Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Dear Umbra,

According to their new ads, Air Wick air fresheners now have 100 percent natural propellants. OK, so they got rid of the solvents, but what about the other horrible chemicals that are in the product? Isn’t this greenwashing?

Brozafan
Wynnewood, Penn.

flower scentThere’s no substitute for truly natural air fresheners.Photo: Dennis WongA. Dearest Brozafan,

Your question comes at an interesting time — just after Febreze hit annual sales of over $1 billion, according to the library’s copy of The Wall Street Journal. Although global sales of air fresheners have been on the rise, you’re smart to be wary of them. Just as a haze of Drakkar Noir does little to improve that special, adolescent musk of the unwashed teenage male, so do air fresheners contribute to — rather than exorcise — indoor air quality problems.

Air fresheners “can aggravate asthma and often contain chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde, as well as other compounds linked to developmental problems in kids,” as we wrote a few years ago. According to one New Scientist study, in homes with frequent air freshener use, moms had more headaches and infants had more ear infections and diarrhea. And 12 of 14 air fresheners the NRDC tested contained phthalates, those hormone-disrupting bad boys. Not so fresh, right?

The EPA says the air fresheners’ chemical cocktail has four main ingredients (none of them, sadly, rum or grenadine): formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, p- dichlorobenzene, and aerosol propellants. As you note, any “natural”-ifying of earth-unfriendly aerosol propellants still leaves the three other offenders:

  • Formaldehyde, an ear, nose, and throat irritant and possible carcinogen;
  • Petroleum distillates, with their oil-intensive production and ill effects on the respiratory system; and
  • p-dichlorobenzene, a hazardous waste “reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen” that gives mothballs and urinal cakes their lovely scent (and is, incidentally, also a registered pesticide).
 

In the words of one Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “A world of no.” These are not things to usher into your abode under the Trojan horses of “Thai Dragon Fruit” and “Moroccan Bazaar.” And in a larger sense, you’re right to give ads a skeptical eye, particularly regarding greenwashing. “Natural” doesn’t mean nontoxic (and really doesn’t mean anything at all, as it’s unregulated). In our consumption-happy society, air fresheners exemplify businesses creating the desire for something we didn’t know we needed — and, in fact, do not need at all. Try tea tree oil or baking soda instead. Or throw open the windows with your best Sound of Music impression and use nature’s air freshener: the breeze.

Breathily,
Umbra