Canada's Condominium Magazine

Fie on air fresheners: go natural instead

Natural air freshener: commercially available products contain many toxic, hazardous chemicals, but the industry is not regulated so ingredients like formaldehyde and phthalates are not listed on the can.

A well-known manufacturer of cleaning products for the home offers this advice: the words are those of Kimberly Seldon, an interior designer.

“You might not realize this, but fragrance is an important part of making a good first impression. Great design is all about creating a signature look for your home, and adding a fragrance is an easy way to make your space a true reflection of your personality.”

According to the research this company conducted, 66 per cent of Canadians believe that the worst faux pas a person can make when inviting guests into the home is to subject them to bad odours. I would have picked poisoning the guests with spoiled oysters or running out of toilet paper, but apparently a bad scent is way more offensive.

Fortunately, the solution is easy: you just buy a can (stylishly designed, of course) of chemicals and spray them all over your home. Some of these chemicals coat the lining of the nasal passages (receptor blockers) and interfere with the nose’s ability to smell, hence accomplishing the miracle of “purifying” the air around us. The chemicals in these air freshening products include formaldehyde (the same that we do not allow in home insulation; it can cause headaches, nausea, asthma, bronchitis, dizziness, chest pain and a lot of other nasty symptoms), methoxychlor (a pesticide), paradichlorobenzene, and phenol. There are many others: ethyl or isopropyl alcohol; glycol ethers; surfactant (quaternary ammonium salts); metazene; petroleum distillates; aluminum chlorhydrol; bromsalicylanilide 2,3,4,5-BIS(2-butylene) tetrahydrofural; cellosolve acetate; dichlorodifluoromethanol; ethanol; fatty esters; lauryl methacrylate; methoxychlor; methylene chloride; o-phenylphenol; p-dichlorobenzene; pine oil (toxicity like turpentine); piperonyl butoxide; pyrethrin; synthetic surfactants, trichloromonofluoromethane; wax.

These do not sound nearly as appetizing, as refreshing, as “lavender and juniper berry” or “Fuji apple & cardomom spice,” but many of those chemicals, you can be sure, are in that can of delicious-smelling spray. Though don’t look for them on the label. They aren’t required to list them because the whole industry is unregulated.

Are they bad for you? It depends what you mean by “bad.” Benzene is a known carcinogen, for which WHO recommends zero exposure. Yet it can linger in the air when certain air fresheners are used, especially the kind that plug into an electrical outlet.

A British study of 7,000 children, conducted at the University of Bristol, found that unborn children exposed to chemical-based air fresheners while in the womb were more likely to develop asthma as they grew up.

Another study done by the Natural Resources Defense Council in the US found that 14 brands of air freshener contained phthalates. Phthalates are linked to hormonal changes and birth defects in some studies.

And a University of Washington researcher published a paper in which she revealed that all top-selling air fresheners and laundry products gave off chemicals that are regulated as toxic or hazardous under US federal law. None of them were listed on the products studied. The chemicals included acetone, chlormethane, acetaldehyde, and 1,4-dioxane. A single plug-in air freshener contained more than 20 volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Keep in mind that the elimination of VOCs from products such as carpeting, paints and other home-finishing materials, is one of the goals of the green building movement. Why would you go to the trouble of buying non-VOC emitting carpets only to eliminate the benefit by spraying air freshener?

We find it ironic that some of the same people who believe that electromagnetic waves from a cell phone, or air vibrations caused by windmills, are deadly health risks that must be banned, will willingly spray proven carcinogens all over themselves for the sake of a “clean” smelling house. Go figure.

Why don’t people just use commonly available, non-toxic alternatives to the air freshener chemical soups? Therapeutic oils are good. Some of them even have antibacterial properties, like lavender. Wouldn’t it be nicer to smell real lavender than a chemical concoction trying to simulate it? Is it coincidental that the big manufacturers of these weird products use the very scents—chamomile, basil, orange, lemon, lavender, sandalwood, cinnamon, cloves—that are so appealing to most people and so readily available at the supermarket? How bizarre is it that we pay money for a product that could make us sick, just to achieve the illusion of living in an apple orchard, when we could just as easily put out a bowl of real apples? They smell great, and they’re good for you.

Pure beeswax candles add a nice scent to a home (a bit churchy for our taste, but that’s another story). The old trick of baking a couple of teaspoons of pure sugar in the oven is a proven way to make the home smell homey and inviting.

And let’s not forget flowers. They do have scent, if you just let them reveal it, instead of covering it all up in a veil of chemicals. A vase of roses, tulips, lilies (especially lilies) can fill a room with perfume. Soon it will be lilac time again. Does anyone remember how beautiful a bouquet of freshly cut lilacs smells? (People might ask what brand of scent you’re using.) 

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