Millions of consumers around the world are unwittingly putting their health at risk every time they spray, pump or plug in that favourite air freshener. Many of us have bought into the myth that our homes need to be constantly sprayed with chemicals to stay clean and sweet-smelling. But the truth is, synthetic air fresheners are entirely unnecessary. In fact, a growing mountain of evidence shows that they're among the most concentra-ted sources of poisons and pollution in the home.
Although product names like Island Breeze and Morning Mist sound romantic, lurking behind that 'fresh' fragrance is a cocktail of toxic chemicals, many of which are known to cause serious damage in both animals and humans. Far from freshening the air, they actually increase indoor air pollution.
According to one study, formal-dehyde (a carcinogen and sensitizer), benzene (a carcinogen and possible reproductive toxin), styrene (a neuro-toxin and suspected carcinogen), toluene (a skin irritant and liver/ kidney toxin) and terpenes (irritants and sensitizers) are only some of the chemicals that air-freshener users are exposing themselves and their families to on a daily basis.
The 2005 study, commissioned by the European Consumers' Organiza-tion (BEUC; Bureau Europ'een des Consommateurs), analyzed indoor air following the use of 74 different air fresheners sold in Europe. These included incense, natural products, scented candles, aerosols, liquid and electric diffusers, and gels. Most notably, the researchers found that emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), potent neuro-toxins that attack the central and peripheral nervous systems, were alarmingly high. Indeed, for most of the products tested, the total VOCs exceeded 200 mcg/m3, the proposed maximum limit for indoor air in a number of countries. What's more, the emissions contained substances such as benzene and formaldehyde that are classified as carcinogenic at "rather high concentrations".
Although the study had certain limitations (for example, it did not consider the ventilation rate in rooms), a 2006 review of the BEUC report by the European Commis-sion's Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER) concluded that: "Overall, the BEUC study may be taken as an indication that, under certain conditions, notable concentrations of VOCs may result in indoor air from air fresheners."
The SCHER review also noted that "emissions from the air fresheners contain many more compounds than those assessed by BEUC, and several of these may also have health effects. Furthermore, several of the primary emitted compounds may undergo reactions (e.g. with ozone, hydroxyl or nitrate radicals) to form new compounds with other effects."
So, the situation may be even more complicated, said the SCHER, by the combined effects of these substances in an already unhealthy cocktail of chemicals (for both reports, go to: http://ec.europa.eu/ health/ph_risk/committees/04_
Indeed, air-freshener ingredients can react with other substances to become even more hazardous. A study by US scientists reported that d-limonene, found in lemon- and pine-scented air fresheners, can react with indoor ozone to quickly form harmful particulates known to cause lung and heart disease (Environ Health Perspect, 2000; 108: 1139-45).
If you live in the US, another chemical-or rather, family of chemicals-that may be lurking in your air freshener is phthalates. These are known to cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects and reproductive problems.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a US environmental action group, recently analyzed a number of air fresheners on the market and discovered phthalates in 86 per cent (12 of 14) of the products tested. None of these items, however, listed phthalates on the labels. In fact, some air fresheners labelled as 'all-natural' and 'unscented' contained measurable amounts of these toxic chemicals.
Those in the UK may be somewhat better off, as the only phthalate in general use in cleaning products is DEP (diethyl phthalate), which has been safety-assessed and approved by the EU's Scientific Committee for Cosmetic Products and Non-Food Products Intended for Consumers.
However, according to the NRDC study, clinical studies have repeatedly associated exposure to DEP in a mix of other phthalates with adverse reproductive outcomes, including changes in hormone levels, poor semen quality and altered genital development. "Until we have more evidence," the researchers said, "it would be prudent to avoid exposure to this chemical" ( www.nrdc.org/health/home/airfresheners/contents.asp ).
Ten of the best antioxidants to prevent free-radical damage
We've all heard of anti-oxidants, which protect cells against the effects of free radicals. But what exactly is a free radical? Simply put, it is any atom or molecule inthe body that contains an unpaired ('free') electron, making it unstable and highly reactive with other atoms and molecules as it tries to achieve stability. It does this by attacking the nearest stable molecule and 'stealing' one of its electrons. That means that the molecule that has lost its electron itself becomes a free radical and will then seek a stable molecule from which to steal an electron.
Some free radicals arise normally from metabolism, but environmental factors such as pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke and pesticides can also generate free radicals. Usually, the body is able to cope but, if anti-oxidants are not available or free-radical production becomes excessive, then cell damage can occur.
