"Consumers have a right to know what is put into air fresheners and other everyday products they bring into their homes," pointed out Dr. Gina Solomon, a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) senior scientist. She added. "There are too many products on the shelves that we assume are safe, but have never even been tested."
NRDC tested 14 different brands of common household air fresheners and found that 12 contained the hormone-disrupting chemicals known as phthalates (pronounced thal-ates), chemicals that can cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects and reproductive problems.
The products that tested positive for these phthalates included ones marketed as -- you should probably sit down for this -- "all-natural" and "unscented." None of them had phthalates in the list of ingredients or anywhere else on the label.
"Manufacturers are getting away with marketing products as 'natural' when they're not, and that's because no one is stopping them," said Mae Wu, an attorney in NRDC's health program. "Our research suggests this could be a widespread problem in a booming industry that - so far - has been allowed to do what it wants."
Phthalates are hormone-disrupting chemicals that can be particularly dangerous for young children and unborn babies. Exposure to phthalates can affect testosterone levels and lead to reproductive abnormalities, including abnormal genitalia and reduced sperm production, reported NRDC.
The State of California notes that five types of phthalates - including one that NRDC found in air freshener products - are "known to cause birth defects or reproductive harm."
Young children and pregnant women should be especially careful to avoid contact with these chemicals.
A study of 14,000 pregnant women in the United Kingdom performed by epidemiologists at the University of Bristol in England showed a link between the use of air fresheners and aerosol sprays and an increase in headaches and depression in the mothers, as well as ear infections and diarrhea in their babies.
In homes where air fresheners and aerosol sprays were used on most days, women experienced 25% more headaches and 19% more post-natal depression than women in homes where such products were used less than once a week.
Babies under six months old who were exposed to air fresheners on most days had 30% more ear infections and a 22% greater chance of diarrhea than babies exposed less than once a week (Edwards, R. Ibid). While it is not clear which chemicals (or which combination of chemicals) found in air fresheners may be responsible for these effects, the results of this study raise concern about the safety and necessity of these products.
Women's Voices for the Earth (WVE), a Montana-based nonprofit group working to eliminate or reduce toxic chemicals in the home, has reported that air fresheners may also contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as xylene, ketones and aldehydes, as well as cancer-causing benzene and formaldehyde, both of which are known carcinogens.
The federal government does not currently test air fresheners for safety or require manufacturers to meet any specific safety standards.
"More than anything, our research highlights cracks in our safety system," said Dr. Gina Solomon, NRDC.
NRDC recommends that consumers who purchase air fresheners be selective and purchase those that have the least amount of phthalates. Also, if dealing with home odors consumers may first try to improve home ventilation or eliminate the source of the odor. Freshen your air naturally by opening windows to bring in air and sunlight.
» Summary Sheet - List of air fresheners tested by NRDC [PDF]
» NRDC Full Report [PDF]
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has 1.2 million members and online activists, served from offices in New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Beijing.