Air Fresheners, Silent but Deadly?

We get it.

You had a long night of debauchery and nothing in the world sounds better than fries and cheese curds smothered in what is questionably gravy.  And indeed, this proves to be the right decision, up until you stumble into a friend’s humble abode and your colon is m raising more red flags than your last blind date.

Painful Stomach Cramps
Her last blind date being a plumber.  A painful irony

The good news is that the bathroom is free.

The bad news is that you know you’re about to laden the restroom with 50 shades of stank.   Thankfully your friend had the foresight to toss in a nifty automatic air freshener.  Spritzing the air every so often with what is questionably…*sniff*…vanilla and lavender?

Blunder avoided.  Everybody wins! Right?

Not.  Really.

Brand name air fresheners are not good for your health.

If you note in the sources, this problem was raised with plenty of fervor back during 2003 when we were too busy burying our nose in an installed Iraqi democracy to notice a serious consumer health flag.

iOS & Iraq. Different installations, same amount of fine print

More importantly, I wasn’t writing about science back in 2003, I was busy trying to fit in at my new high school.

I want to look into some other aspects of this issue and determine why it is still relevant. What are the marquee chemicals?  Why aren’t these brands regulated?  Why isn’t there more awareness surrounding this issue?

Hopefully, you will learn something along the way.

The Chemical Cocktail

Two causes for concern when it comes to commercial air fresheners are Phthalates and 1,4-dichlorobenzene.   Lets start with phthalates.

Phthalates are in fact a class of chemicals used as a filler for plastics to render them soft. Funny thing is, we’re not made of plastic.

The CDC has a fact sheet set up, and oddly enough under the Human Health section is this little gem:

“Human health effects from exposure to low levels of phthalates are unknown. Some types of phthalates have affected the reproductive system of laboratory animals. More research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to phthalates”

Huh.  Given that this was updated April of 2015, it’s good to know that the last 12 years we’ve made great progress…

Let’s get back to that later though, the more criminal element in this equation is certainly 1,4-dichlorobenzene.

Alternatively known as your chemistry teacher’s ankle tatoo

This little chemical is useful for mothballs, dealing with mold & mildew, and (you guessed it!) deodorants.  Thus, the body of research behind 1,4-dichlorobenzene is much more substantial.

The EPA even has a chemical summary sheet for this sucker with 13 animal studies showing that chronic exposure affected the weight of rat kidneys and livers, negatively impacted reproduction, and could induce lesions in their respiratory tract.

Mind you this is all data from before 1994.

Even on the EPA’s main site they recognize that 1,4-dichlorobenzene is a possible human carcinogen. This is the same exact status red meat has nowadays mind you…

Cancer and beef were getting along well until Cancer dropped a diss track

Recent studies have illuminated how this “possible carcinogen” could be dangerous. Examples include “strongly” inducing oxidative stress (pretty much just not good for you all around) on livers, or even inducing neural tissue damage.

Oh and not to mention it is prevalent enough in households to be considered a part of indoor air pollution, and has the ability to induce asthma or lung disease.

Why aren’t these regulated?

Well let’s start with a much easier question: why aren’t there more studies focusing on these chemicals that could induce regulation?

In the case of both chemicals, it is simply the fact that they are practically everywhere.

…or just whatever the TSA wouldn’t want you having


From industrial applications to household items, these guys are kind of the “do-all” for a lot of marketable and commonplace items.  This makes determining how much people are exposed to them pretty difficult.

Most of the time, people are exposed to nigh untraceable amounts of these chemicals.  Thus, the context of your environment becomes very important to how much of these chemicals could impact your health.

Say phthalates for example.  Aside from an alright amount of literature surrounding how it could affect obesity, its main claim to toxic fame is its potential to affect pregnant mothers.  The problem?  Well let me just let the scientist take this one:

“early-life exposures and possible transgenerational effects are not well understood”

This becomes even more muddled because some other researchers considered that if your ancestors were exposed to something, it could affect your development.

Or if you’re Marty McFly, you have a different kind of exposure you need to worry about



Basically its a toss up between this and American gun-control over what’s more difficult to address.

For 1,4-dichlorobenzene, the literature is not precise.  This means that we rarely see studies that can isolate its exposure from the rest of the noise.

Heck, let’s just look at air fresheners as one big category.  Scientists are still trying to figure out the best way to model exposure to these bad boys.

So it seems like this is really just a mixed bag of information, and the science needs to dust its shoulders and just catch up at some point, right?

Wrong. This is where I tell you why brands like Febreeze, and indeed other big fragrance providers are pretty much just scumbags.

Douche-moves by smell-good dudes

Why is it that this research is so hard?  Not to sound like a consipiracy theorist but..

The producers have made it deliberately tough to research their products, by simply refusing to disclose what is in the air fresheners.

Since I’m in a quote-y mood today let’s hit you with another quip from an abstract published June 2015 in Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health:

“Of the volatile ingredients emitted, fewer than 3 % were disclosed on any product label or material safety data sheet (MSDS). Because health effects depend on many factors, not only individual ingredients, this study makes no claims regarding possible risks. However, knowledge of product composition can be an important step to understand, assess, and reduce potential exposures and effects.”

Here is Febreeze’s product page regarding how and why their product works.   Notice something?

Odor Eliminator…derived from corn?  Oh wait its only derived from corn!  Can’t be bad for you. 

There isn’t a single ingredient listed on this page.  Nor is there any real ingredient listed on their bottles.  It typically just says “Fragrances”.

I mean, come on.  They even have a product that is called an Allergen Reducer.  It reduces environmental allergens???  Isn’t that kind of game changing?  I wonder why this isn’t used everywhere.

Indeed, if we pull up a product’s (Glade in this case) Household Products Database page from our own US Department of Health and Human Services, we see the pattern continue:

“Manufacturer’s Material Safety Data Sheet provides no information about chronic health effects resulting from prolonged or frequent use of this product”

No wonder considering independent studies have found not only the two chemicals listed above, but acetaldehyde in Febreeze as well.  A compound that is listed by California State Law with accordance to Prop 65 to be a carcinogen.

Now, I understand this little end bit of the rant is more geared towards one product, but I promise that a google search will net you many more blog posts like this one rallying against other products. And I’m lazy.

Long story short?

Get some scented candles, or just learn to love the smell of your own poop.  I know I did.

Pictured: Someone who loves smelling poop

Okay, I don’t.

But I’m a good 75% of the way there.




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