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Air Freshener Emissions Cause Toxic Health Effects

Adapted from Cindy Duehring, 1998

The very words “air freshener” imply that an air freshener improves the quality of indoor air and makes it healthier to breathe.  However, the typical air fresheners marketed for that purpose instead have the opposite effect by releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air and adding to the chemical mix of indoor air pollution.

Chemically sensitive people and people with respiratory sensitivities have long complained of severe adverse health effects from exposure to air fresheners.  Now for the first time a study has examined the biological health effects of air fresheners.  The researchers used mice to asses sensory and pulmonary (lung) irritation as well as neurologic function changes.  They used a one-hour exposure to various levels of air freshener emissions – including concentrations to which many humans are actually exposed.  These exposures caused increases in sensory and pulmonary irritation, airflow velocity decreases consistent with airway constriction or asthma-like reactions, and behavioral abnormalities consistent with neurological impairment.  Some of the mice even died when exposed to the air freshener fumes.  These adverse effects were not found with the control mice exposed to only pure zero-grade medical air.

After the air freshener fumes were introduced, the respiratory rate changed immediately and dropped as much as 50% within 10 minutes.  The respiratory rate depression stayed fairly constant during the 60 minutes of exposure, and returned rapidly toward baseline levels when the exposure ceased and pure zero-grade air was reintroduced.

In addition to adding the air freshener to pure air, the researchers tested adding the air freshener to a room with fumes from a small amount of fresh latex paint.  In this case, the air “freshener” clearly did not improve air quality or reduce respiratory symptoms, and instead increased the signs of neurotoxicity.

The results of this study demonstrated the following:

The commercial air freshener used emitted chemicals that caused toxic effects in mice.  The effects were demonstrable under conditions that approximated the product’s commercial use, and the air freshener did not minimize the impact of other indoor air pollutants – instead it contributed to air pollution and toxicity.

In the Material Safety Data Sheet provided by the manufacturer, they recommend the use of an approved vapor respirator “if the vapor concentration is high due to heat.  Breathing high concentrations of vapor in excess of the permitted exposure level may cause headache, nervousness, dizziness, tremors, fatigue, and nausea.”  There is no mention of the permitted exposure level, and no indication of how one can avoid exceeding it.  We would have to conclude after reading this study that chemical “air fresheners”, including solid sticks, plug-ins and sprays like Febreeze should not be used to cover up other smells, as they are just adding to the chemicals in the air and causing adverse health reactions in many people.

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