Our homes and businesses stink. Or at least that's the impression you might get from the media. Clean, welcoming homes are associated with fresh scents, and busy wives and mothers can rely on air fresheners to give their home a boost. The 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?
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.
products are anathema for people with chemical sensitivities and
allergies -- and new research is warning 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?
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.
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 recently
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.
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 as 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. In addition, its consumer information
attributes health benefits like reduced stress, increased productivity
and enhanced mood with the use of "air care" products.
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 these 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 the product and specific disease states is hard to prove,
and the risks to children, pets and the environment haven't been
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. As a result, University of Washington
researcher Anne Steinemann argues that consumers don't have enough
information about these 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.
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
- 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 ($17.50 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. The enzymes work on
"organic odours" like urine and smoke.
- 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
- Simmer some citrus rinds or other spices like cinnamon
in a pot on your stove top. Lemon is a good way to banish cooking
- 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
- Grow a fragrant plant such as certain flowers or herbs.
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