Friday, October 11, 2013

Air Fresheners

Air fresheners stink.

Like most Americans, I had been a big fan of air fresheners prior to my thru-hike. I liked the smell of vanilla or "mountain breeze" permeating the house. I liked smelling the scent when I walked in the door.

I wasn't alone. A recent study of consumer habits estimates sales of artificial fragrances at 8 billion dollars per year. That's billion. With a B. We have fresheners in our cars, our homes, our trash cans, in our vacuum cleaners. We sprinkle air fresheners in powder form, spray them in the air, and plug gel tabs into the wall to release the scent slowly over time. All in the name of freshness.

Of course, after living in the woods for almost 6 months, I no longer liked the artificial smell when I walked in the door. (FYI, they smell absolutely nothing like an actual mountain breeze!) If it were just the smell, however, I could deal with it. Any smell, no matter how vile, seems to dissipate over time as we grow accustomed to it. I could get used to fake mountain breeze if I needed to.

It was the headaches that bothered me. The longer I was exposed to air fresheners, the worse the headaches became. The headaches were often accompanied by nausea and mild dizziness. These symptoms would only go away when I went outside.

It's no wonder! A 2007 study by the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) revealed a myriad of potentially harmful chemicals in air fresheners.

The most alarming is a type of chemical known as phthalates. Phthalates are used to prolong the amount of time that products maintain their fragrance; a preservative, if you will. Common phthalates found in air fresheners include di-ethyl phthalates (DEP), di-n-butyl phthalates (DBP), di-isobutyl phthalate (DIBP), di-methyl phthalate (DMP), and di-isohexyl phthalate (DIHP). These compounds have been linked with endocrine, reproductive, and developmental problems -- especially the development of male genitals when pregnant women are exposed to these compounds.

A majority of air fresheners emit terpenes, chemicals derived from citrus oils. Terpenes are not dangerous on their own, but are unstable compounds and can react with naturally occurring ozone to produce formaldehyde. Anyone who had to dissect a frog in high school will be familiar with formaldehyde, a preservative often used in the embalming process. Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, is also linked with wheezing, coughing, irritation of they eyes, nose, and throat, nausea, dizziness, and headaches.

Butane, isobutane, and propane highly flammable chemicals used to make lighter fluid and fuel for camp stoves have been linked with cardiovascular and respiratory problems, skin irritation, and nerve damage.

Speaking of nerve damage, many air fresheners employ the use of a chemical called p-dichlorylbenzene. P-dichlorylbenzene coats your nostrils in a fine film which over time deadens the nerve cells and reducing your ability to perceive smells. Additionally, p-dichlorylbenzene has been linked to asthma, allergy attacks, skin and eye irritation, and is classified by the CDC as a "possible carcinogen."

The NRCD has advised consumers to avoid using air fresheners whenever possible, and to seek out air fresheners that have the lowest levels of phthalates. (A list of brands and their phthalate level can be found at The EPA has not advised consumers not to use air fresheners, but rather to "exercise care with usage."

A more prudent option may be to use natural alternatives to air fresheners.

The most obvious (and effective) method for freshening the air naturally is to open a window. Opening windows improves the overall air quality of the house by letting in fresh air and allowing odors to dissipate. By opening a window for 30 minutes per day, you can keep the air in the house smelling fresher.

Keep a small bowl of baking soda or white vinegar in the room to absorb odors. Baking soda also works well as a carpet deodorizer or when sprinkled in the bottom of garbage cans. For airborne fresheners, mix 1/4 cup baking soda in 1 cup water and put in spray bottle. A one to four ratio of white vinegar to water will also work. A couple tablespoons of coffee sprinkled at the bottom of the trash can or placed in a small bowl or plastic container is another option, for coffee loves who just can't get enough of the smell. (Ground coffee will also absorb odors.)

Essential oils can be placed in a diffuser for freshness. Essential oils may also be added to vinegar mixtures if you find the smell of vinegar offensive. A word of caution when buying essential oils: inexpensive oils sold in discount stores are often just artificially scented with the same myriad of chemicals in air fresheners. It is much safer to purchase essential oils at health food stores. Though they can be expensive, high quality essential oils will last for a long time.

Finally, place house plants around the house. House plants not only contribute to the overall air quality of the house by producing oxygen, they also absorb odors, and can actually neutralize the more volatile compounds found in commercial air freshener. Plus, many house plants emit their own fresh scent!

Now that's what I call a green air freshener!

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