Q My roommate is obsessed with air fresheners, but they give me a headache. Aren't they bad for the planet?
A Have you noticed how the word "fresh" is in nearly every commercial these days? It's driving me bonkers. Spraying an old gym bag with chemicals does nothing to remove the stink. Yet no one admits to pushing "odour maskers." No, no, they're odour eliminators . Magical, really.
Truth is, there's an epidemic of mad air "freshening" going on so much so that sales have doubled since 2003. It's now a $1.82 billion industry in the U.S. alone, according to a new U.S.-based Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) report. So it's not just your roommate getting fresh; a whopping 75 per cent of households use the stuff.
But, yay, eviros are finally making a stink about it. Just this week the NRDC, Sierra Club, Alliance for Healthy Homes and National Center for Healthy Housing filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asking it to crack down on the noxious air polluters masquerading as pretty scents.
The industry, they argue, is inundating us with fancy plug-ins, weird gels and fan-propelled perfumes filled with formaldehyde and benzene and other chems linked to asthma and developmental problems in young 'uns.
Really, any consumer product with the word "fragrance" in the ingredient list could contain phthalates, that freaky family of hormone-disrupting plasticizers, but the NRDC tested a dozen air fresheners to see how much of the chems they contain.
Most of the heavy hitters aren't common in Canada I'd never seen the industrial deodorizer Ozium before a pest controller tried to pawn it off on me after a skunk sprayed my bedroom window last summer. But you'll recognize some of the brands found to have "moderate" levels of several phthalates: Air Wick Scented Oil, Oust Air Sanitizer, Glade PlugIns Scented Oil, Febreze Noticeables and Glade Air Infusions .
Even a spray marketed as "100 per cent natural," Citrus Magic, has trace levels of a particular pthalate associated with low sperm count and infertility. No wonder it's supposed to last way longer than other natural sprays.
The NRDC wants the Consumer Product Safety Commission down South to ban phthalates from all consumer products , not just fresheners. This is when I tell you not to hold your breath.
And that isn't the only damning report on these products. Several studies have blamed air fresheners for high levels of smoggy volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the home. In fact, the U.S. EPA found that plug-in air fresheners containing pinene and d-limonene can combine with ozone in the air to create harmful smog.
Mixing ozone with air-freshening chemicals actually creates nasty formaldehyde-related compounds like those found in a freshly painted room! Beware: those of you also using ozone-spewing air-purifying machines are really setting yourselves up for indoor smog issues.
What can a few VOCs really do? A huge Bristol University study following the health and development of 14,000 children since before they were born found that babies living in homes where air fresheners (including sticks, sprays and aerosols) were used daily suffered diarrhea 30 per cent more frequently than those whose homes were spritzed once a week or less. The bambinos also had way more earaches.
Moms suffered, too. Mothers in freshener-obsessed homes averaged nearly 10 per cent more frequent headaches and had a 25 per cent higher risk of depression.
So there are plenty of reasons to get cranky when your roomy riddles the air with these pollutants. Tell all the air freshener addicts in your life to put the spray bottle down and dab a few drops of real essential oils (you know, the stuff from the health store, not the fake perfumy kind from the Body Shop) in a clay diffuser instead .