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Odour Control - A Cause for Concern

Jun 8, 2008
Of all the products used in cleaning, the use of "clean-smelling" air fresheners seems to pose little or no risk. But the "fresh" scent of air fresheners may cover up not only undesirable odours, but a potential health threat as well. Chemicals called phthalates (pronounced thal-ates) which can be present in air fresheners are known to cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects, and reproductive problems. Individuals whose line of work puts them into frequent contact with these chemicals are at a greater risk of developing long term health problems simply by the nature of their occupation, for example, janitorial and cleaning staff.

An international non-profit environmental organization called the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) conducted its own independent testing on 14 commonly used air fresheners. They discovered phthalates in 86 percent (12 of 14) of air freshener products tested, including those marketed as "all-natural" or "unscented". It was noted that none of the products tested listed phthalates on their labels. The NRDC recommends that government regulators should follow up by doing more thorough tests on these products and enforce basic measures to limit exposure to these chemicals, all in the interest of public health. Meanwhile, it may be prudent to avoid the use of air fresheners - especially in places where children or pregnant women are likely to frequent.

Malodours are generally undesirable in indoor environments. Odours themselves do not cause toxicological effects but may increase the reporting of symptoms, for example, headache, nausea, and eye and throat irritation.

Unfortunately, the rise in popularity of air fresheners has fast outpaced awareness of the potential health threats from exposure to the harmful chemicals they may contain. Most phthalates are well known to interfere with production of the male hormone, testosterone, and have been associated with reproductive abnormalities. Numerous animal studies have linked prenatal exposure to certain phthalates with malformations of the genitalia, decreases in testosterone, and reduced sperm production. Studies in humans have shown that phthalates have been associated with changes in hormone levels, poor semen quality, and changes in genital development. Five phthalates-including one found in air freshener products-are listed by the State of California as chemicals "known to cause birth defects or reproductive harm." Phthalate exposure in an indoor environment has also been associated with allergic symptoms and asthma. Because there are no labeling requirements, even so called "natural" products can contain toxic chemicals. It is virtually impossible for the average person to know which products may pose a potential health risk.

While the focus here is on the presence of phthalates in air fresheners, it is worthwhile mentioning that researchers have detected other chemicals of concern to human health in these products as well. The European Consumers' Organisation, BEUC (Bureau Europen des Consommateurs), commissioned a study in January 2005 to analyse the chemical substances present in indoor air following the use of air fresheners (including incense, natural products, scented candles, gels, aerosols, liquid and electric diffusers. The BEUC study found volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in these products at high levels and concluded that VOCs significantly contributed to indoor air pollution. In particular, the European study detected cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde in some air fresheners. Benzene is known to cause leukemia in humans, and formaldehyde has been linked to cancers of the upper airways. The majority of products also contained allergens (such as limonene). People with allergies to these chemicals could have adverse reactions, including rashes or even asthma attacks, from exposure to air freshener products.

Air fresheners are rarely necessary simply because they cannot substitute for good ventilation. The best solution is to open windows to bring in fresh air or to use fans to maintain proper air circulation. Air fresheners also are not the solution to poor air quality; they mask bad odours, however they very almost never eliminate their cause.

Any one should avoid using air fresheners if possible, but when necessary, use products with the lowest levels of phthalates to limit exposure to these toxic chemicals, or use natural products that are certified by organizations such as EcoLogo (Canada) and Green Seal (USA) as being an environmentally responsible product.

Just remember this, until manufacturers fully disclose all ingredients on product labels, each and every time you inhale fumes expelled by air fresheners, the risk of developing certain health problems is more concerning than any perceived benefit of using the product.
About the Author
Green Clean Institute - Canada offers training and certification for janitorial services and Green buildings. Let GCI build a green clean canada with excellent training and a road for Green certification for janitorial or corporate services. Green clean training and consulting for bGCIinesses.
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