Indoor Air Pollution: How Dirty is the Air in Your Home?

indoor air pollution


Indoor air pollution – it’s a topic we’re increasingly concerned about. It all started after eating in a local restaurant where the food is good but the dining experience not so good.


Upon visiting a local restaurant recently, we were greeted by a sickeningly fruity odor that filled our lungs as soon as we walked in the door. The odor was similar to what you smell when you walk into a dentist’s office. Ever notice that? Maybe it’s to take your mind off the root canal you’re about to get.


We asked what the aroma was and they quickly pointed out it’s the air freshener they use to ensure the restaurant smells good. Well, the synthetic smell of strawberries doesn’t mix well with food. 


In the restaurant’s defense, it’s not entirely their fault. They’re located inside an enclosed building and the leasing company placed an air freshener dispenser inside the building to mask odors.


You’ve probably used air fresheners in your own home and haven’t thought much about it. But, it’s a good idea to rethink the products you’re using. Most of us spend lots of time at home and want your living environment to be as healthy as possible. Right? 

The Dirty Little Secret about Air Fresheners


Why are we so down on air fresheners even ones that don’t smell like synthetic strawberries and dental offices? Most air fresheners, even ones labeled as natural, contain chemicals called phthalates.


Phthalates are linked with a variety of health problems in animal studies – they disrupt hormones and cause reproductive and fertility problems. Plus, they aggravate allergy and asthma symptoms.


Air fresheners also contain “volatile organic compounds” – compounds linked with cancer and nervous system problems. Volatile means they easily enter the air – and your lungs when you breathe in.


How common are phthalates in air fresheners? When the Natural Resources Defense Council tested 14 different air fresheners and 12 of them contained phthalates. That’s a pretty high percentage!


After investigating, we discovered a number of retail stores use automatic air fresheners that dispense these chemicals into the air.


As you’re shopping or eating, you’re breathing in these compounds without being aware of it.  Interestingly, some of these air fresheners contain chemicals that deaden your ability to smell them after a while, so you don’t notice the scent yet you’re still inhaling them.


If you use air fresheners at home, you notice the smell initially, but the receptors in your nose quickly adapt and you no longer notice them – but you’re still breathing them deeply into your lungs.
Air freshener? Hold your nose!

Indoor Air Pollution – How’s the Air in Your Home?


If you use standard air fresheners and other products that help make your home smell better, you’re probably exposed to phthalates too. 


According to the EPA, indoor air pollution is an even greater problem than outdoor pollution. Here’s a quote from the EPA:


“Studies of human exposure to air pollutants by EPA indicate that indoor levels of pollutants may be 2 to 5 times – and occasionally more than 100 times – higher than outdoor pollutant levels.”


It’s not just air fresheners that are the problem. Other sources of indoor air pollution include:


  • Pressed wood products
  • Carpeting
  • Household cleaning products
  • Personal care products
  • Heating and cooling systems
  • Hobby products like paints and glues
  • Humidifiers
  • Radon
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Fumes from wood stoves and other healting devices
  • Building materials


We’ll focus mostly on air fresheners and cleaning products in this post since most people don’t think of them as being a cause of indoor air pollution or harmful to their health. It’s not so easy to avoid phthalates in products since there are no labeling requirements.


Scented Products of All Types Have the Potential to Be Harmful


An eye-opening study published in Environmental Health Perspectives showed just how common the “smell” problem is. They tested 25 different air fresheners and household/personal care products including household cleaners, laundry detergents, dryer sheets, fabric softeners, lotions, deodorants and more.


They found most of these products released between one and eight toxic or cancer-causing chemicals. In addition, as this study points out, there are cases of children having seizures after handling scented dryer sheets and other health-related complaints.


Indoor Air Quality Monitoring 


You can’t always control what you’re exposed to when you eat at a restaurant or shop in a store. You have more control over what you allow in your home. That’s where you spend most of your time and where you sleep.


One way to improve the quality of the air in your home is to simply stop using products that are scented and choose cleaning products that are certified organic. 


We made the switch to unscented, organic cleaning products a few years ago but the reality is you don’t need fancy cleaning products to keep your house clean. You can use inexpensive white vinegar and baking soda to make simple cleaning products that won’t harm your health – or your bank account.


For soap, we use Dr. Bronner’s Castile Liquid Soaps. They’re fair trade and certified organic and any scent they have comes from essential oils. You can use them as a body wash, laundry, dishwashing and for simple clean-up jobs.


What about air fresheners? Don’t bother with commercial ones. Even the so-called natural ones often contain unhealthy chemicals. Instead, fill a glass spray bottle (not plastic) with distilled water. Add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to make an inexpensive air freshener.


Don’t be fooled by “natural” products either. The term natural isn’t regulated by the FDA and this gives manufacturers carte blanche to use this term liberally and loosely. It doesn’t carry the same connotations that certified organic does. 


Another way to improve the air quality in your home is to add more green plants. Bring nature into your home! Some plants, when they take up carbon dioxide, also absorb airborne chemicals along with them. 


What’s your best bet if you’re looking for a plant that fights indoor air pollution? Here’s hoping you like garden mums. According to research by NASA scientists, this inexpensive plant absorbs a variety of harmful chemicals from the air, including benzene and formaldehyde. 


Other good indoor pollution fighting plants are the Boston fern, spider plant, peace lily, and bamboo palm. Peace lilies are beautiful but they do increase the pollen content of the air. Be aware of that if you have allergies. 

Indoor Air Quality Testing


Is there a way to test the air in your home? There is a home test you can use to check your home for volatile organic compounds, mold, and formaldehyde. Common sources of formaldehyde are fiberboard, plywood and particle board in addition to household products, rugs, glues and permanent press fabrics.


We’ve tested our home for radon but plan on taking it step further and checking for VOCs.


 The Bottom Line


There’s a lot more we could say about indoor air pollution but we’ll save it for a future article. Our main goal is to make you aware that the air quality in your home may be worse than what’s outside AND those fresh-smelling air fresheners are probably not doing good things for your health.


Question for you: Do you use air fresheners in your home? 



Natural Resources Defense Council. “Protect Your Family from the Hidden Hazards in Air Fresheners”
The United States Environmental Protection Agency. “Questions About Your Community: Indoor Air”
Environ Health Perspect. Jan 2011; 119(1): A16.

Kristie Leong M.D.

Dr. Kristie Leong and Dr. Apollo Leong are physicians helping you to lead a healthy lifestyle by sharing nutrition and fitness tips and keeping you abreast of the latest health news.