An astounding 19 pages of chemicals go into making one commonly used brand of air freshener, representing just how poorly regulated and toxic this increasingly popular class of consumer products is.
You’ve probably seen pictures of people navigating urban cityscapes, their noses and mouths covered by medical masks to safeguard against toxic air quality. You might be surprised to learn that it’s actually indoor air quality, permeated by chemical “air fresheners,” that is a top concern for public health officials.
Consider for a moment, the toxic chemicals an average urban dweller is exposed to each day upon leaving the home. Limiting scope to just airborne toxicants, it’s still easy to produce a long list of offenders: exhaust fumes from vehicles, chemicals used in manufacturing, emissions of dry cleaners, common cleaning products including the greenwashed brand “Simple Green,” second-hand smoke from passersby — and that’s not counting the sneezes and coughs of people on the subway. This is just a sampling of the many vectors of toxicity affecting air quality; most of which emanate from sources that are largely beyond our control.
Now think of an average home. All surfaces are cleaned once per week with a name-brand spray cleaner. Carpets are sprinkled with freshening powder and vacuumed (the vacuum cleaner bag gets changed every few months). Fabric-covered sofas and chairs are spritzed with Fabreze™ to mask pet odors. Finally, the scented plug-in in the bathroom keeps it smelling guest-friendly at all times. To make sure the house stays “fresh”, the windows are sealed tight to keep the polluted outside air from entering. Sounds really clean, right?
It may shock you to learn that the EPA found levels of common air pollutants to be up to five times higher inside homes than outside, even in highly industrial areas. In homes like the example illustrated above, indoor air can reach levels up to 100 times more toxic than outside air. And it’s the effort to create “freshness” that is largely to blame.
The United States EPA recognizes indoor air quality as a top environmental risk to public health. Problems such as asthma, chronic fatigue, breathing problems, allergy, and sinus infection, among other serious concerns, are often directly attributable to breathing contaminated indoor air. With some individuals, particularly the elderly who can spend nearly all of their time indoors, it’s easy to see how poor air quality can quickly devastate one’s health. But breathe easy! A little bit of knowledge and focused action goes a long way towards restoring your home to the safe sanctuary you intended it to be.
The Unseen Pollutant
The primary pollutants inside of our homes are VOCs: volatile, organic compounds, that get released in gaseous or particulate form, from furniture, paints and varnishes, cleaning products, flooring, air fresheners, and even clothing and personal care products. These dangerous chemical emissions remain trapped in the air of a closed home, where they are inhaled by inhabitants, causing untold damage to cells. Thanks to medical research, we know the damage that can occur when people come into contact with the 182 known toxicants on the EPA’s list of Hazardous Air Pollutants. The ugly truth is, most of these chemicals are not banned from use. Rather, they are allowed into our homes, offices, and public transportation, under what the EPA deems “safe, allowable limits.” These limits, set on known carcinogens and genotoxins, are largely based on hypothetical data, since testing for actual harm to humans would be unethical to perform. Even if every product in your home was under these arbitrarily-set limits for known toxins, what are the levels when you combine ten or twenty such products in the same room? What happens if you close that room for a long, summer weekend with no A/C running? Your home can quickly become a toxic soup of VOCs that are literally hanging out in the air and on surfaces, waiting for your return.
As with any toxic chemicals, the amount to which we are exposed is a critical factor in health outcomes. With so many products coming together under the roof of the average home, it’s a safe bet that multiple contamination sources are lurking. When these toxicants converge, not only do the overall levels of each chemical increase, but volatile organic compounds can bind with other VOCs, forming new and sometimes more dangerous compounds that are so limitless in their potential formations, it’s virtually impossible to study them and ascertain their risk. Even if your favorite spray cleaner has been tested for safety and passed, it hasn’t been tested for how it combines with your favorite scented lotion, which you apply several times a day. Or how it mixes with the toilet cleaner, vinyl shower curtain, soap scum remover, and Glade plugin in a tiny bathroom, where the door is usually shut. The types of emissions coming from these and other household products are serious enough to warrant concern on their own merits. The potential toxic combinations that can form should seal the deal when it comes to evaluating if these products deserve a place in your home.
The Problem with Synthetic Freshness
One of the biggest and most deceptive sources of VOCs are “freshening” products, meant to instill a sense of confidence in “clean” surroundings. Freshening products of all types have been identified as containing VOCs, specifically formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, styrene, and phthalates. Sprays, powders, plug-ins, diffusers, sachets, potpourri, scented candles, and car vent clips, have all been found to contain these chemicals, despite no mention on most product ingredient lists. Lax regulation allows manufacturers to omit these chemicals from labels in many cases, opting for the catch-all term “fragrance” that is less likely to set-off consumer alarm bells. What “fragrance” means in these products, is a chemical cocktail that can be comprised of literally hundreds of ingredients.
