Dangerous chemicals showing up in some air fresheners

Air fresheners marketed as a way to enhance the smell of your home may actually contain dangerous chemicals that could do harm, a CBC News investigation has found.

Air fresheners marketed as a way to enhance the smell of your home may actually contain dangerous chemicals that could do harm, a CBC News investigation has found.

To see how widely the chemicals are used in Canada, the CBC took a sampling of the multitude of air fresheners available and tested them for two types of phthalates, DEP and DBP. Nearly a third contained one or both kinds of chemical. 

DEP and DBP have been linked to fertility and developmental problems in rats, and are enough of a concern that 12 European countries have banned them from children's toys.

Last month, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly approved a bill that will cut allowable levels of six types of phthalates, and earlier this year, Health Canada instituted a voluntary ban on some phthalates in children's products.

The air freshener market in Canada is worth $200 million a year, with three in five Canadians saying they use sprays, gels or stand-alone products in their home. Phthalates are used to soften plastic and in the case of air fresheners and perfumes, to make the scent last longer.

Grace Picur, a Winnipeg mother of three, says she uses multiple air fresheners to give the air in her home a little lift.

"There's one up there, the Airwick. We have the gel one in the kitchen, and a gel one in the bathroom, and I believe another gel one in the bathroom upstairs. And then air fresheners like the spray," said Picur, whose home is kept spotless.

"I enjoy the clean smell. I enjoy things being neat and tidy around me as well as the floral type of smells around the house," she added.

That type of use rankles the group Environmental Defence, which advocates that there is no safe level of a phthalate.

"It's not essential. We don' t need it, and yet we're being exposed to many of these types of products and the chemicals that are contained in them," said Aaron Freeman, the group's director of policy and campaigns.

Freeman argued that because the products are purely for cosmetic purposes, the companies that make them should find ways to remove any toxins.

"That's an area where we should be getting those toxic chemicals out of those products. We think that's not a place where we should be putting toxic chemicals that harm our health," said Freeman.

In September 2007, U.S. drugstore chain Walgreens removed several air fresheners from store shelves after testing by the Natural Resources Defense Council found they contained phthalates. The company that made the fresheners also agreed it would no longer use phthalates in the manufacturing process.

In Canada, makers of air fresheners refused to be interviewed by the CBC but they defended their products in e-mails, saying that Health Canada has approved the additives. They also said that if phthalates are intentionally added, they would be listed on members' websites.

The group says it plans to have its members put the ingredients on the package by 2010. Currently, air fresheners do not list ingredients on labels.

Picur wasn't happy to learn her efforts to improve her household may actually be having the opposite effect.

"That scares me. I mean I don't know if there's going to be any other kind of defects it might cause, and since I have a young son, if that's going to affect him as he grows up … knowing this, I may not be using air fresheners now."