AUSTIN, Texas — Many of us consider our pets as part of our families. A viewer asked the KVUE VERIFY team about protecting pets around plug-in air fresheners.
“A dog’s nose is so sensitive. It can see one molecule per trillion. It’s basically putting a little drop in six Olympic swimming pools,” Pawel Misztal, Ph.D., Professor with the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and Misztal Sniffer Lab said.
“There’s a significant association between the pet’s weight, age and species —especially cats — with the severity of illness. The smaller and younger a pet is, the sicker they are likely to get. The same goes for pets with liver disease,” Tufts University research on essential oils shows.
“All of these air fresheners will contain some kind of scent. They also contain volatile organic chemicals, which allow them to diffuse in the air,” Bailey said.
“Interestingly, they are not regarded as acutely toxic and which is why they’re permitted. They are often added to many different types of consumer products. The reason why I am concerned is because it is odorless. So we cannot detect exposure to those compounds without scientific equipment, and they seem to bioaccumulate. They bioaccumulate in the environment so why would they not bioaccumulate in humans, our dog,” Misztal said.
“If you use air fresheners at least you really need to ventilate the space to remove excess of those compounds,” Misztal said.
Bailey said cats are more susceptible to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) because of how cats groom themselves.
“Cats are very fastidious, and they will lick it off of their hair coat. Dogs are not quite so fastidious, so they dont do a lot of licking and cleaning like cats do,” Bailey said.
ASPCA suggests to not keep a diffuser in the same room (or use a strong concentration) with animals who groom themselves.
The Ingredients That Makes Air Fresheners Dangerous for Pets
According to Dr. Mahaney, one of the main offenders in the ingredient list for most air fresheners are volatile organic compounds (VOC). VOCs are organic chemicals that have a high vapor pressure at room temperature. This causes these compounds to easily turn into gasses or vapors from a solid or liquid form. This transformation is called volatility. In other words, volatility is just how air fresheners are meant to behave: dissipate into the air, thereby changing its scent.
Unfortunately, this is the same volatility that occurs in paints and varnishes, fossil fuels, benzene, formaldehyde, refrigerants, aerosol propellants, cigarette smoke, and the dry-cleaning process. You wouldn’t open a can of paint in your living room to improve the quality of the air, but this isn’t too far removed from what happens when you break out an air freshener.
These substances can cause a laundry list of maladies. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the health effects of VOCs may include:
And in a study published in the Environmental Impact Assessment Review, testing of top selling air fresheners and laundry detergents “found 133 different VOCs emitted from the 25 products, with an average of 17 VOCs per product. Of these 133 VOCs, 24 are classified as toxic or hazardous under U.S. federal laws, and each product emitted at least one of these compounds. For “green” products, emissions of these compounds were not significantly different from the other products.”
Natural Alternatives to Air Fresheners: Are Essential Oils Safer?
For the air freshener industry, the latest catch phrase is “essential oils.” Despite this natural-sounding name, these products are by no means entirely safe. Essential oils are also defined as volatile, and while these substances are extracted from flowers, bark, berries, roots, seeds, and woods, and do have some potential medicinal and positive effects, they can still be very toxic to people and animals, particularly when they are used improperly.
“Essential oils, which are included in many air freshener products, can be very toxic, especially to cats. If you simply have to have essential oils in the home, make sure they are kept in a location where your pets cannot come into direct contact with them,” says veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Coates of Fort Collins, Colorado.
“Also, birds are more sensitive to potential airborne toxins than are other animals, so I generally recommend a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach with the use of air fresheners around them.”
When it comes to using these products around our pets, a little information is your best defense. “Read the instructions on the side of the bottle and be sure you are spraying the recommended amount,” says Dr. Mahaney. “When you walk into a room that’s been heavily sprayed with air freshener, what does it do to your eyes and lungs? If it’s doing that to you, it’s also going to do that [or worse] to your pets.”
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