Happily, effective nutrition leads to a state supportive of good health. This is the objective of the 'five-a-day'
food campaign, for example. But the botanical world also offers scientific-ally proven free-radical scavengers, and here are 10 of the best.
- Echinacea purpurea (cone flower)
Low concentrations (0.012 mg/ mL) of unpurified, freshly pressed E. purpurea juice boosts lympho-cytes, part of the immune defence system, by about 200 per cent. Natural-killer (NK) cells, important in the body's response against tumors and virus-infected cells, increase by 90 per cent. In addition, the sap of the plant has been shown to reduce free-radical generation by 20 per cent (Bull Pol Acad Sci Biol Sci, 1999; 47: 35-41).
- Allium sativum (garlic)
Garlic (as a well-blended paste) has demonstrated significant radical-scavenging activity, and was partic-ularly effective in 'mopping up' the free radicals caused by tobacco smoke (Arzneim Forsch Drug Res, 1994; 44: 608-11).
- Zingiber officinale (ginger)
Standardized extracts of ginger have revealed powerful antioxidant activity (Anticancer Res, 1994; 14: 501-6; Food Chem Toxicol, 1994; 32: 31-6), as have glucosides (sugar-derived substances) isolated from fresh ginger root. These are direct scav-engers of free radicals in the body (J Agric Food Chem, 2000; 48: 373-7; J Food Sci, 1993; 58: 1407-10).
- Ginkgo biloba (maidenhair tree)
Ginkgo extract was found to protect against free radicals in the retina in both animal and clinical trials (Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci, 1990; 31: 1471-8).
- Vitis coignetiae, V. vinifera(grapeseed)
Researchers have found that the antioxidant activity of procyanidins -a class of flavonoids found in grapeseed extract-is around 50 times greater than that of either vitamin C or E (Fitoterapia, 1995; 66: 291-317). This antioxidant is present in most red wines.
- Glycyrrhiza glabra, G. uralensis (liquorice root)
Liquorice compounds known as phenolics have shown excellent radical-scavenging activity against the 1,1-diphenyl-2-picrylhydrazyl (DPPH) radical. The DPPH free radicals are commonly used as an experimental model of fat-derived free radicals (Chem Pharm Bull, 1997; 45: 1485-92).
Glabridin, and hispaglabridins A and B, which are isoflavans belonging to a class of isoflavo-noids, are the main antioxidant compounds found in liquorice root. Studies showed that an acetone extract of liquorice root (10 mg/L) inhibited oxidation of LDL (low-density lipoprotein, the 'bad' cholesterol) in healthy volunteers by 32 to 41 per cent. Isoflavans isolated from the extract inhibited LDL oxidation by 65-85 per cent, with glabridin showing the most potent activity (75-85 per cent) (J Pharm Pharmacol, 2000; 52: 219-23; Free Radic Biol Med, 1997; 23: 302-13).
- Carduus marianus, Silybum marianum (milk thistle)
The liver-protecting properties of milk thistle are widely attributed to the antioxidant, free-radical scavenging activity of the plant's silybinin component. This lignan (a type of chemical found in plants) can react with oxygen and free radicals, rendering them more stable and less reactive with compounds in the liver (Free Radic Res Comm, 1987; 4: 125-9).
- Monascus purpuraeus, M. anka (red yeast rice)
Researchers tested red yeast rice (in powder form) for antioxidant activity using the lipid-soluble radical DPPH experimental model (Japan J Pharmacol, 1998; 78: 79-82). They found that its free-radical scavenging activity improved as the dosages were increased.
- Ganoderma lucidum (sachitake mushroom)
A water-based extract of sachitake (IC50 0.2 mg/mL) showed sig-nificant free-radical scavenging activity at a low concentration (0.1 mg/mL), inhibiting super-oxide radicals by 42 per cent. This increased to 96-100 per cent with higher concentrations (Yang QY et al. Experiments on the Ganoderma lucidum Extract for its Anti-Ageing and Invigorating Effects. Presented at the Fourth International Symposium on Ganoderma lucidum, 10 June 1992, Seoul, South Korea. Program and Abstracts, pages 40-5).
- Schisandra chinensis (wu wei zi, magnolia vine)
In 1995, researchers reported that schisantherin A, a lignan and one of the active ingredients in this plant, reduces free-radical activity by inhibiting neutrophil (white blood cell) activity (Acta Pharmacol Sin, 1995; 16: 234-8).
Harald Gaier, a registered naturopath, osteopath, homeopath and herbalist, practises at The Allergy and Nutrition Clinic, 22 Harley Street, London