If there’s one thing that’s certain in our uncertain world it’s that there’s no shortage of odors in the modern home. From dinner gone wrong to pets gone unwashed, there’s usually something funky fouling up the domestic olfactory landscape and wrinkling our sensitive noses. No wonder air freshener sales in the U.S. rose 7.3% in 2002 to $1.67 billion. These products effortlessly cover up odorous offenses. No fuss. Just fragrance. That and some serious health hazards, as a new study has found when the chemicals in these products react with a common indoor air pollutants.
The study was conducted at the EPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory and published in the May 15, 2004 edition of Environmental Science and Technology (Volume 38, No. 10, pages 2737–2745). Researchers tested air freshening units that plug into electrical sockets and automatically release aromatic compounds over time to “freshen” room air.
These fragrance compounds include substances called pinene and limonene. Scientists found that pinene and limonene easily react with ozone, a common air pollutant, to create formaldehyde and a variety of related chemicals that have been implicated in respiratory conditions.
While ozone is a valuable component of the upper atmosphere (where it shields the Earth’s surface from harmful solar radiation); yet at ground level it’s considered a pollutant. Ozone is created when hydrocarbons from automobile exhaust react with sun light. It is also sometimes intentionally added to indoor environments by ozone generators, which release controlled amounts of ozone that oxidize indoor air pollutants.
Scientists testing air fresheners in a sealed room-sized test chamber found that the formaldehyde-forming reactions could occur when ozone levels reach that of a room whose windows have been opened on a high-ozone day. Mixing air freshener chemicals and ozone at typical levels resulted in a concentration of particles of formaldehyde-related compounds of approximately 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air. (For comparison, a smoky room will contain 100 micrograms or more of particles per cubic meter.) Scientists believe that every 10 microgram increase in atmospheric levels of particles result in a 1% increase in deaths from respiratory conditions like asthma.
The 50 microgram level reported in the study is close to the EPA’s outdoor particle limit and is one that researchers equated to the kind of volatile exposure that might occur after painting a room. However, they noted that painting a room is a one-time event. Plug-in air fresheners, on the other hand, are constantly releasing their deodorizing agents, so toxic exposures that occur when these compounds react with ozone are chronic in nature.
Indoor air quality experts recommend against using air fresheners or room deodorizes of any kind. In general, these products use chemicals to cover-up odors, and in some cases even reduce the ability of the nose to smell. Since they do nothing to remove the source of the offensive odors, air fresheners must also be reapplied frequently, which increases exposure risk to the chemicals they contain, many of which either have a dubious safety record or remain untested for human health effects. Toxins found in air fresheners and room deodorizers include napthalene, phenol, cresol, dichlorobenzene, and xylene. These and other air freshener chemicals have been implicated in cancer, neurological damage, reproductive and developmental disorders, and other conditions. The compounds in air fresheners, particularly the synthetic fragrances they contain, can also aggravate asthma and/or trigger attacks.
Instead, keep your home’s air smelling fresh by identifying and removing the sources of any bad odors. Use natural minerals like baking soda and borax to control common odor sources like trash cans and to deodorize when you clean. Keep windows open as much as possible to let bad air out and good air in. If odors are still troubling, invest in an air purifier with activated carbon filtration, a strategy that can remove odors. Ozone generators are not recommended. To scent indoor air, place a drop of a natural essential oil, like lavender or mint, on a light bulb, or add a dozen drops to a bowl of water placed on a radiator. You can also boil fragrant dried herbs in a pot of water to release a fresh smell. A natural mineral called zeolite is available in packets that will absorb odors when hung in problem areas like musty basements and closets. You can also make your own sprays from essential oils and other safe, natural ingredients.
Written by: Seventh Generation
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