There’s always been something a little unsettling about the idea of revitalizing the air inside our homes by spraying things with names like “Meadow Mist” and “Mountain Breeze,” especially when these products hardly smell like either. Now, two studies have found that our suspicions were correct -- synthetic air fresheners coat our homes and fill our air with unsafe chemicals.
Used in 75% of American households, air fresheners are big business, generating sales of about $1.72 billion a year. Found in everything from plug-in, fake candles to peel-and-stick evaporating disks, these products don’t actually eliminate odors but merely use one of several strategies to make you think they’ve vanished. Some products simply cover up bad smells with stronger chemicals. Others use a nerve-deadening agent to reduce your ability to smell in the first place; some even coat the inside of your nasal passages with a film that stops smells from getting through. A new study from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) finds that these air fresheners are doing something else as well: polluting our indoor air whenever we use them.
The NRDC tested 14 different air fresheners, including those labeled “all-natural,” and found that all but two contained measurable levels of phthalates, synthetic chemicals that have been linked to asthma, endocrine disruption, and other serious health problems. The amounts of phthalates found ranged from 0.12 parts per million (ppm) to an extraordinary 7,300 ppm. Only two of the tested products contained no phthalates at all.
Researchers said that while the number of products tested was small and didn't form a representative sampling, the study’s results clearly indicate the need for more comprehensive testing of these common consumer products, especially because the federal government neither tests air fresheners nor requires manufacturers to list product ingredients or adhere to any specific safety standards.
In response to the study, Walgreens stores, whose private label air fresheners contained the highest levels of phthalates reported by the study, removed the products from their shelves, in a commendable example of a company taking swift action to right a toxicological wrong.
Hot on the heels of that decision came news of a study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, which found that the use of spray cleaners in general greatly increases the risk of contracting asthma. Researchers in Barcelona, Spain found that test subjects who used spray cleaners at least once a week had a 30%-50% greater chance of developing this respiratory disease and concluded that as many as one in seven cases of adult asthma could be blamed on exposure to spray cleaners. The study singled out conventional glass cleaners, furniture sprays, and air fresheners as particularly likely to trigger the ailment.
Evidence is building that conventional air fresheners have no place in a healthy home. In addition to phthalates, air freshener toxins can include naphthalene, phenol, cresol, dichlorobenzene, and xylene. These chemicals have been implicated in cancer, neurological damage, reproductive and developmental disorders and other conditions.
As an alternative to chemical air fresheners, try these safe methods to freshen the air in your home:
Locate sources of odors and eliminate them when and wherever possible. Since many odors are the result of microbial action, spraying trouble spots and potentially problematic areas (like trash cans, compost containers, etc.) with an undiluted 3 percent solution of hydrogen peroxide,the concentration typically available in stores, will remove many odors.
Use natural minerals like baking soda and borax to control common odor sources and to deodorize when you clean.
Keep windows open as often as possible to let bad air out and good air in. If odors are still troubling, invest in an air purifier with activated carbon filtration, a strategy that can remove odors.
To scent indoor air, place a drop of a natural essential oil like lavender or mint on a cold light bulb, or add a dozen drops to a bowl of water placed on a radiator or wood stove. You can also boil fragrant dried herbs in a pot of water to release a fresh smell.
A natural mineral called zeolite is available in packets that will absorb odors when hung in problem areas like musty basements and closets.
Make your own sprays from essential oils and other natural ingredients. For recipes and more information, we recommend the book Better Basics for the Home, by Annie Berthold Bond.