A recent post by Dr. Kelly Brogan titled, “Is Your Uber Making You Sick,” reveals an astounding 19-page list of chemicals used in the making of Proctor & Gamble’s Febreeze Car Vent Clips, with the first page reposted here below:
Page 1 (of 19) of potential fragrance chemicals in Febreze air fresheners.
A November 2015 investigative report by Women’s Voices for the Earth called Unpacking the Fragrance Industry, found a shocking lack of oversight for fragrance products due to an inherent conflict of interests. According to the group, “RIFM [Research Institute for Fragrance Materials], the body responsible for determining the safety of fragrances, is governed by a Board of Directors made up of the world’s largest fragrance sellers. They have a vested financial interest in making sure that fragrances are deemed safe.” Some of the conflicts uncovered in the report include:
- The vast majority of scientific studies on fragrance materials are generated by major fragrance manufacturers or the fragrance trade association’s own laboratories. Largely, these studies have never been published or peer-reviewed, and are not publicly available.
- The RIFM Expert Panel, the “independent” review board which helps oversee the Fragrance Safety Program, operates in secret, without the benefit of public oversight.
- There is no evidence that the RIFM panel has reviewed the safety of several of the most controversial fragrance ingredients, such as hormone-disrupting phthalates and musks or carcinogens, including styrene and pyridine, in the last 30-40 years.
The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) has compiled a “Transparency List” of more than 3,000 chemicals used in the industry. Many of these are what the EPA deems “chemicals of concern,” with regards to public health. All of the VOCs commonly found in fragrances are chemicals of concern that also appear on the EPA’s list of Hazardous Air Pollutants. Also known as air toxics, “These are chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer, reproductive or birth defects, or other adverse human and environmental effects.” Let’s examine the five worst chemicals of concern, and understand why a simple vanilla candle can be a serious risk to your health.
Chemicals of Concern in Air Fresheners
In 2005, the European Consumers’ Organisation, or BEUC (Bureau Européan des Consommateurs), commissioned a study to understand the real dangers presented by indoor air fresheners. In this study, 74 popular consumer air fresheners were tested using a chromatographic method for “total VOCs,” as well as emissions from allergens. The study identified VOCs that are common to most types of air fresheners, including incense, scented candles, gels, aerosols, and diffusers, even products labelled “natural” and “organic.” Their findings were among the earliest alarm bells to ring, as these products proliferated across the globe. Since then, numerous independent studies have confirmed their findings. Of the hundreds of VOCs that have been found in commercial air fresheners, the following represent some of the most dangerous and prolific chemicals of concern.
Besides smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke, contaminated indoor air is the largest source of formaldehyde exposure for most individuals. Classified as a human carcinogen, epidemiological studies have linked formaldehyde inhalation to a variety of negative health outcomes, including leukemia, vomiting, spasm, and death at high concentrations. Even short-term exposure to relatively low levels (>0.1 ppm) may cause watery eyes; burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat; coughing; wheezing; nausea; and skin irritation in some individuals. Formaldehyde has been observed in animal studies to achieve greater than 90% absorption by the upper respiratory tract when inhaled. Long-term, repeated inhalation is linked to the development of multiple forms of cancer.
Benzene’s naturally sweet odor makes it desirable in fragrance products. Colorless, it evaporates quickly into the air, or lands as an imperceptible film upon surfaces in the home. Benzenes are easily inhaled, with animal studies showing that around 50% of inhaled molecules are absorbed via the respiratory tract. Benzenes’ primary impact is on the blood, with long-term exposures (>one year) causing a decrease in red blood cell count and damage to bone marrow. But that is far from their only bad effects. Benzenes are a known carcinogen, linked to leukemia and lymphomas in cases of long-term exposure. Benzenes damage human DNA, and have been linked to genetic mutations (genotoxic). Other observed health effects from inhalation exposures include reproductive and developmental defects.
Toluene is an aromatic hydrocarbon most frequently associated with paint thinners. Harmful if inhaled, the tragic choice to “huff” paint products has led to spontaneous renal failure and even death, in some cases. Toluene can appear on labels (IF it appears on labels!) as Methyl benzene, Methyl benzol, Phenyl methane, or Toluol. Symptoms of accidental contact can present as irritated eyes or nose, fatigue, muscle weakness, confusion, euphoria, dizziness, headache, excessive tears, and dilated pupils. Studies of exposure to airborne toluene molecules have shown as much as 93% is absorbed via the respiratory tract. Once toluene makes its way to the bloodstream, it is readily distributed throughout the body, with primary effects noted to the brain, liver, and blood. Long-term exposure can lead to permanent kidney, heart, and neurological damage. Toluene has caused reduced sperm counts in animal studies, and cases of spontaneous abortion have occurred after high-dose exposures. Due to a benzene-like sweet smell, toluene is a frequent contributor to fragrance products.
