Air fresheners - bad for our health?

13th of September 2017
Air fresheners - bad for our health?
Air fresheners - bad for our health?

Air freshening products are everywhere – in our offices, hotels, washrooms, cars and homes. But are they always a force for good? Or should we attempt to restrict their use? ECJ talks to manufacturers about air fresheners and their potential effects on our health.

It is now virtually impossible to avoid “pleasant smells” in offices, shops, restaurants, spas and other public facilities. Air fragrancing products are turning up everywhere -  even in the most unlikely of places. Earlier this year a pilot project began in Washington DC to “freshen” parts of the city’s underground railway network with the aroma of cucumber and melon.

However the scheme was abruptly shelved in June as commuters voiced concerns about the risk of scented products triggering allergies and migraines.

Concerns about these risks have also been highlighted in a new book out this summer. The Case Against Fragrance examines the increasing use of air fresheners and scented detergents in public places and private homes, linking them with symptoms such as headaches, asthma and allergies.

Author Kate Grenville points out that the effects of these products on our shared air are largely unregulated and in fact she blames her own debilitating headaches on fragranced products.

Meanwhile in April researchers in Canada discovered a link between air fresheners at home and respiratory issues in children. As a result Dr Anne Ellis - lead researcher of the study - encouraged the public to think twice before using air freshener products in their homes.

And a third of Americans claim to have experienced health problems including asthma attacks and migraines when exposed to fragranced products such as air fresheners, cleaning supplies, laundry products, scented candles, colognes and personal care products. This was revealed in a study carried out in 2016 and published in international journal Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health.

However Vectair’s managing director Paul Wonnacott says there is a need to differentiate between commercial products for away-from-home environments and retail products such as candles and plug-in air fresheners. “Many of these negative reports relate to products that are used for long periods of time in the home,” he said.

“People who visit commercial washrooms where aerosol air fresheners are used tend to do so on an ad hoc basis which means they won’t be exposed for long periods. Therefore any risk of negative effects is minimal.”

Positive effects

He adds air fresheners have many benefits both for consumers and business owners. “The appropriate background scent in a store can subtly trigger consumers to spend more time in there or persuade them to stop in,” he said. “Customers linger longer and are generally happier when exposed to certain scents.

“Fragrances also enable brands to connect with their customers. Facilities such as hotels, spas, airports, wedding venues, restaurants and bars are increasingly using ‘scent marketing’ to engage with their clients and attract new audiences.”

He concedes some people are sensitive to the ingredients of certain fragrancing products. “The good news is that manufacturers are increasingly aware of people’s sensitivities,” said Wonnacott. “As a result they are becoming better at creating air fresheners and fragrance products that are more suitable for environments where people may be exposed for longer periods of time.

“For example, the fragrance particles in aerosol air fresheners are approximately 80 microns in size whereas the particle sizes in the latest technology products contain less than 10 microns – and in some cases, less than one micron.  Smaller particle sizes make the fragrance lighter, longer-lasting and safer for continuous exposure which can only be good news for consumers.”

Vectair’s V-Air Solid and Vibe non-aerosol air fresheners are said to produce smaller fragrance particles for safer continuous exposure. The fragrance particles in V-Air Solid products are less than a micron in size and are claimed to remain airborne for many hours.

Vibe air fresheners use vibrating mesh technology to produce tiny fragrance particles that are said to achieve a consistent delivery in medium-sized areas.

Air freshener companies are required to follow strict protocols as far as ingredients are concerned and any dangerous substances are outlawed, says Wonnacott. “Today’s customers are demanding more natural and eco-friendly ingredients and we are always looking at new ways of improving our fragrance formulations,” he said.

“The use of potentially harmful chemicals in fragrances is increasingly being regulated around the world and we monitor this situation closely. All our fragrance developers are IFRA members and ISO accredited. The importance of this is paramount – which is why it pays to choose a responsible manufacturer who puts safety first.”

Managing director of Cromwell Polythene James Lee shares Wonnacott’s view that most negative reports relate to fragranced sprays, candles and similar consumer products.

