The Checkout

What's That Smell?

Annys Shin

What do rubber duckies, shower curtains, and air fresheners have in common?

If you said phthalates, you'd be right!

The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Alliance for Healthy Homes is suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency saying it should require manufacturers to test household air fresheners for safety and to disclose their chemical ingredients. The lawsuit is based on a 2007 NRDC analysis of more than a dozen common household air fresheners, which found that most contained phthalates, chemicals that may affect hormones and reproductive development in children and infants.

The back story is this: The same three groups filed a petition last year asking EPA to test air fresheners for their health effect on people. The EPA rejected the petition but asked the air freshener makers to disclose their ingredients. They did that but not until recently. The three groups felt the disclosures were incomplete. The companies didn't want to divulge what goes into crafting the scent of a spring meadow for competitive reasons so both sides hit an impasse and the groups decided to sue.

The Consumer Specialty Product Association, the trade group for the makers of air fresheners (which is a $1.8 billion business -- who knew?) was none too happy about the report, the petition or the lawsuit. It released a page-long, single-spaced statement that you can read if you want after the jump. It boils down to this: "our products are tested extensively by industry and meet or exceed all federal and state regulatory requirements. That this is inadequate for NRDC and other select groups is no reason why EPA, and by extension the U.S. taxpayer, should devote additional time and money on an issue that has already been addressed."

Whether the EPA should spend more time on such matters as this is actually a topic of much discussion in Congress lately. There is a larger battle going on over the way the U.S. regulates chemicals and whether we should follow the Europeans and their more precautionary approach. Post reporter Lindsey Layton explains all that nicely here.

I'm going to take on the smaller issue of absorbing these reports and all the back-and-forth that goes along with them. Here's my take: Phthalates are ubiquitous. You can find them in lots of places but the product-by-product approach gives people the idea that if they throw out their shower curtain and rubber duckies and wipe down their diaper champ more often and chuck that scents stories CD, they'll be okay. Until next week, that is, when another report comes out and says there are phthalates in Common Object X. People want clear answers to questions, such as, Are my baby bottles okay to use as long as I don't put them in the dishwasher? Or, can I keep my shower curtain if my kid never uses that bathroom? Or do I have to throw ever piece of plastic out of my house?

Those are the kinds of questions that I get, anyway, from friends and acquaintances. And I don't blame them for being confused.

What do you make of this constant flurry of exposes on toxic chemicals in consumer products? And how many of your purchasing decisions lately have been affected by them?

June 19, 2008 Stephen Altobelli 201.964.2369

Statement by Christopher Cathcart, President, CSPA,
Responding to NGO Lawsuit Filed Against USEPA
Regarding Air Fresheners

"The lawsuit filed today by the NRDC, Sierra Club and Alliance for Healthy Homes is completely without merit. This issue has been reviewed extensively by the EPA which has found no basis for pursuing the matter further. In addition, our products are tested extensively by industry and meet or exceed all federal and state regulatory requirements. That this is inadequate for NRDC and other select groups is no reason why EPA, and by extension the U.S. taxpayer, should devote additional time and money on an issue that has already been addressed."

"We continue to agree with the EPA regarding its decision to deny the petitioners' request for further regulation of the air freshener industry. Air fresheners on the market today are safe for consumers and the environment when used according to directions.

"In addition, industry has worked to voluntarily respond to an EPA request for information from select companies regarding the ingredients in their air fresheners. We worked carefully and diligently throughout this complex process to compile the data and recently submitted it to EPA. We are confident that what we provided on this voluntary basis has met the agency's request. Throughout this process, we met several times with the petitioners to discuss their questions. We have consistently tried to establish a meaningful dialogue on these issues. The filing of the lawsuit and the posting of a negative and inaccurate press release signal that they no longer wish to dialogue on this issue.

"It also is important to point out that the original report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) alleging health concerns linked to the use of these products was based on an extremely limited study of only one unit each of 14 air freshener products. The study makes unscientific generalizations about the products and the ingredients they contain.

"Before NRDC goes off filing petitions and lawsuits, it would be doing itself, and the consumers it claims to represent, a service to get the science right first."

About CSPA
The Consumer Specialty Products Association is a non-profit national trade association representing approximately 250 companies engaged in the manufacture, formulation, distribution and sale of hundreds of familiar consumer products. It is organized into seven divisions: Aerosol Products, Air Care, Antimicrobial Products, Cleaning Products, Pest Management Products, Industrial and Automotive Specialty Chemicals, and Polishes and Floor Maintenance. For more information, please visit

By Annys Shin |  June 20, 2008; 7:36 AM ET Annys Shin
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Annys...seriously. has a bunch of information that Big Media types like you can use to (gasp) check facts. If you did, you could probably find out that phthalates don't have (or have a very weak) odor. So...the smell off your shower curtain (not sure what the obsession is with showers) is NOT phthalates. Now, if you want to talk VOCs...they DO have a smell (feel free to google VOC if you don't know what that is).

Posted by: Cleetus8 | June 20, 2008 11:09 AM

Thank you Cleetus8 for bringing up the facts. I'm tired of "journalists" propogating the myths being spread by the environmental groups. Nobody checks the facts anymore to invesitgate both sides to actually find the truth, or at least write a fiar and balanced story presenting both sides to allow the reader to decide.

The attack on phthalates is nothing more than an attempt by environmentalists to ban plastics; something they have been trying to do for the past 20 years. The continued to fail, so now they attack the chemicals in the plastics because people can't "see" them. It's the modern day boogeyman and the activists are playing on people's fears.

Phthalates, especially DINP and DEHP (2 of the ones now banned) are some of the most well studied chemicals in existence. They have been proven by both EU scientists and US scientists to present no RISK of injury to consumers (Risk being the key word). Every single chemical in existence can be dangerous if exposed to enough quantities. The activist continue to use biased reports claiming there are issues, when in fact there are not under the amounts any consumer (including children) will be exposed to.

And before you say "but the EU banned them", the EU scientific group recommended AGAINST the ban, very strongly. The EU still passed it due to political pressure from the activists. Plus, how could the EU justify to corporations that they screwed up by having a ban in place from 99-2006 that was not needed? The regulation was passed for political reasons only, not safety.

Posted by: Don | June 24, 2008 11:15 AM

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