The Washington Post

Good scents might make you feel bad


Air fresheners mask unpleasant odors with vibrant scents, but they come with foul risks for human health.

Whether it’s an aerosol bottle, plug-in, oil, scented candle or gel, if a product promises to clear smells, chances are it harbors toxins that pollute indoor air quality. That’s because many air fresheners rely on chemicals to generate fragrances and make them linger in the air.

“To a chemist, ‘really clean’ would actually be no scent because the scent is caused by a chemical,” said Ryan Sullivan, an associate professor of chemistry and mechanical engineerin­g at Carnegie Mellon University. “Truly clean means very low levels of chemicals.”

Air fresheners are among a broader category of everyday products scientists say are laden with chemicals that have

the potential to cause hormonal disruption­s and respirator­y issues. In many cases, consumers who use air fresheners have no way of knowing what’s in the product, or whether it’s toxic.

“It’s hard for humans to accept that something I bought at the store could actually be harming me and my family or my pets,” said Sullivan, who has taught environmen­tal chemistry for 11 years.

Here’s what to know to protect yourself and your family.

What chemicals are in air fresheners?

Air fresheners emit over 100 chemicals, including volatile organic compounds ( VOCS) such as formaldehy­de, benzene, toluene, ethylbenze­ne and xylenes — some of which are associated with different types of cancer in high doses.

These chemicals can react with naturally occurring compounds in the air and form secondary pollutants that worsen indoor air quality.

The “main ingredient­s” to generate air pollution are VOCS, oxidants and sunlight, Sullivan said. In homes, fluorescen­t lights, which release ultraviole­t light, can act as a replacemen­t for sunlight. Many fragrant molecules react to oxidants, such as those released from gas stoves.

How do they affect human health?

The effects of air fresheners will vary depending on the chemicals in the product and who’s smelling them. People with asthma or allergies can be more sensitive to scented products, according to the Environmen­tal Protection Agency.

Over 75 percent of air fresheners graded by the Environmen­tal Working Group, a D.c.-based nonprofit group that focuses on research and advocacy, contain either “likely” or “potentiall­y significan­t” hazards to health or the environmen­t based on concerns posed by exposure to their ingredient­s. The group’s assessment also took into account whether makers of the products disclosed the ingredient­s in them.

Exposure to high levels of VOCS can lead to adverse health effects, such as migraine headaches, asthma attacks, breathing difficulti­es and neurologic­al problems. Short-term exposure can irritate the eyes, throat and nose, as well as cause nausea.

Reactions to air fresheners can get worse over time, said Claudia Miller, professor emeritus of family and community medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Their chemicals can trigger first responders in the immune system called mast cells, which can cause allergicli­ke reactions, she said.

This can lead to inflammati­on, illness and a higher chemical intoleranc­e after repeated exposures. Once the cells become sensitized to VOCS, it makes them more susceptibl­e to be triggered by them.

But Sullivan says his main concern are the chronic effects of air fresheners and cljeaning products containing chemicals that can cause cancer or disrupt hormones. Some of these chemicals, such as phthalates, have “toxic effects at low doses and low concentrat­ions because our natural hormone system is designed to respond to low levels of hormones,” he said.

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which interfere with the human hormone system, are often part of perfume ingredient lists, but they don’t have to be disclosed, Sullivan said.

In a 2007 analysis, independen­t testing by the Natural Resources Defense Council found phthalates, used to prolong the aroma of fragrances in the air, in 12 of 14 air fresheners it studied — even those labeled “all-natural” and “unscented.”

Are ‘green’ air fresheners safe?

Air fresheners labeled organic, nontoxic, green or all-natural can still emit potentiall­y hazardous chemicals, said Sullivan, who is also associate director of the Institute for Green Science. There is limited data surroundin­g the toxicity of different chemicals in everyday products, he added. “Toxicity is really hard to assess.”

In their analysis, researcher­s from NRDC found that even “‘natural’ products can contain toxic chemicals.”

“The regulation­s in this country around what you can put in cleaning products and certainly in air fresheners are pretty loose,” Sullivan said.

In the United States, air freshener makers are not required to disclose all the chemicals in their products.

An analysis of air fresheners, including ones labeled green and organic, found fewer than 10 percent of volatile ingredient­s disclosed on the product label, according to a report in Building and Environmen­t, an internatio­nal journal.

What should you do?

The EPA recommends cutting back on the use of products with strong fragrances — especially in indoor areas with poor ventilatio­n. The agency also suggests minimizing the use of sprays that spread scents throughout an area.

Essential oils may be the safest option to add fragrances to indoor spaces, but before using them you should first check what is added to the oil, Sullivan said. A short list of fully disclosed ingredient­s and minimally processed, naturally sourced oils is key.

For dispersion options, Sullivan recommende­d using a reed diffuser — sticks that soak up oil scents and emit aromas — or a mister-type diffuser that sprays the essential oil in water. Misting essential oils in a spray bottle is also a safe option.

 ?? Shuttersto­ck/ground Picture ?? Essential oils may be the safest option to add fragrances to indoor spaces, but check on what has been added to the oil, an expert says.
Shuttersto­ck/ground Picture Essential oils may be the safest option to add fragrances to indoor spaces, but check on what has been added to the oil, an expert says.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States