A group of heavyweight environmental organizations is asking the federal government to crack down on air fresheners, products that scientific studies show can aggravate asthma and pose other health risks.
In response to the groups' petition filed Wednesday with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Walgreen Co. quickly pulled three of its air fresheners off the shelves of its 5,850 stores nationwide.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Alliance for Healthy Homes and the National Center for Healthy Housing filed the petition asking the agencies to more strictly regulate the industry, which is expected to have $1.72 billion in sales this year.
Scented sprays, gels and plug-in fresheners offer no public health benefits yet contain harmful chemicals linked to breathing difficulties, developmental problems in babies and cancer in laboratory animals, according to the petition sent to the two federal agencies.
The environmental groups commissioned independent lab tests of some popular brands and also cited health studies that call into question the safety of some chemicals found in the air fresheners.
In spite of Walgreens' move, representatives of some companies that make air fresheners said their products pose no health risk and help contribute to a better quality of life in many households.
Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission in Bethesda, Md., said his agency had received the petition. "We take it seriously at this time," he said.
The environmental groups argue that in houses, offices and restrooms, Americans suffer significant exposure "to a veritable cocktail of dangerous and potentially dangerous volatile organic compounds. In cases of mold and damp indoor environments, air fresheners may hide an indicator of potentially serious health threats to the respiratory system."
Consumers assume that products on the market have been evaluated and are safe, the petition said. "Unfortunately, with regard to air fresheners, these consumers are mistaken."
The groups want the federal government to require manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble Co., S.C. Johnson, Dial Corp., Sara Lee Corp. and Reckitt Benckiser Inc. to conduct health and safety tests, including the respiratory effect of breathing the fresheners. Those test results should be handed over to regulators, who should also be alerted if there are reports of adverse reactions to the air fresheners, the groups said.
The environmental groups also want truth-in-advertising labeling that would require listing all ingredients in air fresheners. And the government should ban ingredients that would cause allergies or appear on California's Proposition 65 list of chemicals linked to cancer and reproductive harm, according to the petition.
Bill Lafield, a spokesman for the industry group that represents makers of products like household cleaners, disinfectants and air fresheners, said the products are not dangerous. The Consumer Specialty Products Association represents 260 businesses.
"We don't think that the products, when they're used properly, cause a risk to consumers," Lafield said.
Air fresheners "do contribute to the quality of life. Fragrances have been used for centuries, dating back to when the Chinese and the Egyptians used incense and fragrant oils. They obviously have a value, or consumers wouldn't buy them," he said.
Lafield's trade group said in a statement Wednesday that the products on the market undergo extensive testing to meet or exceed the standards and regulations set by government agencies.
The federal consumer agency's general counsel will determine whether the petition should be referred to the staff for further research, and the staff would recommend to the commission whether the petition should be accepted or denied, Wolfson said. He couldn't project a timeline.
Dale Kemery, an EPA spokesman, said the agency hadn't yet received the petition. The EPA is expected to publish the parts of the petition that relate to its agency, and under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, the EPA has 90 days in which to accept or reject the petition.
If the agencies reject the groups' petition, the groups could sue. Last year the Sierra Club sued the EPA after the rejection of a petition and ultimately won an agreement from the EPA to require importers of most children's products to tell the agency if there is lead in the products. That petition also resulted last December in the Consumer Product Safety Commission agreeing to develop a rule that would ban dangerous lead in children's metal jewelry.
Air fresheners can waft chemicals into rooms where they are inhaled by humans and pets. The exposure can be significant, particularly for asthmatics, the petition said. A 2004 study published in the journal Occupational Environmental Medicine found that about 29 percent of people with asthma said air fresheners caused breathing difficulties.
The air fresheners can contain a number of harmful chemicals, including benzene and formaldehyde, which are produced as byproducts in the manufacturing process, according to the petition. Also found in air fresheners are phthalates, a group of chemicals that are restricted under San Francisco law in toys and child care products for children 3 and under. The state Legislature passed a measure two weeks ago banning six forms of phthalates from children's toys. The bill awaits signature or veto by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Phthalates soften polyvinyl chloride products such as toys, raincoats, shower curtains and medical tubing, and are found in upholstery, detergents and cosmetics as well as air fresheners.
Lab animal studies show that some phthalates interfere with hormonal systems, disrupt testosterone production and cause malformation of sex organs. Some studies of humans have shown a link between exposure and adverse changes in the genitals of baby boys.
The Natural Resource Defense Council sent 14 air fresheners to be tested for phthalates in an independent lab. The tests found that 12 products, including those marked "all natural," contained phthalates.
Gina Solomon, a physician and researcher at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said her group focused its studies on phthalates but is concerned about the lack of information and testing of all of the chemicals in air fresheners.
The industry's trade group issued a statement Wednesday, criticizing the testing as "extremely limited."
However, a Walgreens spokeswoman said the tests prompted the company to act. The drugstore company will conduct its own tests on the products, she said.
"We have ordered our stores to remove those air fresheners mentioned in the report from the shelves and quarantine them," spokeswoman Carol Hiively said. "We will have them tested independently. One of our manufacturers has informed us that before this study it was already in the process of reformulating for a non-phthalate air freshener."
© 2007 San Francisco Chroncle