Saturday, July 19, 2008

Air fresheners - nothing to be sniffed at!

by Lesley Grimwood

The following report was originally presented to the members of the English Societe L'Institut Pierre Franchomme (ESIPF), one of the UK's longest established professional associations of aromatherapists and one of the members of the Aromatherapy Consortium. It has also been published in the International Federation of Aromatherapists newsletter.

While reading, please keep in mind that if chemical scents are so dangerous to humans, they can kill our pet birds. Please use only 100% pure, natural, theraputic grade essential oils for freshening your home and exercise caution. (We reccomend only Young Living Essential Oils)

Although it was prepared for aromatherapists, the information presented is relevant for all healthcare practitioners of whatever discipline. Whilst you are reading please consider this question - at what point does anecdotal evidence become clinical-based research? May I suggest it is when a wide base of therapists unites to gather information that is collated into a formal report. If there is no evidence of anything untoward to be found, then so be it. However, at the moment there are only suspicions and anecdotal reports to go on. We need firm evidence and, as complementary therapists, we are in a position to pool our information without breaking any client confidentiality responsibilities.

As aromatherapists, at one time or another, we have all come across a form of the comment, ‘Aromatherapy - isn't that something to do with smells?’ We have been hijacked by the marketing men who tend to think that anything with an artificial pong can be tagged with the term aromatherapy and will therefore sell. This seems to cover everything from potpourri to fabric conditioners to washing-up liquids. Our sense of smell didn't evolve by chance, it is fundamental to our very survival. It warns of dangers from fire to decaying food, it triggers our memories and affects our emotions. The 'normal' life smells are now perceived to be something to be hidden but not dealt with. If the dog's bed smells of dog, we are supposed to spray it with a chemical solution - whereas our sense of smell tells us that it - and the dog - needs washing to destroy any harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites along with the odour.

Bristol university research
This mantra of disguise is most prevalent in the marketing of air fresheners. Sold in various forms to mask household smells, anecdotal evidence has been building for some years as to the physiological and psychological impact these products are having. So much so, that Bristol University undertook a study to follow 14,000 women through pregnancy. It found that those who used air fresheners on most days suffered 25 percent more headaches than those who used them less than once a week. It also reported a 19 percent increase in post-natal depression. The babies under six months exposed on most days had 30 percent more ear infections and were 20 percent more likely to suffer from diarrhoea.

One of the report's co-authors, Dr Alex Farrow, who now works at Brunel University in West London, summed it up most succinctly: "People may feel using air fresheners brightens up their homes and lives, but exactly the reverse may be happening. They are presented as bringing natural fragrances into the home - things like lemon, pine and flowers, but it is all synthetic and that is the bottom line. You might as well have a cut lemon in the loo. That would be more effective and at least would not give you headaches."

The Bristol report was originally published in 1999 and, as far as I am aware, the only publicity it received was a two-inch, single column report in the London Evening Standard. Dr Farrow will be publishing it in full shortly. Details of his research were raised in the House of Commons in March, 2003, when the Public Health Minister Hazel Blears, responded in writing to questions raised by the Liberal Democrats environmental and rural affairs spokesman, Norman Baker. Given the potential directive(s) due from the EU regarding household cleaners and products, this is one that is not going away (no matter how much the manufacturers wish it would).

However, it isn't just mums-to-be and their babies who are effected. As far back as 1996 the Medical Monitor published an article by a GP, Dr Richard Lawson, describing two cases of apparent clinical depression caused by the use of air fresheners and reported that he (then) had a further 50 cases of 'anxiety/hyperventilation syndrome' who recovered when they threw out their synthetic 'fresh air' perfumes, including one lady who discovered that her symptoms were the result of wearing perfumed panty liners.

In my own practice I routinely include questions on air fresheners in my consultation process. It is frightening the number of times patients with the vague symptoms of nausea, irritability, feeling down, anxiety, sleeplessness and generally not feeling right improve when asked to get rid of their air fresheners. Below is one of the more serious cases in which I gave no treatment other than the advice of 'bin the things!'.

And this is where we need your help. The ESIPF have asked its members to be aware of this and report any similar cases for collation and ask you to do the same. We are not asking for any major research undertaking, just add one question to your normal consultation and follow up on the answers. All submissions will be acknowledged and a report will be available for publication. I have undertaken to do the collation and request that you contact me via the ICM office.

Case study report - negative effects of air fresheners
As an aromatherapist I visit a residential care home on a regular basis. During one of my visits I was approached by one of the carers asking if I would see her daughter, to which I agreed.

The lady in question was in her mid-thirties, happily married with two teenage children and with no major stress factors in her life. However, for the two years prior to consultation she had been suffering from intermittent bouts of anxiety, depression, and insomnia. On talking this through these seemed to coincide with the time the family moved home. However, they are very happy in the house, they liked the area and the children are settled in the schools. The only thing that she didn't like with the house was, that as it was a new house, the smell of the paint and new plaster. To deal with this she had bought plug-in air fresheners and used them in most rooms. She had fallen into the habit of using them and replaced them periodically. I suggested that she try removing them, opening the windows to get air circulating more and where possible switch to cleaning products that were unscented. Although not convinced, she was willing to try. After a couple of weeks she reported that she did indeed feel a lot better, but considered it to be more down to co-incidence.

A couple of months later the symptoms returned and she contacted me again. I asked if she had started using the air fresheners again and she said no. I suggested that we scheduled an appointment for the following week. However, before the appointment she contacted me and told me that, unbeknown to her, the daughter had been helping her with the housework and had found an unopened plug-in in the cupboard and had put it into the socket behind her parents' bed. Once removed, the symptoms disappeared.

Fast-forward 18 months and I was talking to her mother. She told me that her daughter was now a registered child-minder and was taking care of a little boy. About a month previously the lad had developed a tummy bug during the day, which resulted in a nasty bout of diarrhoea, the smell of which had spread through the house and her daughter, still convinced it was all a coincidence, had purchased some air fresheners. Within two days she had all the symptoms of full-blown clinical depression (crying, insomnia, anxiety, shaking). This time her husband took 'affirmative action'; he threw out the air fresheners, opened the windows and packed her off to her mother's until the house cleared. Within days she was back to normal, has never used air fresheners since and has had no recurrence of symptoms.

This example is doubtless but the tip of the iceberg as far as the hazardous effects of the many chemicals now used in the domestic environment and the many vague, undiagnosed symptoms they cause. Please help us to increase awareness among practitioners and patients alike.
Lesley Grimwood is a registered aromatherapist and Member of the Aromatherapy and Allied Practitioners Association (AAPA). Besides having been Chair of the Education Training Subcommittee of the former Aromatherapy Organisation Council, she is also a Fellow of the ESIPF.

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