WHAT IS THE SMELL OF CLEAN?

Ever since the advent of manufactured cleaning products, consumers have equated the smell of their cleaning products with their efficacy. In fact, consumer focus groups conducted by The Haystack Group identified smell as an important criteria cleaning service customers use in evaluating the quality of the cleaning. One focus group participant summed it up in a nutshell, stating “When I walk through the front door, I smell that smell and I know that Maid Brigade has been here and my home is clean.”[i] We have confidence that our homes are clean and germ-free because we can smell bleach, ammonia or fragrance additives in other cleaning chemicals and rest assured that we are doing something positive for our families’ health. 
 
The irony is that these products commonly contain ingredients which can actually be harmful to our health, right down to the fragrances! One in five people experiences health problems when exposed to fragrances[ii], whether in perfumes, air fresheners or other household consumables such as laundry detergent and deodorant. Fragrances in these products can trigger asthma and allergy attacks or worse. Most fragrance chemicals are respiratory irritants that trigger and compound asthma, allergies, sinus problems and worse.
 
The ingredients in several top household brands of air fresheners include certain Volatile Organic Compounds, chemicals that keep the fragrance molecules airborne so the fragrances linger longer.  According to the EPA, VOCs are emitted as gases and include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects.  These Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) commonly include propane, butane, ethanol, and/or phthalates. Propane is a suspected neurotoxin and respiratory toxicant. Butane is a neurotoxicant. Scorecard.org reports that ethanol is suspected of several human health hazards, including carcinogen, developmental toxicant, endocrine toxicant, liver toxicant, neurotoxicant, reproductive toxicant and more. 
 
The potential health hazards associated with air fresheners in particular is not limited to certain VOCs. The Natural Resources Defense Council studied 14 of the most popular air freshener brands this past September, finding that 12 contained phthalates, chemicals known to cause hormonal abnormalities, thyroid disorders, birth defects and reproductive problems and possibly cause cancer.[iii] The NRDC maintains that there is a lack of regulatory testing for household products prior to bringing them to the consumer market place. Although the Federal Hazardous Substances Act requires cautionary labels for hazardous household products, manufacturers are not required to list all ingredients. The ingredients in household cleaners are considered proprietary information, or trade secrets, and as such the government does not require their disclosure at this time.
 
Not all air fresheners pose such health risks. Two of the 14 products tested by the NRDC were not found to include phthalates. 
 
As consumers, the only way we can be sure we are protecting our families’ health is to refer to the Material Safety Data Sheets for the air fresheners we purchase. The MSDS sheets reveal the active ingredients in each product. There are many convenient online resources for MSDS sheets. One that does not require user registration to access the data is the Food Services of America’s MSDS database: http://www.fsafood.com/msds. Once the ingredients can be identified, consumers can consult www.scorecard.org, an online resource for identifying environmental and health polluting substances, to learn what health risks may be associated with those chemicals.
 
From a green standpoint, however, all commercial air fresheners contain VOCs. Green Seal, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to safeguarding the environment, requires cleaning products to emit low VOCs in order to earn the Green Seal certification for environmentally preferable products.
 
Medical evidence shows that these chemicals have a cumulative effect in the body and are difficult to purge. In other words, even though the scent actually dies from the air, what has been ingested through the lungs or skin remains in the body. Exposure to fragrance chemicals adds to the ‘total body load’ of synthetic chemicals, which can greatly increase the chance of developing health problems. Continual exposure to these common, low-level chemicals can cause an initial reaction and then a spreading effect where one then reacts to many other kinds of chemicals[iv] also present in the body.
 
Consumers who are interested in providing the healthiest home for their families may eventually forsake air fresheners and other scented household products that previously signaled a clean home. A truly healthy home should smell like nothing at all.
 

[i] Ulman, Bonnie, “Maid Brigade: Qualitative Research Study – Current, Terminated and Prospective Customers”, March 2006.
[ii] Ferlow, Klaus, “Fragrance – A Growing Health and Environmental Hazard”, September 2007, www.energygride.com/health/2007/09kf-fragrance.html 
[iii] Cupolo, Diego, “Study: Household Air Fresheners May Be Harmful”, The Star-Ledger, October 25, 2007
 
[iv] Ferlow, “Fragrance”

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