The obsession for “fresh” smelling air is skyrocketing. Americans are expected to spend 1.72 billion dollars on air fresheners this year—that’s enough money to buy 82,100 brand new Toyota Prius cars. Air fresheners can provide pleasant smell associations, disguise bad odors, and just make us feel warm and woozy. And itchy and congested and achy and occasionally even convulsive and comatose. Here’s what you need to know about the dangers of air fresheners and tips for living without them.
The craze for air fresheners is rapidly expanding and is even infiltrating the tween and teen demographic with new products being designed to entice the 8 to 18 set. One fun and flirty plug-in comes in girl-friendly flavors and provides a light show. All the more disturbing when one considers a study by the University of Bristol called “Children of the ’90s” (Alspac), which has followed the health and development of 14,000 children since before birth.
The study didn’t analyze the ingredients in air fresheners, just the effects: 32 percent more babies suffered diarrhea in homes where air fresheners were used every day, compared with homes where they were used once a week or less, and they had significantly more earaches in these homes as well. Air fresheners also affected mothers—those who used them daily suffered nearly 10 percent more headaches. Perhaps most surprising is the finding that women who lived in homes with daily air freshener use had a 26 percent increased risk of depression.
Just one whiff of the thick synthetic-smelling perfume of an air freshener leaves me thinking “run away!” But could the ingredients in them really be all that bad? Amid all of the Internet chatter about the dangers of commercial air fresheners is this gem of a study by the California Air Resources Board entitled “Indoor Air Chemistry: Cleaning Agents, Ozone and Toxic Air Contaminants.” (And you too can read all 183 pages of it right here. The study comprised exacting analysis of 21 widely available products from ten large chain store retailers in California. The products included a range of household cleaners and plug-in air fresheners.
The conclusion of the study was that the use of some air fresheners can produce toxic pollutants when used in the presence of ozone (a form of oxygen). Even minimal ozone concentrations were enough to drive significant indoor chemistry. When the chemicals emitted from the air-fresheners are combined with ozone, pollutants of serious health concern are produced. These include formaldehyde (a known human carcinogen and a respiratory irritant with a very low threshold for health effects) and ultrafine pollutant particles. Also of concern is the production of acetaldehyde, organic acids, other oxygenated intermediates, hydrogen peroxide, secondary organic aerosol, and hydroxyl radicals.
Of all of the products studied, air fresheners were the worst offenders. The most serious problems occur when the terpines in the air fresheners mix with ozone. Ozone enters indoor environments with outdoor air and is generally present indoors at levels that are up to 50 percent of outdoor levels. Ozone also may be introduced by indoor sources including devices designed to generate ozone for air purification, air cleaners generating ozone as a byproduct of ionization, and some photocopiers and printers. According to the California Air Resources Board, air cleaners or air “purifiers” that intentionally produce ozone should never be used; they emit very high levels of ozone, a reactive gas that may harm human health.
So what can you do?
Watch Your Ozone
Don’t use air fresheners advertised as pine- or lemon-scented, especially during high outdoor pollution days.
For ozone forecasts, visit Air Now . This is a great government sponsored website all about air quality.
When using cleaning products, avoid the use of indoor air cleaning devices such as
electrostatic precipitators and ionizers that can emit ozone.
Remove bad odors instead of masking them
Clean the source of the odor with non-toxic products.
Empty the garbage frequently.
Burn 100 percent pure beeswax candles with 100 percent cotton wicks—they purify and clean the air.
Use an open box of baking soda for smelly rooms.
Use indoor plants to clear carbon dioxide and other toxins.
Perfume the air with natural scents
Simmer cinnamon and cloves, fresh ginger, or herbs in water on the stovetop.
Simmer water with a drop or two of your favorite pure essential oil.
Use organic sachets and potpourris.
Try these other homemade Home Sweeteners.