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Ask The Green Mama: Air Fresheners stink: how air fresheners contribute to allergies, asthma, and even hurt brains

Dear Green Mama: My family and I live in North Florida. My son has asthma and allergies and he is attending public school in the fourth grade. His teacher refuses to remove her plug in air fresheners. I sent a note to this teacher and a note from his doctor explaining my son’s asthma and offered to buy something less offending to his health. She responded saying she has been a teacher for 28 years and never had a problem, she will not teach in a musty room and did not feel complete without perfume.

P.U. in FL

Dear P.U. in FL: What a tough, but not unique situation. Many children are experiencing asthma and allergy flare-ups due to indoor air pollution in schools. I can read in your email that this is now impacting you and your son directly. It sounds like you are working to have open communication with your school administration and teacher, but without much change.

At the Green Mama, our best successes have been through education: often times people are unaware of the negative health impacts of synthetic fragrances and the risks to children from indoor air pollution. It sounds like the air fresheners might not be the only issue and that mold or other issues may be an underlying cause of the musty smell.

I like the idea of giving her a healthier option, but that works like the toxic air fresheners she is used to using. (Baking soda in dishes around our basement works well for us.) When shopping “natural” air fresheners make sure to buy ones that list all of their ingredients and then check to see just how safe these ingredients really are. (Try and get access to the Material Safety Data Sheets).  Unfortunately the laws in the U.S. (and the laws in Canada for some products, e.g. medicinal products) do NOT require manufacturers to list the ingredients they use.
A few resources that might help you move forward in a positive direction with educating your school system:

The Green Mama’s blog: “What YOU can do to green your child’s classroom

Dr. Marny Turvill, of Healthy Green Goods near Chicago is a pediatrician with chemical sensitivities and has 2 children in the public school system.

Here is what Web-MD says: Health Concerns With Air Fresheners. “Air fresheners may cause breathing difficulties and headaches for some people. In a study, nearly one-third of people with asthma said they had breathing problems when exposed to air fresheners. Tests by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that some air fresheners contain phthalates, a chemical linked to child developmental and hormonal issues. Instead, use natural herbs like rosemary, basil, or mint and good ventilation to freshen air.”

The EPA has info on VOCs and the CDC has related information, although sadly missing specific references to synthetic fragrances. Prevent Cancer speaks to 2 specific ingredients in some air fresheners.  As always, the EWG comes to the rescue with the Kids Safe Chemicals Act –  and a cool video on this very issue. And a good, downloadable, and complete educational tool from the campaign of multiple chemical sensitivities and some recent science on toxic effects of air fresheners.

Hope this helps. Please let us know how things progress.


Dear Green Mama: I wanted to thank you again for the information you provided. Education does work!  The Principal was sincere and did her homework, saying to me “This has really opened her eyes!” assuring me, next year will be different! Thank you for responding.

Contributed by Green Mama helper Cecelia Ungari.