The Hazards of Car Air Fresheners

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We spend a sizable amount of time in our vehicles each day, often preceding, or just after a long day at work. Cheerfully coloured cardboard trees dangling from rear view mirrors are a familiar sight, as is the scent of commercial car air fresheners commonly found clipped on air conditioner vents of vehicles. 

Designed to impart a pleasant aroma to the air environment or to mask odours, air fresheners are as ubiquitous as they have been increasingly, and worryingly--found to be hazardous.

In this article, we explore the paradox that the products designed to improve our indoor environment experience are the same ones that negatively affect us in unexpected, and often invisible ways.

What Are We Breathing?

Air fresheners have been found to release over 100 different chemicals, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, and xylene; as well as semi-volatile organic compounds (such as phthalates). These emissions then react with indoor oxidants, such as ozone, hydroxyl radicals, and nitrate radicals to generate secondary pollutants such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.

Even “green” or “organic” air fresheners are not exempt from harmful air pollutants. Air freshener ingredients are largely unknown; more than ninety percent of its volatile ingredients remain undisclosed because of regulatory protections on consumer product ingredients and fragrance formulations. Furthermore, there are no regulatory or chemical definitions for “green” air fresheners, and claims in consumer products often lack substantiation.

As there are no regulations that require the full disclosure of all ingredients used in an air freshener or perfume, ingredients listed typically sound general or neutral, such as “fragrance”, “essential oils”, “water”, “organic perfume”, or “quality control ingredients.” When tested, all air fresheners were found to emit chemicals classified as toxic or hazardous under US federal laws. However, fewer than 1% of these chemicals were listed on product labels.

How Do Air Freshener Chemicals Affect Us?

Population based studies have shown that air freshener exposure, even at low levels, have been associated with a range of adverse health effects; in order of prevalence--respiratory difficulties, mucosal symptoms, migraine headaches, skin problems, asthma attacks, neurological and cognitive problems, and immune system impairment.

Additionally, specific chemical emissions have been linked to adverse effects to the neurological, cardiovascular, respiratory, reproductive, immune, and endocrine systems, and with cancer. Acetaldehyde, a primary or secondary emission from air fresheners, is associated with both acute and chronic hazards to the respiratory system, and classified as a carcinogenic hazardous air pollutant with no safe threshold of exposure, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. More insidiously, phthalates, dispersants found in even “all-natural” or “unscented” air fresheners, are known to cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects, reproductive problems and developmental disorders--but are nowhere to be found as an ingredient on air fresheners.

Protecting Yourself and Your Family

Air fresheners are used pervasively within many indoor environments, so while complete avoidance may be difficult to achieve, the air we breathe within the confines of our vehicles, where we easily spend an hour or two a day, are within our control. Read our next article here for a safe way to scent your car while reaping therapeutic benefits for you and your passengers to enjoy.