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Potential hazards spur Walgreens to pull air fresheners

  • Article by: Tom Meersman
  • Star Tribune
  • September 26, 2007 - 8:55 PM

Managers at 111 Walgreens stores in Minnesota and thousands more nationwide pulled three types of air fresheners off their shelves over the weekend, after advocacy groups reported that some sprays, gels and plug-in fresheners contain potentially hazardous chemicals.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) tested 14 air fresheners from a retail store and reported that most of them contained "a veritable cocktail" of compounds, including some that have been linked to development problems in babies and breathing difficulties in adults.

"The decision was to get them off the shelves if there was any chance that they were dangerous," said Walgreens spokeswoman Carol Hively, who said the directive affects 5,850 stores nationwide. "We'll have an independent study done to see what that shows."

With very few scientific studies on the health effects of air fresheners, Minnesota health authorities don't have an opinion on whether people should use them, other than a general observation that strong scents can trigger asthma attacks.

Hively said that as a precaution, the drugstore chain removed Walgreens Air Freshener Spray, Walgreens Scented Bouquet Air Fresheners and Walgreens Solid Air Fresheners. She said the manufacturer of those products was already beginning to reformulate them to remove certain chemicals before advocacy groups publicly raised the issue.

'Definitely safe'

Representatives of the $1.7 billion air freshener industry criticized the environmentalists' report as limited and unscientific, and charged that it aims to create unwarranted fear among consumers.

"Air fresheners are definitely safe," said Bill Lafield, a spokesman for a trade group representing manufacturers. "The companies that make them choose the ingredients carefully, make sure they're safe to use and build in margins of safety," he said.

But Dr. Gina Solomon, a physician and senior scientist for the NRDC, said air fresheners need to be investigated because they are used in millions of homes, offices, college dormitories, daycare centers, schools and retail stores.

Deformities in animals

Some of the products, including those marketed as "all-natural" and "unscented," contain chemicals called phthalates, she said. Also used in toys, cosmetics and personal-care products, phthalates in some forms have been shown in animal studies to disrupt testosterone production and cause malformed sex organs.

"I don't think this is a cause for immediate alarm, but I think we have uncovered an issue that consumers should be aware of," Solomon said, referring to chemicals found in air fresheners. It should be of special concern to those with chemical sensitivities, or those who are pregnant or have babies at home, she said.

NRDC, a national nonprofit environmental advocacy group, was joined by the Sierra Club, the Alliance for Healthy Homes and the National Center for Healthy Housing. They asked the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission in a Sept. 19 letter to investigate air quality and health issues related to air fresheners.

More tests urged

Among other things, the environmentalists want federal requirements that Procter & Gamble, S.C. Johnson, Dial Corp., Sara Lee Corp. and other major manufacturers conduct more tests on air fresheners, report adverse reactions to the products, and list detailed product ingredients on labels.

A trade association said the NRDC recommendations are unnecessary because testing is already done, and the report made unscientific generalizations about the products sampled and the ingredients that they contain. The tests analyzed only one sample of each product, said Lafield, spokesman for the Consumer Specialty Products Association, and they measured amounts in the bottle, container or can, not the concentrations dispersed into the air of a room that individuals would inhale.

The industry is aware of proposals in California and elsewhere to require more ingredient information on labels, Lafield said, and manufacturers are working on a reasonable way to accomplish that without revealing trade secrets.

S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. of Racine, Wis., issued a statement expressing disappointment with the environmental study and said customers can have confidence in using its Glade and Oust products.

Debate is increasing

State regulators are following the growing debate about air fresheners, said Laura Oatman, research scientist for the Minnesota Department of Health. Oatman works with select schools on asthma prevention programs, and said she was surprised to notice strong fragrances from some classrooms she has visited.

While most of her recommendations involve ways to find and eliminate potential irritants such as dust mites, mold and live animals, Oatman said she has also suggested that schools consider policies to remove air fresheners. "We don't have a lot of specific data on health effects [of using them], but strong odors can be a trigger for asthma," she said.

A greater concern could be why air fresheners are being used in the first place, said Oatman, and the possibility that the fragrances may be masking dampness, mold or other serious indoor air issues. "Sometimes when an air freshener is used, it's an indication of an underlying problem and we prefer that a school tries to address that," she said.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

Tom Meersman • meersman@startribune.com

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