Regulate the Scented Product Industry

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Are you familiar with the expression “canary in a coal mine”? It basically means something that foretells of dangerous conditions. This idiom has roots in real life – miners did actually bring caged canaries down into the mine tunnels with them. Because birds have much more efficient respiratory systems than humans do, a build-up of poisonous gases would kill the canaries before the miners were in danger, allowing them to safely evacuate.

Let me tell you about the canary in my coal mine. Three years ago I found an injured baby parrot. No rescue or sanctuary would take him in because he was only about 4 weeks old, so I brought him home, expecting him to die. Against all odds, he survived. When I brought him home, I didn’t know anything about parrots and I didn’t really even like them, but one thing was heavily impressed upon me in my crash course in parrothood: anything scented was off limits. No scented candles, no air fresheners, no heavy cleaning products, no perfume. Nothing. The reason for this is the same reason that canaries died in coal mines – the birds are able to diffuse gases much more efficiently into their bloodstream. Parrots can die within minutes of being exposed to anything scented.

Naturally, I was curious about this. Why were people using things in their homes that killed birds? This was the first I had heard about scented products being potentially dangerous. So I did a little research.

According to “The Global Air Fresheners Market”, the air freshener industry is projected to reach $10.4 billion by 2020. Over 75% of American households use some sort of scented products. But it turns out that there isn’t really an agency that claims jurisdiction over scented products. Bethania Palma of Snopes.com states that upon calling multiple government agencies, no one would own up to it. The FDA, EPA, National Cancer Institute, and Consumer Product Safety Committee all claimed that they did not have jurisdiction, or referred her to one of the other agencies. As of her findings in August 2016, the only body imposing candle regulations is the National Candle Association, which of course states that candles are safe.

Scented candles and air fresheners, as well as many other household products, contain phthalates – chemicals that have several known harmful effects on human health. Rob Harrington of The National Candle Association himself admits that phthalates are dangerous and that candles emit them. Phthalates have been linked to cancer, lowered testosterone levels, birth defects, and reproductive abnormalities. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at the The National Resources Defense Council, conducted a study on 14 different brands of household air fresheners and found that 12 contained hormone-disrupting phthalates, including some that were labeled “all-natural” and “fragrance free.” The NRDC then petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the scented products industry, as “the federal government does not currently test air fresheners for safety or require manufacturers to meet any specific safety standards.” The EPA denied all aspects of the petition.

Another health concern is in the form of “VOC’s” or “volatile organic compounds.” These have minimal regulations in California, but candles and all other scented products have been able to escape these regulations. A study conducted by Anne Steinemann, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Washington, analyzed VOCs given off by 25 scented products, including air fresheners, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, soaps, lotions, deodorants, and shampoos. Over 133 different potentially harmful VOC’s were detected – most commonly limonene, which reacts with ozone in ambient air to form formaldehyde, a chemical classified by as a known carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

There have actually been cases of air freshener overdoses that required hospitalization, according to the Connecticut Department of Public Health’s “Air Freshener Fact Sheet.” Air fresheners do not “freshen” the air, they actually decrease the air’s quality, which can cause complications for especially sensitive people. A.J. Mehta of The National Center of Biotechnology Information conducted a study that found long-term use of household sprays and scented products was associated with cardiac dysfunction. Furthermore, a study Ruhullah Massoudi of South Carolina State University analyzed the contents of gases emitted by unscented paraffin candles. Paraffin candles are petroleum based by-products of oil refineries. The unscented paraffin alone released alkans, alkenes, and toluene gases into the air, all of which are all known to cause harmful effects in humans. Massoudi states that inhalation of these dangerous pollutants could contribute to the development of cancer, allergies, and asthma in those who use them frequently.

So as you can see, there is clearly a problem here. A government agency needs to step in and regulate scented products. The Environmental Protection Agency should require air freshener and candle manufacturers to test and submit data on their products like they do for many other industries. The testing should determine the amount of phthalates, limonene and other toxic gases found in air after scented product usage and the health effects of short and long-term exposure to these toxins. After this safety testing is conducted, regulations on the industry should be imposed by the EPA. This is of course a long-term plan.

But there are things you can do today to protect yourself. Buy alternative candles made of soy or beeswax, with cotton wicks, which are safe even for birds. Instead of using air fresheners, try simmering a pot of water mixed with fragrant spices or fruits, like cinnamon and oranges, or try heating a cap full of vanilla essence in the oven to create a natural fragrance. To get rid of bad odors, leave a bowl of white vinegar, baking soda, or lemons out. I clean my apartment almost entirely with these three products because I cannot use anything else around my bird. It is less convenient, but better for the both of us.

Sign this petition today and demand that the EPA take steps to regulate the scented product industry. And always remember – the best smell is no smell at all.



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