Air “Fresheners Last month Jane Kay reported on a coalition of environmental groups petitioning the federal government to “crack down on air fresheners, products that scientific studies show can aggravate asthma and pose other health risks” (SFChron, 9/20/07).

The Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Alliance for Healthy Homes, and the National Center for Healthy Housing filed a petition with the EPA and the Consumer Product Agency to request better regulation of the industry, which is expected to garner $1.72 billion in sales this year. Excerpts from the petition:

Scented sprays, gels and plug-in fresheners offer no public health benefits yet contain harmful chemicals linked to breathing difficulties, developmental problems in babies and cancer in laboratory animals.

In houses, offices and restrooms, Americans suffer significant exposure to a veritable cocktail of dangerous and potentially dangerous volatile organic compounds. In cases of mold and damp indoor environments, air fresheners may hide an indicator of potentially serious health threats to the respiratory system.

Proposed truth-in-advertising labeling would require listing all ingredients in air fresheners. The government should ban ingredients that would cause allergies or appear on California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals linked to cancer and reproductive harm.

The air fresheners can contain a number of harmful chemicals including benzene, formaldehyde, and phthalates.

Lab animal studies show that some phthalates interfere with hormonal systems, disrupt testosterone production and cause malformation of sex organs. Some studies of humans have shown a link between exposure and adverse changes in the genitals of baby boys.


The Natural Resource Defense Council sent 14 air fresheners to be tested for phthalates in an independent lab. The tests found that 12 products, including those marked “all natural,” contained phthalates.

Rewriting History

While Walgreens pulled the offending products from their shelves, other industry representatives insist the air fresheners “pose no health threat and contribute to a better quality of life in many households.” Further, that air fresheners “do contribute to the quality of life. Fragrances have been used for centuries, dating back to when the Chinese and the Egyptians used incense and fragrant oils. They obviously have a value, or consumers wouldn’t buy them” (Bill Lafield, op cit).

Of course, what Mr Lafield fails to mention is that the fragrances used for centuries bear no resemblance to the petrochemically-based synthetics his group sells that make people sick. Before the rise of the chemical industry, traditional sources for cosmetics were botanically-based, derived from common nut or fruit oils like coconut, apricot, and olive; or from essential oils such as rose, jasmine, sandalwood, frankincense, and lavender. These botanicals and volatile oils actually enhanced health. One of the health hazards cited in the environmental groups’ petition is the ability of air fresheners to mask the smell of mold, an indicator of potentially serious health threats to the respiratory system.

Among the many ironies of misleading industry statements such as the quote from Lafield is that traditional fragrances – essential oils like lemon, tea tree, eucalyptus, and others that are commonly used to purify dank air – have antimicrobial actions that in fact kill bacteria and fungus, making breathing easier for people with respiratory conditions.