Sweet-Smelling Toxins?

Our homes and businesses stink… Or at least that’s the impression you might get from the media. A home just isn’t clean or welcoming unless it smells like flowers or fruits, and ads feature happy family members sniffing carpets and enthusiastically inhaling the freshly-scented air.

Sure, it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but what are we really breathing in when we use these products?

It’s no surprise that we don’t want unpleasant smells around. After all, we spend an average of 90 per cent of our time indoors (according to Health Canada), and we’re willing to pay to make our environments more pleasant. Air fresheners are a booming business — it’s a $200 million market in Canada, and an estimated three out of five Canadians use these products in their homes. Air fresheners also appear in many public places including offices and institutions.

However, fragranced products are anathema for people with chemical sensitivities and allergies — but research warns that air fresheners can pose a threat to everyone. Air fresheners contain chemicals that mask odours or deaden or interfere with our sense of smell. Some chemicals actually line the inside of the nasal passage.

But where is the proof scientific proof?

Air fresheners have been the focus of a few studies over the past couple of years. A 2007 European study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found that regularly using fragranced sprays increased the risk of asthma by as much as 50 per cent. Another study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that most sprays, gels and plug in air fresheners it tested contained phthalates (known hormone disruptors), even if they were labelled as “all-natural” or “unscented”.

But that’s not all… In July 2008, a University of Washington study published in Environmental Impact Assessment found that six top-selling fragranced products (three of which were air fresheners) contained nearly 100 volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Ten of those VOCs are classified as toxic under U.S. Laws. Further research is underway.

In addition, scientists in Korea found that many household products such as air fresheners emit toxic compounds. All 42 products they tested contained acetone, ethanol, limonene, perchloroethylene (PCE), phenol and 1-propanol. Another 10 per cent of products also contained other potentially hazardous chemicals.

Closer to home, the CBC tested air fresheners currently available in Canada. They found that nearly one third contained DBP and/or DEP — the same two phthalates banned from children’s toys in 12 European countries. The phthalates are used to make the scent last longer.

While many people are questioning the safety of these products, not everyone agrees. Companies that produce these products claim they are safe and that they meet all safety regulations. Further, they claim that the levels of any chemicals present are too low to be harmful and that the studies are misleading.

Trade associations such as the Consumer Specialty Products Association (CSPA) also say air fresheners are safe. The CSPA’s website says that the items are subject to strict standards and that manufacturers choose chemicals with low toxicity. The products do not contain known cancer-causing ingredients and are not known to cause or exacerbate asthma. The association says the products are safe when used according to the directions on the packaging. If people are sensitive to the products, they should avoid the products, says the organization in a recent statement concerning allergies.

In addition, its consumer information website AboutAirCare.com/ claims fragranced products have unrecognized health benefits like “reducing performance related stress” and “eliciting positive mood effects”. The fragrances help performance at school and work; improve decision-making, creativity and social relations; and make household chores more pleasant.

Besides, there are currently no recalls of these products due to health concerns, and no government agencies have issued any warnings to consumers based on the results of studies.

So what’s the bottom line for consumers? As is usually the case with allegedly harmful chemicals and products, more research and investigation is required. A direct causal link between any product and an allergy or specific disease is hard to prove, and the risks to children, pets and the environment haven’t been thoroughly investigated.

In the meantime, there isn’t much information available for curious and concerned shoppers. Currently, manufacturers in Canada and the U.S. aren’t required to list all of the ingredients on the packaging even though they are required to list instructions for proper use. As a result, University of Washington researcher Anne Steinemann argues that consumers don’t have enough information about fragranced products, and may even have a false sense of security about the information they do have. She, and many other researchers and activists, advocate that people need more access to information about the products they come into contact with on a daily basis, and laws need to provide better protection for customers.

The alternatives

What if you like a little fragrance now and then or cleaning won’t get rid of a persistent smell in your home? You still have options if you want to avoid any potential risk from commercial room fresheners — and many of them are easy on the wallet.

To get rid of odours:

– There’s something to be said for a good “airing out”. Open the windows when weather and outdoor air quality permit. Good ventilation is important to disperse and dilute odours.

– If you don’t have an air exchange ventilation in your home, place a fan in the window pointing outwards to blow air out of the room. Open a second window to promote a breeze.

– Make sure areas of your home where moisture builds up, like the bathroom or basement, are well-ventilated to discourage mould.

– A box of baking soda works well in small, enclosed spaces (not just your fridge or freezer). You can also sprinkle it on carpets (which tend to absorb odours) and vacuum up.

– Try setting out bowls of vinegar or put it in a spray bottle and mist the room.

– Make your own air freshener. There are many good recipes on the internet such as RecipeZaar, or check your local library for books on making all-natural cleaners.

– Try an odour-absorbing product like the Volcanic Deodorizer from Lee Valley ($18.50 for a bag covering up to 4800 cubic feet). Some time in the sun every six months and a yearly rinse with salt water will keep this product going indefinitely.

– Look for environmentally-friendly odour neutralizing sprays, such as those that contain enzymes like Nature’s Fresh Enzyme Spray. The enzymes work on “organic odours” like urine and smoke. If you have pets, Urine Off also tackles tough stains and odours.

– Purchase an air purifier or filter for use in the home to reduce odours and allergens in the air. These products can be a little pricey, ranging from $50- $300, so assess your needs carefully and watch for sales.

To add some scent:

– Try an essential oil from your local natural food or health food store. A few drops in a diffuser will add some chemical-free scent to the room.

– Simmer some citrus rinds or other spices like cinnamon in a pot on your stove top. Lemon is a good way to banish cooking odours.

– Place some dried flowers or herbs around your home. You can cheat a little and add a drop or two of essential oil to refresh it.

– Grow a fragrant plant such as certain flowers or herbs.

Many sources note that home fragrance products aren’t a necessity, and many of these alternatives are as easy on the pocket book as they are on the environment.