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Behind the label: Air fresheners

Pat Thomas

5th December, 2005

Do you like to freshen up your house with a good squirt of air freshener or get your elbow behind some spray polish? Beware, that waft of scent can mask a multitude of harmful ingredients.

Not all labels are easy to look behind. Household products such as cleaners, polishes and air fresheners are not obliged to list their ingredients and from a health perspective this maybe a costly omission.

In spite of their name, air fresheners do not freshen the air. Instead strong long-lasting perfumes mask odours while other chemical ingredients alter your sense of smell making it less acute.

In Britain, our air fresheners generate sales of around £300 million annually. In America, 80 per cent of households use ‘home fragrances’ regularly and spend around $8.4 billion (£4,700 million) a year. SC Johnson (Glade), Sara Lee (Ambi- Pur) and Reckitt Benckiser (Air Wick) are the market leaders around the globe.

30 – 40 per cent of air freshener purchases are driven by what marketeers call “home cleaning replacement”. Timestrapped, people clean less often or less thoroughly, and so use air fresheners to give a ‘just-cleaned’ impression. The promise of luxury and a quick-fix mood enhancement also boost sales.

Yet in 1999 a British survey of 14,000 pregnant women concluded that frequent use of household aerosol sprays and air fresheners was making women and babies ill.

The study, reported in New Scientist, found that women who used aerosols and air fresheners most days suffered 25 per cent more headaches and 19 per cent more postnatal depression than those who used them less than once a week; their babies had 30 per cent more ear infections and more frequent diarrhoea. The same scientists updated their findings this year in the Archives of Environmental Medicine, with much the same results.

Earlier this year the Bureau European des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC) published a comparative study into home fragrances and measured the concentration of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and aldehydes in the air after their use. VOCs and aldehydes are potent neurotoxins that attack the central and peripheral nervous systems. The study found that air fresheners released toxins such as acetaldehyde, styrene, toluene, glycol ethers, phthalates and artificial musk into the air. Traces of formaldehyde and benzene were also found.

In many cases levels of potent toxins such as acetaldehyde, styrene, toluene, chlorobenzene, glycol ethers, phthalates and artificial musk into the air were much higher than the ‘safe’ VOC dose of 200 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre). In some cases they were as high ash 4000– 5000 µg/m3. Traces of formaldehyde and benzene were also found.

The report had a profound effect on consumers. So much so that Sara Lee took the BEUC to court claiming a 30 per cent drop in sales. The Dutch courts accepted Sara Lee’s claim that amounts of each chemical in individual products were low and that ‘normal use’ of air fresheners was not a health risk.

Sara Lee’s argument, of course, failed to take into account the cocktail effect of different VOCs in a single product, the specific vulnerability of children and pregnant women or the persistent nature of many of these chemicals. It also failed to take into account the changing defi nition of ‘normal use’ from an occasional spray to continuous release devices or the sheer volume of ambient fragrances we come into contact with each day.

You don’t need air fresheners and the best alternative is not to buy them at all. Simply keeping your home clean and well ventilated solves most odour problems. If you absolutely must spray then make sure you are using natural essential oils and pump, rather than aerosol, sprays:
Oshadhi Home Fragrances

Greenfibres home fragrances

Mother Earth Room sprays

Molo Africa Natural Room Spray

Air Scense

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2005


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