Some of the most powerful parts of the holiday season are the smells… candles that fill a room with the fragrance of home baked goodies, or air fresheners that leave a room filled with the refreshing outdoor scent of pine. These products add a subtle something to the air for some, while triggering uncomfortable scent allergies (and possibly asthma) for others.

As these scented products have grown more popular, allergists are seeing more complaints from people about reactions to all the fragrance. There’s sneezing and coughing, and while there isn’t an allergy test for these products, people certainly seem capable of having strong reactions to them.

An allergy expert made a presentation on the health risks of scented products citing a 2009 study that found large numbers of Americans are affected by pollutants found in products we use every day.

Almost 11% of over 2,000 adults who were surveyed reported a hypersensitivity to popular laundry products; almost 31% reported adverse reactions to scents on other people, with about 20% reporting problems (trouble breathing, headache) when around air fresheners. For those with asthma, the rate was 34% who had bothersome symptoms when around air fresheners or scented candles.

These scented products do emit VOCs (volatile organic compounds), defined as chemicals forming a gas or vapor when at room temperature. Some of the VOCs in air fresheners include formaldehyde, petroleum, benzene, styrene, terpenes, alcohol, phosphates, bleach and even ammonia.

High levels of VOCs can lead to irritation of the eye and difficulty breathing, as well as headaches, dizziness and memory impairment. A study conducted in 2008 discovered that a large number of laundry soaps and room deodorizers gave off potentially dangerous VOCs.

A particular brand of plug in freshener sent out more than 20 VOCs, 7 of these classed as toxic or hazardous in existing federal laws. Candles produce soot, organic compounds and VOCs – including benzene and lead.

Today experts estimate more than 75% of American homes use scented air fresheners and other such products. And not just for the holidays, now we expect our homes to smell pleasing year round, and with this demand, an industry has grown accordingly.

What’s more, these products aren’t limited to homes. More often scented products appear in the workplace. If you like the smell, you probably don’t mind, but if it left you sneezing and coughing you’d probably feel differently. Just because something smells good to you doesn’t mean that everyone will feel the same way. Often some smells, such as the food type can be tolerated, while flowery ones cannot.

The scented products industry group says that VOCs aren’t necessarily all that bad. Anything that gives off a scent, they say, is sending out a VOC.

In the U.S. air fresheners and other scented products are governed by the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, both requiring product producers to inform consumers about any risks or compounds that might contribute to a health risk. There are some who feel these requirements aren’t nearly strict enough.

If you find yourself uncomfortable with all the scented products, talk with an allergist about your symptoms and your fragrance exposure. There are coping strategies and treatments for scent allergies that can help.

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