Toxic Talk and Labels

Toxin Alert: Air Fresheners Pollute the Air with Hormone Disruptors

+ Pamela Friedman

Think you can freshen the bathroom air a bit with one of the many air fresheners on the market? Well, it may help the room smell better, but the fumes it creates aren’t worth the fragrance.

A 2007 survey by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) evaluated 14 air fresheners and found phthalates in 12 of them, including those labeled as “all-natural.” (Phthalates are used to make the scent last longer, and are hormone disruptors and probable carcinogens.) The NRDC’s report says, “Of all the products in the home, clean-smelling air fresheners seem to pose little risk. But the fresh scent of air fresheners may mask a health threat-chemicals called phthalates that can cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects, and reproductive problems.”

According to the Global Campaign for the Recognition of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), air fresheners work in one of four ways:

1.    by killing your ability to smell through nerve-deadening chemicals;

2.    by coating your nasal passages with an undetectable oily film;

3.    by covering up one smell with another;

4.    (rarely) by breaking down the offensive odor.

They go on to say that a 2002 EPA test found that fresheners plugged into electrical outlets react with common indoor air pollutants to produce toxic chemicals like benzene derivatives, pinene and limonene, aldehydes, phenol, and cresol. Pinene and limonene apparently react with ozone to create formaldehyde and other chemicals connected with respiratory problems. Other toxic chemicals found in air freshener plug-ins include benzyl alcohol, camphor (known to cause eye and skin irritation), dichlorobenzene (toxic to the nervous system), ethanol (derived from petroleum and considered carcinogenic), and more. The MCS concludes, “Indoor air quality experts recommend against using chemical air fresheners and/or chemical room deodorizers of any kind.”

Even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns against the use of indoor air fresheners: “There are four basic ingredients in air fresheners: formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, p-dichlorobenzene, and aerosol propellants. Air fresheners are usually highly flammable and also strong irritants to the eyes, skin, and throat.”

So what if you want to clear the air in your house? These organizations have several recommendations. The NRDC says that, since it’s currently impossible for consumers to tell the phthalate content of any freshener (since they don’t appear on the label), that consumers should avoid air fresheners completely. The EPA suggests using baking soda instead, which is non-toxic. The MCS suggests finding and removing sources of bad odors, keeping windows open, adding drops of organic essential oils to cotton balls and placing around the house, simmering desirable spices like cinnamon and cloves in a little water on the stovetop, and investing in an air purifier with carbon filtration.

What do you do to keep your home smelling nice-and phthalate free? Let us know.

Photo courtesy KnoxvilleRob via