, biodegradable alternatives that are readily found at local eco-minded stores and increasingly popping up in the big box stores, as well. Many come in spray bottles with ingredients such as “water, food grade enzymes, mint.”

Or make your own. Some ideas include infusing a spray bottle with a couple of sprigs of mint or lavender, using baking soda in the bottoms of trash cans, cupboards and refrigerators, and lighting natural soy or beeswax candles. You could also make your own natural potpourri by combining, for example, dried orange peels, cinnamon sticks, cloves or dried flower petals. Then—you know, as a last resort—you could clean the source of stinkiness.

In Reno, where the air is relatively clean, the best air freshener may be the air itself, so try cracking a window.