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NIH Research Matters

August 4, 2006

Chemical in Many Air Fresheners May Affect Lungs

New research shows that a chemical compound found in many air fresheners, toilet bowl cleaners, mothballs and other deodorizing products may be harmful to the lungs.

mothballs

A chemical in many air freshening products may affect some people's lungs. Image by Arnold Greenwell, reproduced with permission from Environmental Health Perspectives.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a diverse set of compounds emitted as gases from thousands of commonly-used products, including tobacco smoke, pesticides, paints and cleaning products. VOCs are also in automotive exhaust. Researchers at NIH's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) set out to see if exposure to VOCs affects lung function. They compared blood concentrations of 11 common VOCs with lung function using data from the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 1988 and 1994, included a component to assess the level of common pesticides and VOCs in the U.S. population.

The results were published in the August issue of Environmental Health Perspectives. The research team examined data from 953 adults 20-59 years old who had both VOC blood measures and lung function measures. Of the common VOCs analyzed, including benzene, styrene, toluene and acetone, only a compound called 1,4-dichlorobenzene (1,4-DCB) was associated with reduced lung function. This white solid compound with a distinctive aroma is used in mothballs and as a deodorant in products such as room deodorizers, urinal and toilet bowl blocks. On average, African Americans had the highest levels and non-Hispanic whites the lowest. Those with higher blood levels of 1,4-DCB had lower lung function.

Dr. Leslie Elliott, a researcher on the study, said, "Because people spend so much time indoors where these products are used, it's important that we understand the effects that even low levels might have on the respiratory system. This study provides us with a preliminary look at the potential impact these compounds have on lung function."

While this study found a relationship between 1,4-DCB blood levels and lung function, it doesn't prove that the compound causes lower lung function. The researchers assessed the influence of many factors that might influence lung function, such as type of heating, presence of furred pets, occupation, smoking history and many other factors. However, participants might have been exposed to other factors that could affect lung function yet were not assessed in this study.

To be cautious, NIEHS researcher Dr. Stephanie London, lead investigator on the study, advised, "The best way to protect yourself, especially children who may have asthma or other respiratory illnesses, is to reduce the use of products and materials that contain these compounds."

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Editor: Harrison Wein, Ph.D.
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NIH Research Matters is a weekly update of NIH research highlights from the Office of Communications and Public Liaison, Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health.

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This page last reviewed on December 3, 2012

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