Could the floral scent of your air freshener contain toxic chemicals known to cause birth defects? NRDC recently tested 14 air fresheners and found that 12 contained phthalates (pronounced "THAL-ates"), chemicals that can cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects and reproductive problems. Even air fresheners marketed as "all-natural" or "unscented" contained the hazardous chemicals.

In addition to phthalates, air fresheners may contain allergens and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as well as cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde.

The air fresheners NRDC tested included aerosol sprays, liquids emitting a continuous scent and a solid freshener. Among the 14 products tested, there was wide variation in the level of phthalates detected. Three of the 14 had very high levels—more than 100 parts per million (ppm). In fact, these three had levels of 360 ppm, 1,100 ppm, and 7,300 ppm. Two products, Febreze Air Effects and Renuzit Subtle Effects, contained no detectable levels of phthalates. (NRDC tested only one sample of each product; more thorough testing is necessary to confirm the results.)

Phthalates are found in a wide array of consumer products, including cosmetics and fragrances, pharmaceuticals, vinyl children's toys, automobiles and paints. They are known to interfere with production of testosterone and have been associated with reproductive abnormalities.

Pregnant women and children should avoid products that contain phthalates, but because there are no labeling requirements, it is virtually impossible for consumers to know which products may pose a risk. On the bright side, a congressional ban of several phthalates in child-care products and children's toys resulted in their removal from shelves as of February 2009.

NRDC and other groups are petitioning the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission to ban hazardous phthalates in consumer products and require that manufacturers provide ingredient information on their labels. Stronger regulations are needed to protect consumers. The Environmental Protection Agency should require manufacturers to research and test the toxicity and health effects of inhaling chemicals from air fresheners.

What you can do

  • Freshen your surroundings naturally by opening shades and windows to bring in air and sunlight. Use fans to circulate the air throughout your home.
  • Check the list of air fresheners tested by NRDC, and read the report to learn what the product label won't tell you.
  • NRDC and other groups are petitioning EPA and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to do more comprehensive testing and to ban hazardous phthalates in consumer products. Support NRDC’s efforts to protect consumers by joining our action network.

Photo credit: jaredmoo / Flickr

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