Why Air Fresheners Can Trigger Respiratory Problems

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They may smell sweet, but popular air fresheners can cause serious lung problems.

That’s the message from a new study presented over the weekend at the annual meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). Home fragrance products often contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that include such nasty chemicals as formalehyde, petroleum distillates, limonene, esters and alcohols. (Download a copy of the presentation here)

Exposures to such VOCs — even at levels below currently accepted safety recommendations — can increase the risk of asthma in kids. That’s because VOCs can trigger eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches and dizziness, as Dr. Stanley Fineman, ACAAI president-elect, pointed out:

This is a much bigger problem than people realize. About 20 percent of the population and 34 percent of people with asthma report health problems from air fresheners. We know air freshener fragrances can trigger allergy symptoms, aggravate existing allergies and worsen asthma.

MORE: 5 Ways Americans’ Allergies Are Getting Worse

And if you hope that “all-natural” fragrance products can give you a nice scent without the chemicals, Fineman has bad news for you — even products marketed as organic tend to have hazardous chemicals. That shouldn’t be surprising since fragrance products don’t eliminate bad smells; they just cover them up, and that usually requires something strong.

Fineman suggests that you’d be better off simply opening up your window and letting fresh air in — though that advice might not work well where I live.

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The study also gives some much-needed attention to the problem of indoor air pollution. While air freshener-related asthma is certainly a health hindrance in the developed world — at least among those who like to live in artificially sweet-smelling homes — indoor air pollution is a major health catastrophe for much of the developing world, one that leads to the premature deaths of nearly 2 million people a year according to the World Health Organization. The majority of those affected are very poor women and children who might spent hours cooking food over a wood-burning fire in a hut with little ventilation.

One solution would be to supply cleaner cookstoves that might burn biogas with far less smoke. That’s one health intervention that would save lives at an incredibly low cost— almost certainly less than the $8.3 billion in revenue the global air fragrance industry is expected to earn by 2015.

MORE Could Microwaves Be Associated With Children’s Asthma?

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME

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