“Are air fresheners bad for the environment?” – Do you really need to ask?

Yes. Of course. What did you think?

Are air fresheners bad for the environment?: “I like having air fresheners around the house, but the other day it occurred to me that I don’t know what exactly they’re puffing into my living room. Am I despoiling the planet by freshening my air?” (via Slate Magazine.)

Slate’s environmental guru, The Green Lantern (in this instance, Brian Palmer), does a bit of background on old-school air fresheners – those aerosol cans with their ozone-depleting CFCS – before tackling the current crop of air fresheners – which work in a variety of ways, the plug-in ones mostly by heating substances to release an in theory pleasing odor into the room…

manufacturers don’t have to reveal exactly what’s in their fragrance recipes, and some of them don’t even know the ingredients themselves. Many purchase their scents from a half-dozen or so major fragrance houses worldwide. The fragrance houses often make their customers promise not to chemically analyze their super-secret blends, or at least not to disclose the recipe.

Palmer goes on to discuss some of the chemicals found in these air freshers and some of the health and other issues associated with those chemicals – phthalates (hormone-disrupting), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and acetaldehyde.

But are health impacts really what people have in mind – the first or main thing they have in mind, anyway – when they talk about environmental impact? The original question posed to “The Green Lantern” – about “despoiling the planet” – would seem to have more to do with issues like air and water pollution, resource depletion, carbon footprint and so on than personal health impacts.

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The truth is, though, that we don’t need to think too hard to answer that question. Just look at them sitting on the shelf at Walgreen’s and Safeway:  little plastic containers of chemicals, in cardboard boxes, probably made in China or Indonesia or someplace like that, shipped halfway around the world… Do we really need to ask if they are bad for our environment?

And even when it comes to the individual health aspect, it doesn’t take a medical degree to figure out that devices that heat chemicals to release fumes into your breathing air are probably not such a great idea…

I don’t like stink any more than anyone else. (Though clearly I am less fussed about it… I prefer the smell of my sweaty underarms to using chemicals to stop the sweat or mask the smell.) I particularly dislike the smell of the cat litter. That and fly-blown rotten potatoes – though that seldom comes up in my current situation.

But artificial air fresheners (as opposed to, say, DIY potpourri) are, generally speaking, one of the many, many products that we really could live without, and should seriously consider giving up. All of these products – even if they are locally made and not stuffed full of harmful chemicals – are going to have an impact on the planet. Energy and water are going to be used in their manufacture, if nothing else – and we now need to face the fact that we are over-extended, that we have overshot the carrying capacity of the planet, that we are using up resources too fast – and for what? For plug-in air fresheners?

Air fresheners and a huge percentage of the vast array of products that line the shelves of our supermarkets, big box stores and Wal-Marts are part of a whole culture of consumerism that is consuming the planet. Make no mistake: I blame corporate capitalism more than the individual, and I think the answer to the crisis we face is going to have to be more profound than changes in our shopping list. But shopping lists are one of the places that change is going to have to take place.

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Completely trivial and off-topic: Did Slate Magazine have to get permission from DC Comics to use the name “The Green Lantern”?  Whatever the answer, the use of that name in this context inevitably recalls the famous Dennis O’Neil-Neal Adams-created Green Lantern/Green Arrow team-up from the 1970s when a variety of contemporary political and social issues – including ecology – were taken on. The graphic novel release of those classic comics is out of print, but keep an eye out for its reprinting.

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