The NRDC, joined by the Sierra Club, Alliance for Healthy Homes and National Center for Healthy Housing, has petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency and Consumer Products Safety Commission to investigate and regulate air-quality and health issues related to air fresheners.
Their concern is that phthalates, a chemical found in some air fresheners, have been shown in some lab-animal studies to disrupt testosterone production and cause malformation of sex organs. Some studies of humans have linked exposure to the chemicals with adverse changes in the genitals of baby boys. The groups' petition also said volatile organic compounds such as benzene, linked to cancer, can be found in some of the air fresheners, though it did not specify levels of that chemical in individual products.
While marketers challenged the validity of research by the NRDC, which tested 14 products for sale at Walgreens for phthalates, the drugstore chain has pulled three of its own private-label air fresheners off shelves of its 5,850 stores nationwide and initiated testing of other brands. The Walgreens brands had the highest levels of phthalates among the products tested.
"Even prior to the release of the report, the manufacturer of one of the private-label products already had been in the process of reformulating it," a Walgreens spokeswoman said. "So in some sense, they were already aware of the concern, but we were not aware of the concern."
Walgreens testing products
She added that Walgreens is now launching its own independent testing of its private-label products as well as those of national brands to determine the levels of phthalates and other chemicals in them. Whether it would pull other brands off the shelves "would probably depend on the level" of the chemical found, she said, adding that the retailer has informed marketers of the brands that it will do the testing.
Three marketers of products cited by the group -- SC Johnson, marketer of Glade and Oust; Reckitt Benckiser, marketer of Air Wick; and Procter & Gamble Co, marketer of Febreze -- questioned the scientific validity of the NRDC research and said their products comply with all federal health, safety and environmental regulations. Henkel, marketer of Renuzit, didn't return calls for comment, though the single Renuzit product tested was found to be phthalate-free in the NRDC's test.
Any widespread consumer concern could deal a blow to what's been a fast-growing and lucrative industry with retail sales pegged at $1 billion by Information Resources Inc. and $1.7 billion by the NRDC. The category has been growing at a compound annual rate of nearly 10% since 2002, according to IRI data, though sales growth slowed in the 52 weeks ended Aug. 12 to 3.9%.
Warnings to pregnant women, children
The environmental groups urged the government to conduct more thorough tests and possibly enact measures to limit consumer exposure to the chemicals. They also said "consumers may wish to avoid using air fresheners -- especially in places where there are children or pregnant women."
The NRDC report noted that 10 of the 14 products tested had no ingredient listings whatsoever, and none indicated phthalates were present. The report by the NRDC also found levels of volatile organic compounds in the air fresheners, which have been cited as an important source of indoor air pollution by the European Union.
The EPA said it would review the petition and respond in the 90 days allowed by law. A spokesman for the CSPC didn't return a call for comment.
Gina Solomon, an internist and researcher at the NRDC, said the group tested levels of phthalates in the products, rather than in rooms where they were used, because it doesn't have facilities to test dispersal of the chemicals in the air. "That's why we consider our results preliminary," she said, "and that's why we petitioned [the government agencies] to follow up on our results. We just think there's a potential risk that consumers should know about and needs to be followed up."
Concerns about phthalates already have become an issue in cosmetics and personal-care products, driving much of the growth of so-called natural products. The California legislature also passed a law recently banning use of phthalates in toys, though it hasn't been signed yet.
"We were disappointed to learn of the [NRDC's] paper on air-freshener products, and the subsequent media coverage," SCJ, the leading player in air fresheners, said in a statement. The company said the paper appears to be "biased and to make inaccurate generalizations based on the limited scope of the tests conducted."
While some phthalates have been shown to have adverse effects, others have been deemed safe by the World Health Organization, EPA and others, SCJ said. It also said the NRDC test is too limited to be scientific, because it only tested 14 among dozens of products on the market. The company said the levels of phthalates the group found were "lower than those cited by government agencies, including the state of California, as indicating a potential health problem."
Some trace amounts of phthalates "are to be expected in almost any product," SCJ added.