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October 9, 2007 > EarthTalk


Submitted By From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that some ingredients in common air fresheners can cause health problems? -- Mike Jaworski, Seattle, WA

Air fresheners are a $1.72 billion industry in the United States. An estimated 75 percent of homes use them regularly. According to a September 2007 report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), most common household air fresheners contain potentially noxious chemicals that degrade the quality of indoor air and may even affect hormones and reproductive development, particularly in babies.

As part of its "Clearing the Air" study, NRDC researchers tested 14 brands of common household air fresheners and found that 12 of them contained chemicals known as phthalates. Only two, Febreze Air Effects and Renuzit Subtle Effects, contained no detectable levels of phthalates. Products testing positive included ones marketed as "all-natural" and "unscented." None of the brands tested listed phthalates on their labels.

Phthalates are "hormone-disrupting" chemicals that can be particularly dangerous for young children and unborn babies. Like some other man-made chemicals, phthalates can affect normal hormonal processes-those that control brain, nervous and immune system development, reproduction, mental processing and metabolism-by blocking them altogether, throwing off the timing or "mimicking" natural hormones and interacting with cells themselves, with very unhealthy consequences. The State of California notes that five types of phthalates-including one commonly used in air freshener products-are "known to cause birth defects or reproductive harm."

Despite these issues, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't regulate the use of phthalates or require the labeling of phthalate content on products. Other governments take the phthalate threat more seriously. The European Union forbids the most harmful phthalates in cosmetics or toys, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to soon sign similar legislation for his state.

NRDC bemoans the fact that the U.S. government does not test air fresheners for safety or require manufacturers to meet specific health standards. "More than anything, our research highlights cracks in our safety system," says Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior NRCD scientist. "Consumers have a right to know what is put into air fresheners and other everyday products they bring into their homes," she says, adding that the government should keep a watchful eye on potentially dangerous products.

In conjunction with the study, NRDC-along with the Sierra Club, the Alliance for Healthy Homes and the National Center for Healthy Housing-is petitioning federal agencies to start assessing the risk air fresheners pose to consumers by testing all products now on the market. And NRDC has already begun working directly with some manufacturers to find ways to eliminate phthalates from these products.

NRDC recommends that consumers be selective and purchase only air fresheners that have the least amount of phthalates. Better yet, the group suggests consumers first try to reduce household odors by tending to their root causes or improving ventilation rather than masking them. "The best way to avoid the problem is to simply open a window instead of reaching for one of these cans," concludes Solomon.

CONTACTS: Natural Resources Defense Council,

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at:, or e-mail: Read past columns at:

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