Air Fresheners - How safe are they?
Posted September 19, 2007 in Health and the Environment
I swear these things are everywhere. When I'm at the hospital, there's a can in every bathroom. The nurses and housekeeping staff spritz away in patient rooms, in the nurses' station, and in the hallways. When I go into people's homes there's often one plugged into the wall in the bathroom, another in the bedroom, and sometimes even one in the kitchen. When I get my car washed I need to remember to tell them not to spray the car, or else I get behind the wheel again and smell that tell-tale "floral fresh" scent.
I know some people like the smell, but personally it makes my throat tickle and my nose itch. The question is - is it a health threat?
I took a look at this issue recently, and found a few interesting things. First of all, there are no government requirements that air freshener products get tested for safety or that there is any public information available on their ingredients. So forget about figuring out whether there's anything nasty in the bottle by reading the label. Secondly, there's not much testing info out there from independent sources either.
We did find a European study done by their equivalent of Consumers Union. However the air fresheners industry sued them and got the study suppressed, so it is essentially contraband, and is mostly only reported indirectly by the European Commission. The European study tested 74 products, including sprays, plug-ins, gels, and things like incense and scented candles. They found lots of chemicals of concern. The highest levels of ultra-toxic chemicals like benzene were actually in the incense. However, the standard air fresheners contained benzene, formaldehyde, irritants, allergens...and a chemical called DEP.
DEP stands for diethyl phthalate (thal-ate). Phthalates are chemicals present in lots of consumer products because they are handy for lots of things. They help paint and nailpolish spread smoothly and not crack; they help vinyl toys stay soft and squishy; and they help scents in perfumes (and air fresheners) disperse more effectively and last longer. The only problem is that many phthalates interfere with hormones (especially testosterone), and have been shown to alter normal reproductive development. Since these chemicals are easily inhaled and also absorbed through the skin, and they may affect the normal development of babies, it's a real concern that they're in consumer products.
Just recently, we did some independent testing of air fresheners - a limited study of only 14 products, just to get a glimpse of whether phthalates are even in these things. We found 'em. 12 out of the 14 products had detectable phthalates, and a few products had quite a lot. We found four major phthalates in these products, including one that's listed by California as "known to cause birth defects and reproductive harm". But the major phthalate we found was - you guessed it - DEP.
This new finding has stirred up an interesting scientific debate that now has some fairly significant policy implications. It turns out that DEP doesn't look too bad if you focus on the rat studies. It has some effects on the liver, but doesn't seem to affect reproductive development in rats. The industry points to this information as evidence that there's no problem. However, there are multiple human studies that show something different. Researchers from Harvard have published two studies linking DEP with abnormalities in sperm DNA, a study from the University of Rochester reports subtle genital alterations in baby boys with higher exposures to DEP in the womb, and a Danish study reports alterations in sex hormone levels in 3 month old babies whose mothers had higher levels of DEP in their breast milk. Maybe those moms were using air fresheners - who knows?
Anyway, in my opinion, this falls squarely in the "right-to-know" arena. Consumers may feel free to not worry and just keep on spritzing away. On the other hand, there may be a real issue here and the government certainly isn't doing anything about it. So it's your call: reach for the can, or just open the window?
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