You see it on the tv: commercials showing women rushing around their homes like haz-mat technicians, armed with cans of air-fresheners spraying down everything in sight. The poor embarrased dog, uncle Bob with his cigar, running shoes and clothes hampers... all of em get a big blast of the stuff. Afterwards, the elated family sits around in pure euphoria, intoxicated by Summer Breeze or Moutain Stream or Berry Burst. Mmmm... life is good. Or is it?
A study released last month by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) evaluated 14 air fresheners off the shelf of a local Walgreens. They found that 12 contained variable amounts of substances called phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates), a group of chemicals that are used to dissolve and carry fragrances. This same group of chemicals is also used to soften plastics and also as sealants and adhesives. Phthalates are routinely found in a variety of items, including cosmetics, paints, nail polish and children's toys — and have long been at the center of a larger international controversy over their health effects.
Studies previous to the NRDC, utilizing rat and human subjects, have suggested that high exposures to certain kinds of phthalates can cause cancer, developmental and sex-hormone abnormalities (including decreased testosterone and sperm levels and malformed sex organs) in infants. They also found that phtalates affect fertility.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has no regulations on the use of phthalates, does not require the labeling of phthalate content on products and does not consider the quantities to which people are exposed to be harmful. After all, that might adversly affect the chemical corporations profits.
But other countries have a different take on things. In 2004, the European Union banned two types of phthalates in cosmetics and also bans the chemical in children's toys. There are 14 other countries that have the same ban in place.
Statistical reports say that nearly 75% of American households use plug-in, spray or stand-alone liquid and gel air fresheners. Since 2003 the market has doubled to $1.72 billion dollars. Of those products the NRDC tested (including the ones labled "all-natural" and "unscented") found a wide range of phthalate content. Many air fresheners contained a phthalate known as DEP and some also contained DBP, which are listed by the California EPA's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment as a developmental toxin and female and male reproductive toxin, respectively.
In the NRDC report, three products — Walgreens Scented Bouquet Air Freshener, Walgreens Air Freshener Spray and Walgreens Solid Air Freshener — were among the top four highest in phthalate content. Of course Walgreens pulled them from store shelves (on September 19th, 2007 to be exact). Well, it's good to know that if customers are going to be used as test subjects, at least the results aren't being totally ignored.
While the study looked at which air fresheners contain the chemicals and how much, it did not assess people's exposure to phthalates from these products — the size of the room, the distance from the air freshener and how long a person stays in the room are all factors that would affect potential toxicity. But like phthalates banned from U.K. beauty products, those in air fresheners can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. "We're not saying that there's any clear-cut evidence here for health effects," says Dr. Gina Solomon of the NRDC. "If consumers want to reduce overall exposure, avoid these products or pick ones with lower levels. We don't know what the cutoff is."
Clearly, there is an active scientific debate about the results of the testing of phthalates. "It's still unresolved," says the NRDC's Solomon. In the meantime, for those who are concerned about phthalates in air fresheners, there are various ways to make the home smell better, au natural. Solomon keeps the house clean and opens the windows — and makes her husband take out the trash. Other common ways to eliminate odors are to keep fresh coffee grounds on the counter (an old flight attendant trick*); toss baking soda at the bottom of the trash can; and grind up a slice of lemon in the garbage disposal. "Get at the root of the odor," says Solomon. "Fresh air will do wonders."