Ask Umbra: Can air fresheners make you sick?
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Q. Dear Umbra,
There seem to be more and more automatic air fresheners in public and office restrooms. The data say that they cause respiratory, digestive, and eye irritation. Asthmatics seem to feel the worst, so how do we cope with not being able to use the restroom without having to use inhalers afterwards? Do home air fresheners do the same thing? Are there any moves to have warnings?
A. Dearest Sherry,
Let’s get the New Year off to a fresh start by tackling this sickening situation. In public spaces across the country, including offices, stores, restaurants, airports, and schools, air “freshener” is being forced upon us. Daily we are subjected to known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and other toxic substances. Sounds like a horror film, but it is our scentsational reality.
We’ve talked before about the hazards inherent in air fresheners. The EPA puts it quite poetically: “Air fresheners are usually highly flammable and also strong irritants to eyes, skin, and throat. Additionally, the solid fresheners usually cause death if eaten by people or pets.”
Yes, these household helpers — which became popular in the 1950s, along with perky smiles and perfect apple pies — contain all manner of harmful ingredients, including formaldehyde, a powerful pesticide called paradichlorobenzene, and phthalates. In short, air “fresheners” actually make our air quality much worse, polluting our space and our bodies. To quote the EPA again, “air fresheners … release pollutants more or less continuously.”
So we certainly do not want to use air fresheners at home, where we can deodorize with baking soda, fresh air, exhaust fans, or even the scent of a perfect apple pie instead. But we do not have as much control over public spaces. What to do?
Here are a few suggestions:
If you suffer from asthma or multiple chemical sensitivities, I would carry an inhaler, which I’m sure you do anyway, and a face mask.
If air fresheners are stinking up your workplace, contact your HR department to explain your health concerns and cite some of the EPA’s cautionary info. You might need a note from your doctor before they will take action. You could also draw upon information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Labor to make your case.
If you encounter the problem in a store, politely tell the customer service desk you (and your money) will not be back until the air fresheners are gone. Then write the company a letter, voice your views through social media, start a protest, or send an e-card. I’ve heard tell of companies including Whole Foods and Target removing air fresheners after customer complaints.
If fragrances are making you sick, you might have grounds for a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 2010, a city employee in Detroit won $100,000 in just such a case. Sniff around to find out more about your legal rights and examples of similar claims [PDF].
While I would never endorse vandalism, chatter from consumers and business owners suggests that air fresheners in public restrooms seem to disappear or be damaged with some regularity. (It took a special passion to conduct this hack job on an auto-dispenser.)
You ask about warnings. A few years ago, several groups sued the EPA to try to enforce air-freshener testing and labeling. The upshot was astonishing, in its way: For the first time, the industry revealed the ingredients in its products — but not publicly. This year the EPA took another step toward transparency by unmasking 150 chemicals, used in air fresheners and other products, that had been considered “confidential.” But in terms of consumer-facing information, we’re still far away from Crystal Mountain Spring Clarity.
Still, momentum is growing. As one paper puts it [PDF]: “The U.S. consumer is as uneducated about the dangers and health risks associated with constant exposure to the chemicals used in synthetic fragrance products as the average non-smoker was to the risks of secondhand smoke. When ignorance is replaced with knowledge, a large segment of the population will respond with a demand for clean and safe air in the workplace.”