“These reports raise legitimate concerns about those fragrances that are freely released into closed atmospheres such as washrooms,” he said. “There is a case for taking a sensible approach to fragrancing in public spaces and thinking carefully about how much is used and how it is released into the environment.”

Cromwell’s Sansafe bin liners have scent additives introduced into them at the point of manufacture and these have been independently verified as safe, according to Lee. “However we make extra efforts to ensure that our additives simply mask the malodour at source rather than leaching out into the wider environment,” he said. “It is crucial that any company offering fragranced products should be accredited via all appropriate independent, scientific quality and safety tests.”

He says that besides masking unpleasant odours, the company’s bin liners also contain antimicrobial agents. “These are based on silver ions and prevent any bacteria from growing, producing energy or replicating,” said Lee.

Natural products

Managing director of P-Wave Dave Carson believes any increase in the use of chemicals in the air is bound to have an impact on the public. “We would never underestimate the potential impact of exposure to fragrancing products - particularly if these contain high levels of chemicals or where the dose is too high for the area concerned,” he said.

Aerosol delivery systems involve an initial burst of air freshener being released in high concentrations, says Carson. “This could have an impact on anyone nearby,” he said. “However our fragrances are made from natural products and are gradually released over a 30-day period. This means there is no over-exposure - just a safe, pleasant-smelling environment.” P-Wave’s latest air freshening product is the Hex 3D urinal screen which is said to deliver a long-lasting fragrance.

According to Carson air fragrancing products are definitely a force for good if the right products are used in the right way. “The alternative is that bad odours become overpowering and lead to people avoiding the affected area,” he said. “In the case of the washroom, this can lead to people not staying there long enough to wash their hands with a resulting impact on general hygiene.

“Our sense of smell is also closely linked to our memories and emotions. So if we want staff, visitors and customers to have a positive impression of our premises and ultimately our brand we need to ensure unpleasant odours are kept to a minimum.”

He believes tackling the problem at source is vital. “Whether the odour is coming from the kitchen, the bin areas or the washrooms, effective air freshening is required to replace problem smells with something rather more pleasant,” he said.

However he adds it is important not to overdo the fragrancing of any environment. “Too much of a good thing can be almost as unpleasant as the smell that the air freshener is trying to mask,” he said. “That’s why we offer products that are motion or light-activated so the fragrance only enters the air when it is needed and doesn’t lead to a build-up in enclosed spaces.”

Marketing and communications director of Hyprom Dorothee Dinner agrees some air freshening products can cause problems for the consumer. “However it depends on the delivery system,” she said. “Aerosol products with high levels of VOCs and propellant gas can cause health issues, and so can essential oils if you don’t know how to use them.

“Some producers will not hesitate to cross the line and provide cheap fragrancing products regardless of the consequences for the planet or for health.”

But she rejects the idea there is a case for limiting the level of fragrancing in public places. “In fact quite the opposite,” she said. “No one is comfortable with bad smells whether it is in the washroom, the meeting room, shops, parking, at the gym or even in the car. A pleasant smell also implies cleanliness and can be linked to increased sales in some businesses. And it provides a strong signature for a brand.”

Hyprom’s fragrancing products are said to have no negative effects either on public health or the environment. Launched after extensive testing, BLO2 for the washroom and BLO2 Life for living areas use a patented technology to provide a light mist without using propellants. One unit is said to cover an area of 120 cubicle metres and the system is claimed to be up to three times more efficient than aerosols.

Threat to health?

So in the light of recent negative reports, could air freshening products represent a threat to public health? “There will always be people who are intolerant to dairy products, gluten, eggs, tomatoes or even fragrances,” said Dinner.

“But are these products actually dangerous, or is there simply an increase in the number of people with intolerances? Or could it simply be the way in which people consume these products that is
the problem?

“People expect pleasant fragrances. The key is to strike the right balance and use a professional company that can guide the customers on the type of fragrance to use, the required strength and the frequency of delivery.”


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