Air fresheners are a $1.72 billion dollar a year industry (Solomon, 2007), yet several studies have suggested that air fresheners can be bad for a family’s health, and here’s why: Many air-fresheners contain various amounts of phthalates, as well as other potential toxins.

Types of chemicals found in air fresheners?

In 2007, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) evaluated 14 air fresheners and found 12 of them to contain phthalates, a known endocrine disruptor. Air fresheners can also contain a variety of other chemicals. In 2010, a study led by Anne Steinemann, published in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review, found that each of the 25 fragrance products they tested emitted at least one chemical classified as a probable carcinogen by the EPA.

They tested each product by placing it in a closed glass container and then analyzing the air. The products emitted a total of 133 chemicals in all, or about 17 each. The most common chemical was limonene, a solvent that smells like citrus, found in 23 of 25 products. Limonene can create formaldehyde when mixed with air. Alpha-pinene, a pine-smelling compound classified as toxic under U.S. law, was found in 20 of 25 products. Nineteen of 25 products contained ethanol, a toxic substance found in alcoholic beverages and fuel, and 12 of 25 products contained acetone, a solvent in nail polish remover.

Since companies are not required to list the ingredients in fragrances, only ethanol was on the labels. Worse yet, half of the products tested made claims about being “green, organic or natural,” yet “they emitted just as many toxic chemicals” as the others, says Steinemann. No one brand was any safer than the other; “the whole class is problematic,” she says. (Koch, 10-28-2010)

Are air fresheners bad for your health

Phthalates are a class of chemicals similar to bisphenol-A (BPA), and have been shown to affect fertility and trigger developmental abnormalities in infants. In rare cases phthalates may even be linked to cancer. And since many phthalates mimic the hormone estrogen when absorbed into the body, air fresheners might be one more source of endocrine disruption that is leading to early puberty in girls and potential hormone imbalances in boys. (Read more on this subject in our chapter on BPA)

But that’s not all. Researchers have also found that being exposed to the chemicals from air fresheners as little as once a week may increase the odds of asthma symptoms developing by 71%. A different study found that people with high blood levels of 1,4 dichlorobenzene (a chemical commonly found in air fresheners) were more likely to experience a decline in lung function. Other research indicates a potential cancer link. When used in small, poorly ventilated rooms, certain air fresheners can emit pollutants that create high levels of formaldehyde, which has been shown to cause cancer in animals, along with respiratory irritation in humans. In two national surveys conducted by Steinemann in 2009, 20% of people reported health problems from air fresheners, and complaints were twice as common in people with asthma.

It’s difficult to say just how significant these risks are in the grand scheme of things.  “Yes, it’s low-level exposure,” says Steinemann, “but low levels add up.” The increases in risk are still small overall, and just because a study finds a correlation to health problems this doesn’t mean your family is doomed by using them, and the unfortunate reality is that we live in a world where chemical exposures of all kinds are everywhere around us. That said, it does appear that this is one more pollutant you might not want in your home. It should definitely be avoided by pregnant women and nursing moms or infants. A better way to keep your air fresh is to open the windows and use all-natural fresheners, such as potted herbs, a lavender plant, or a bouquet of fresh flowers.