For most of my life I have been bothered by smells that most people find appealing.  After walking (or running at times)  through a perfume section at Macy’s my head starts to tighten and I begin to feel nauseous.  It is not only perfume, but also anything that contains artificial scents.  Air fresheners, carpet deodorizers, cleaning supplies all cause me  the same problem.  I was never aware of anyone else who experienced these symptoms, but recently there have been reports coming out that air fresheners are linked to asthma and cancer.

The cancer connection:

A review of 14 air fresheners off the shelf of a Wallgreens by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found 12 of them containing phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates).  There has been much debate over what health problems caused by phthalates, but it is certain that these chemicals are harmful.  Studies that have looked at high levels of exposure to rats and human have suggested that  certain kinds of phthalates can cause cancer, developmental and sex-hormone abnormalities (including decreased testosterone and sperm levels and malformed sex organs) in infants, and can affect fertility.

Asthma and phthalates

Asthma has been on a exponential rise over the last thirty years and currently 1 in 13 children have asthma.  Asthma has become the leading chronic illness associated with school absenteeism.  Children are not the only ones suffering from asthma as an estimate 23.2 million adults have lifelong asthma.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that adults who were subjected to certain types of phthalates were twice as likely to develop adult onset asthma.  For people who already have asthma, the chemicals found in air fresheners can complicate their condition and lead to more severe conditions according to a study in The Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

How about “natural” or “fragrance free?”

The study by the NRDC found that even air fresheners that were labeled as “natural” or “fragrance free” still contained phthalates.  Many of them did contain lower levels of phthalates, but the “acceptable” levels are not yet known according to Dr. Gina Solomon of the NRDC.

Phthalate regulation:

The US does not regulate or require phthalates to be listed on labels.  The US does not support that these chemicals are harmful, but this thought is not shared by the European Union and fourteen other countries that have banned two different types of phthalates in cosmetics and children’s toys.

What can you do?

  • First avoid products that contain parfum, which is a catch all term that hides a number of potential harmful chemicals.
  • Get out or open up!  The air outside is most likely cleaner than the air you’re breathing inside, even if you live in a congested urban area.  If weather permits open windows or get out for a walk.
  • Use plants to freshen the air. According to NASA you can clean up your air with the introduction of some hearty house plants.  NASA recommends that you have at least 2 house plants for every 100 square feet of space in your home.  The NASA research recommends the following plants: chinese evergreen, dracaena, heartleaf philodendron, pothos, snake plant, spider plant, weeping fig.