Styrene, a derivative of benzene, is another sweet-smelling, colorless liquid that evaporates easily into the air. Both animals and humans readily absorb styrene when it is inhaled, with as much as 70% being taken up by the bloodstream. Short-term exposure to styrene can induce nausea and gastrointestinal effects, impaired balance and vision, and allergic reactions. According to OSHA, chronic exposure primarily affects the central nervous system, with symptoms such as headache, fatigue, weakness, and depression among the most common side-effects. Studies of furniture industry workers, commonly exposed to styrene contamination from the many solvents used in their work, demonstrated “acute neurological effects” such as brain abnormalities, delayed reactions, and impaired color vision. Long-term exposures produced an increased risk of cytogenetic effects, such as lymphoma and leukemia.
Phthalates are one of the most frequently omitted ingredients from fragrance labels, due to sudden awareness among consumers about the dangers of this all-too-common product additive. A plasticizer found in many consumer products, phthalates can be inhaled and absorbed through the skin, and have effects that simulate hormones in the body. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published an alarming report, Hidden Hazards of Air Fresheners, which tested 14 popular air fresheners sold in the United States. Researchers found that 12 of the 14 products contained phthalates, yet none of them listed this on the ingredients list! Common side effects of phthalate exposure included hormonal abnormalities, birth defects, and other reproductive problems. While the EPA has concluded that reproductive risks from phthalates “are negligible,” researchers found exposure to phthalates can lead to endocrine alterations in women who have been exposed. Health problems such as “increased risk for endometriosis, reproductive and other endocrine-related cancers” and well as “impaired ovarian function and menstrual cycling” have been demonstrated in other studies. Observed health effects in men include disturbed gonadal development, reduction in semen quality, infertility, as well as an increased risk for testicular cancer.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the BEUC report was the concentrations of these toxins that were observed after normal use of these products. Total VOC concentrations were determined and then compared to international exposure guidelines for the general public. For most of the products tested, the emitted total VOC values exceeded the proposed maximum limits set for indoor air in several countries, and the emissions contained the aforementioned chemicals of concern, classified as carcinogenic, at “rather high concentrations.” The health implications of the BEUC report were deemed “strongly conclusive,” with authors recommending wider testing of these products, better definition of the exposure harms, and evaluation of the interactions between the compounds.
An even broader study was conducted in 2016, the first study to examine the multiple avenues by which people are exposed to fragranced products in the United States, and the effect of these exposures on US populations. Using an online survey method, a nationally representative population sample was queried to ascertain four key points:
- prevalence and types of fragranced product exposures
- associated health effects
- awareness of product emissions
- preferences for fragrance-free policies and environments
Results showed an overwhelming preference for safe and unscented environments:
- >50% of the population prefer that all public spaces are fragrance-free
- >20% leave a business as quickly as possible if they smell air fresheners or some fragranced product.
- More than two thirds of the population say they fall for “greenwashing”—the false belief that “green” and “organic” products are safe—but over 60% would stop using a fragranced product if they knew it emitted pollutants.
- Nearly 35% of the population reported health problems, such as migraine headaches and respiratory difficulties, when exposed to fragranced products.
- >15% have lost a job or some workdays due to exposure to fragranced products in the workplace.
“Results from this study provide strong evidence that fragranced products can trigger adverse health effects in the general population. The study also indicates that reducing exposure to fragranced products, such as through fragrance-free policies, can provide cost-effective and relatively simple ways to reduce risks and improve air quality and health.”
While we must wait for regulatory agencies to catch up to public awareness, there is much we can do to ensure that the air in our home and workplace is as fresh (really fresh!) as possible. Rely on natural home cleaning products, and use only natural beeswax or soy candles that are scented using essential oils. Looking for another ancient air microbial disinfectant? Read about the science of herbal smoke/smudging in our previous article: “Killer Germs” Obliterated by Medicinal Smoke (Smudging), Study Reveals. And don’t forget to regularly vent your homes to allow VOCs a safe escape.
 EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) Study” (Volumes I through IV), 1985.
 EPA 1988, SEPA Project Summary: Indoor Air Quality in Public Buildings: Volume I, L S. Sheldon, R W. Handy, T. D. Hartwell, R. W. Whitmore, H. S. Zelon, and E. D. Pellizarri
 EPA Toxicological Review of Benzene. (CAS No. 71-43-2). In Support of Summary Information on the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). Sept 1998. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington DC
 The impact of endocrine disrupters on the female reproductive system. Nicolopoulou-Stamati P, Pitsos MA. Hum Reprod Update. 2001 May-Jun; 7(3):323-30.
 Environment, testicular dysgenesis and carcinoma in situ testis.Olesen IA, Sonne SB, Hoei-Hansen CE, Rajpert-De Meyts E, Skakkebaek NE. Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2007 Sep; 21(3):462-78.