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The following is part of an Organic Guest Post Series written by Amy, a long time helper behind the scenes of Southern Savers.
Judging by the fact that my normally gray car is yellow, spring is finally here. I admire greatly the friends I see who tackle spring cleaning with vigor. Their baseboards are clean; their windows sparkle. In my season of life though, it’s a good thing if the bathrooms get cleaned and the floors get vacuumed. So, this year, instead of spring cleaning my house, I thought it would be more fun (and easier!) to spring clean my cleaners. The next few weeks, I want to look at the common household cleaners and evaluate whether or not I’m removing toxins from my environment or adding them. For now, let’s start with air fresheners. With a toddler in diapers and a sick little girl in the house, things are smelling a little stinky around here. I normally don’t notice this as much because the heat or the air conditioning is on and so the air is circulating, but we are in the blissful, short-lived season where we have no need for either. The air is stale and stinky and I’m on the hunt for how to freshen it up. The normal go to for most of us is to spray some air freshener, plug in a scented warmer, or light a candle, but something tells me this isn’t the best option.
As we evaluate the different cleaners that we are using around our homes, one of the biggest questions to ask is how is it affecting our air quality. Have you ever noticed that most cleaners have a label that says, “Use in well ventilated areas!!!” The makers of these products know that these are strong chemicals. What we don’t often think about though is how well our house is ventilated and just how long these chemicals are hanging around. First off, how leaky is your house? We live in a house that is over 40 years old. I can see daylight around the edges of my kitchen door. I get notices from our power company telling me just how inefficient our house is. On the flip side, many newer homes are being built tight and energy efficient so that the cool air and heat that you are paying for isn’t wasted. If that air doesn’t leak out, where are the chemicals that you are pumping into it going? The EPA says this about ventilation in houses,“The rate at which outdoor air replaces indoor air is described as the air exchange rate. When there is little infiltration, natural ventilation, or mechanical ventilation, the air exchange rate is low and pollutant levels can increase.” I was just beginning to think that maybe my leaky home was doing me some favors until I read this from the EPA, “However, because some weather conditions can drastically reduce the amount of outdoor air that enters a home, pollutants can build up even in homes that are normally considered ‘leaky.’” Rats.
This is why taking a good look at our air fresheners is key. Many of them are spreading their lovely aromas all day, and in the process they are also spreading their chemicals. Which leads to my next question. What exactly is so bad about air fresheners?
First off, the labeling is tricky. Fragrances are considered trade secrets. The EWG says that, “fragrances, [are] actually made up of hundreds of untested chemicals including toxic ingredients such as phthalates and synthetic musks – both suspected hormone disruptors. Fragrances are among the world’s top five allergens.” So, when we look at a label that reads, “fragrance,” we have no idea whatsoever what is in the product we are using. The International Fragrance Association has published a list of ingredients that might be used when you see the word “fragrance” listed in your ingredients. There are over 3,000 possible ingredients listed and the vast majority of those were words I’d never heard before. I’m needing a little help here. The EWG comes to the rescue again. Here’s how they rated what they saw, “A long list of chemicals that you can’t pronounce is not in itself toxic – even if it looks it. But an analysis of these 3,163 chemicals…shows that there is reason for concern. In fact, 1 in 20 earned a “high” hazard score (7-10 of 10), and a full 1 in 6 rated at least a “moderate” hazard score (3-10 of 10). 25 of them scored a 10, the highest score.”
There are a few ingredients that are particularly troubling. We talked about phthalates in our discussion on plastics and noted how it is linked to reproductive issues for boys. The EWG also pointed out that octoxynols and nonoxynols were on the list. They said, “Octoxynols and nonoxynols break down into persistent hormone disruptors, as well.” Not good.
As if that is not enough, another set of ingredients covered by the heading of fragrance is VOCs. One source said this, “In one study, a plug-in air freshener was found to emit 20 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including seven regulated as toxic or hazardous under U.S. federal laws.” The American Lung Association says that, “VOCs and other chemicals released when using cleaning supplies contribute to chronic respiratory problems, allergic reactions and headaches…” I can attest to this. When I walk into homes with air fresheners, I almost instantly start to get a headache.
Another study offers some interesting insight. “In 2008, Anne Steinemann of the University of Washington published a study of top-selling air fresheners and laundry products. She found that all products tested gave off chemicals regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws, including carcinogens with no safe exposure level, but none of these chemicals were listed on any of the product labels or Material Safety Data Sheets.” So some of these air fresheners can cause cancer too.
Asthmatics should take special care with air fresheners as well. Dr. Stanley Fineman, an allergist with Emory University and the Atlanta Allergy & Asthma Clinic, said in an interview, “The chemicals in some of these products can trigger the nasal congestion, sneezing and the runny nose. With the asthmatics, there’s really good data showing their lung function changes when they’re exposed to these compounds.”
I was curious what the big brands would say when questioned about these ingredients. When I think air freshener, I think Glade. So, I looked at their site and found some good news. Glade isn’t using phthalates or musks “Or any known carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxins listed by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, the European Union’s REACH and Substances of Very High Concern programs, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Carcinogens, or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.” They also listed that they aren’t using any formaldehyde. I’m starting to be convinced that maybe they aren’t all that bad. The ingredients I’ve found as being bad are listed in a bright pink box as not found in their products, but then I found this. The California Environmental Protection Agency did a study on cleaning products and indoor air quality.
“The investigators found that chemicals directly emitted from the products, such as terpenes and glycol ethers, generally were below levels of concern, but that indoor chemical reactions of the substances emitted produced some other pollutants at levels of health concern. Specifically, using products that contained terpenes – which are components of pine and citrus oils – in rooms where elevated levels of ozone were present, resulted in the production of formaldehyde and ultrafine particles, both of which can potentially harm human health.
Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen with no level of exposure that poses zero risk, and is a strong eye, nose, throat and lung irritant…Ultrafine particles and the potential health effects associated with them are not well understood, but exposure to particle pollutants from the outdoor environment is associated with a variety of health effects, including serious heart and lung disease and even premature death.”
To sum it up, terpenes and glycol ethers aren’t generally a problem on their own, but if you mix them with ozone, you get formaldehyde and ultrafine particles which are problematic. If you are like I am, you are probably thinking, “I don’t have ozone in my house…or do I?” Fortunately, they clarified things with action steps. “Limit the use of cleaning products or air fresheners advertised as pine- or lemon-scented, or that contain pine or citrus oils, especially during high outdoor pollution days. For ozone forecasts, visit AirNow and click on ‘Local forecasts and conditions.’” How does this relate to Glade, you might ask? Well, on Glade’s list of ingredients, I found terpene. Depending on where you live and your ozone levels, that could create some problems.
This is enough information for me to know that it is time to look into a different way of freshening up the air in my home. Next week, we’ll look at some ways to get our houses smelling oh so good without adding the chemical toxins to our air. In the meantime, if you want to know more about the specific type of air freshener that you have been using, check out the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning. They have a list of 2,000 cleaning products with 277 of them being air fresheners that are given a grade from A to F.
For now, what’s your favorite way to get your house smelling good?