Unplug That Thing, Mom! Air Fresheners, Hazardous Chemicals, and Disease Potential

Nobody likes to come home to a musty-smelling living room. For reasons most of us can easily understand, it’s just not that hot a plan. Of course, it’s always best to be neat and clean, and keep the space moisture-controlled, but what about if you enjoy a pleasant, calming scent? Most people I meet would at this point tell me what brand of plug-in air freshener they use at home; these are so widespread, it’s difficult to not find a home without at least three, gracing the living room, bathroom, and bedroom, typically.

Plug In Air Freshener

Plug-In Air Freshener

These plug-in scent dispersers are environmentally-friendly, that is true. Plug-ins replaced the aerosol spray scent canisters used by most of us up until about the 1990s. But are there any hidden costs to using plug-in room deodorizers? It turns out, there certainly are concerns. The first, is that these units are risks for household fires. Of course, this is great cause for alarm, but according to the best set of facts we can find, it’s just not true.

This is only a lame meme, an Internet-email-spawned modern global urban legend, of sorts. According to Snopes , this is a false claim. Of course, I do not default to a website’s claims in my search for answers, but letters from the SC Johnson company verify that these units pose no real risk. Perhaps it’s really because of a product recall that happened all the way back in 2002, involving plug-in air fresheners. In any event, fire is definitely not a high risk.

Rusted Old Aerosol Can by Rob Swatski

Rusted Old Aerosol Can by Rob Swatski

According to a news story by WABC (NY)  at the time, the facts are slightly different, and there were, in fact, fires caused by these units, hence the recall. In any event, if there had been a fire hazard, it has long since been addressed by the manufacturers.

So is it all good, then? Should we buy an additional three plug-ins now, maybe one for the basement den, another for the kids’ bedroom, and a sixth for the pantry? Wait. One. Second. There’s unfortunately more data that we can find, suggesting that this may not be

the best idea. What if plug-ins were pollution-averting devices that save the ozone layer but actually pollute your personal space and environment?

Well, if you’re a big fan of plug-ins, I’ve got some sad news for you: There’s more to it. Far more, in fact.

WABC Channel 7 News Story, 2002, On Plug-In Air Fresheners and Home Fires

WABC Channel 7 News Story, 2002, On Plug-In Air Fresheners and Home Fires

While this may seem dramatic, perhaps I’m not expressing this in sufficiently dramatic terms. For starters, these are not “air fresheners”. In no way are they actually “freshening” anything. While your space may, in fact, smell quite nice, plug-in air fresheners are continuously pumping pollutants into the air, day and night.

Phthalates, a class of synthetic chemicals that can wreak havoc on health in myriad ways, comprises one of the ingredients in many brands, and include di-butyl phthalate (DBP), di-ethyl phthalate (DEP), di-isobutyl phthalate (DIBP), and di-methyl phthalate (DMP) (see Figure 3). Di-isohexyl phthalate (DIHP).

Lupus Erythematosus. Chromolithograph. c. 1878-1888 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Lupus Erythematosus. Chromolithograph. c. 1878-1888
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Without the efforts of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) , we wouldn’t know that nearly 90% of brands contain this class of chemicals. In, Hidden H

azards of Air Fresheners, the NRDC’s publication, we find that phthalates, “…can cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects, and reproductive problems.” Suggestions include limiting exposure of pregnant women and children to these chemicals.

According to the document, air freshener products are listed by the State of California as chemicals “known to cause birth defects or reproductive harm….and has also been associated with allergic symptoms and asthma.” A 2005 European Consumers Union study also found these products loaded with VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, certainly not a class of substances you’d want to intentionally load your home’s air with.

There are even more grave concerns, that phthalates may cause cancer or trigger autoimmune disease as an epigenetic-triggering factor. According to the study entitled, Autoimmune Disease: Phthalate Linked to Lupus in Mice by Carol Potera, “researchers at

Indiana State

University may have strengthened the environmental evidence by discovering that phthalates trigger lupus antibodies in a mouse model.”


Houseplants by FarOutFlora

Houseplants by FarOutFlora

While mouse models aren’t always completely applicable to humans, this should be a serious cause for concern, especially if you or a family member are suffering from an autoimmune condition, and your family uses these air scenting devices.

So, what do we do? Sit around all day smelling the dogs and old couches? No; certainly not. Plants can actually clean the air of pollutants, including VOCs, so get some plants, and grow them large!  First of all, fresh air is always beneficial, except if you live in certain parts of New Jersey along what’s known as the “Chemical Coast“. You can open windows more, or freshen the air with an utrasonic aromatherapy scent diffuser.

Ultrasonic Air Freshener

Ultrasonic Air Freshener

These devices can deliver 100% organic essential oils into the air, without

addition of any phthalates. An additional benefit is that you can collect essential oils and have a different scent every day, or blend various oils to get a custom scent that matches your home and personal vibe.

Simplers Botanicals and Nature's Alchemy are my preferred brands after over a decade of testing. (I do not get paid to say this!)

Simplers Botanicals and Nature’s Alchemy are my preferred brands after over a decade of testing. (I do not get paid to say this!)

Just be sure you are not getting “fragrance oils”, but rather only 100% natural, or organic, essential oils.  (Two brands I’ve found to be amazing are Nature’s Alchemy and Simplers Botanicals.)  And, be forewarned, every company puts out a vastly different product, even for the same plant oil.

Some of the inexpensive brands may also seem

Nells the Couch Potato by Heather Morrison

Nells the Couch Potato by Heather Morrison

diluted, or less highly scented, so it isn’t quite a steal of a deal. Experiment, and see what you find. Be especially careful with overseas sellers hawking wares without branding.

In any event, it’s worth reconsidering all your habits, especially if you’re suffering with autoimmune conditions. Many of the ideas that we must challenge on our journey toward health are long-held ideas and may seem strange, or just downright silly.

Even so, it’s worth looking into any and all sources of unintended environmental pollution that may be plaguing your home, family, and pets. Alternative health does not refer to anything outside of science, but rather examining an alternative set of scientific and anecdotal evidential data that may be presently ignored or overlooked.

Authored by D Alban (C) Copyright 2018 D Alban, H Miller

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