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Watch enough TV commercials, and you get the sense that Americans are obsessed with air freshener. Trigger-happy women routinely rush around the house armed with cans of the stuff, gleefully spraying running shoes, embarrassed dogs and cigar-smoke-laden furniture; whole families, it seems, are intoxicated by the fresh scent of Summer Breeze or Berry Burst.
But just how "fresh" is air freshener? A study released last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) evaluated 14 air fresheners off the shelf of a local Walgreens and found that 12 contained variable amounts of substances called phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates), a group of chemicals that are used to dissolve and carry fragrances, soften plastics and also as sealants and adhesives. Phthalates are commonly found in a variety of products, including cosmetics, paints, nail polish and children's toys — and have long been at the center of a larger international controversy over their health effects.
Studies involving rat and human subjects have suggested that high exposures to certain kinds of phthalates can cause cancer, developmental and sex-hormone abnormalities (including decreased testosterone and sperm levels and malformed sex organs) in infants, and can affect fertility. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has no regulations on the use of phthalates, does not require the labeling of phthalate content on products and does not consider the quantities to which people are exposed to be harmful. But other countries think otherwise. In 2004, the European Union banned two types of phthalates in cosmetics and also bans the chemical in children's toys, as do 14 other countries. The first state bill to ban phthalates in children's toys in the U.S. is currently sitting on California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk, and he is expected to sign it this week.
Plug-in, spray or stand-alone liquid and gel air fresheners are used in nearly 75% of U.S. households, and the market has doubled since 2003 to $1.72 billion. The NRDC tested products, including those labeled "all-natural" or "unscented," and found a wide range of phthalate content, from zero parts per million (ppm) to 7,300 ppm. Many air fresheners contained a phthalate known as DEP and some also contained DBP, which are listed by the California EPA's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment as a developmental toxin and female and male reproductive toxin, respectively.
According to the NRDC report, three Walgreens products — Walgreens Scented Bouquet Air Freshener, Walgreens Air Freshener Spray and Walgreens Solid Air Freshener — were among the top four highest in phthalate content (including Ozium Glycolized Air Sanitizer), and Walgreens pulled them from store shelves last Wednesday. The company will submit its house-branded products to an independent lab to confirm the NRDC's findings; one of Walgreens' manufacturers has already decided to make its product phthlate-free, according to Walgreens spokeswoman Carol Hively. The two air fresheners that the NRDC found virtually free of phthalates were Febreze Air Effects Air Refresher and Renuzit Subtle Effects.
While the study looked at which air fresheners contain the chemicals and how much, it did not assess people's exposure to phthalates from these products — the size of the room, the distance from the air freshener and how long a person stays in the room are all factors that would affect potential toxicity. But like phthalates banned from U.K. beauty products, those in air fresheners can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. "We're not saying that there's any clear-cut evidence here for health effects," says Dr. Gina Solomon of the NRDC. "If consumers want to reduce overall exposure, avoid these products or pick ones with lower levels. We don't know what the cutoff is."
Clearly, there is an active scientific debate about the results of the testing of phthalates. "It's still unresolved," says the NRDC's Solomon. In the meantime, for those who are concerned about phthalates in air fresheners, there are various ways to make the home smell better, au natural. Solomon keeps the house clean and opens the windows — and makes her husband take out the trash. Other common ways to eliminate odors are to keep fresh coffee grounds on the counter (a trick of many a flight attendant); toss baking soda at the bottom of the trash can; and grind up a slice of lemon in the garbage disposal. "Get at the root of the odor," says Solomon. "Fresh air will do wonders."