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Why Ride Share Vehicles Should be Fragrance-Free by Gretchen Kurtenacker

You know the scene, your heading out somewhere and
so request an Uber or a Lyft. Two minutes later the car arrives. You open the door and are punched in the face by the exceedingly potent “air freshener”. As you roll down the window you spy the 15 scented cardboard evergreen trees hanging from the rearview mirror or the diabolical plastic pod stuck to the fins of the air vent. And it isn’t just ride-share vehicles; hotels pump scented masking agents through the air handling systems, as do airplanes, airports, conference centers, concert spaces, even churches! It is pervasive and wholly unnecessary.

The global market for fragranced products exceeds 10 billion, (Steinemann, 2017). But according to scientists Caress & Steinemann, 30.5% of the US population is sensitive to fragranced products, (2009). Internationally, 32.2% report ill effects from scented products, (Steinemann, 2019a). Of sensitive populations, 57.8% of asthmatics, 75.8 of autistics, and 82% with chemical sensitivity report adverse reactions to fragrances, (Steinemann, 2019b). Studies revealed that scented products released 133 various toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), demonstrated using gas mass spectrometry, (Potera, 2011). A single fragrance often contained hundreds of chemicals, some harmful in and of themselves, others react with ambient air and form harmful secondary pollutants such as the carcinogen, formaldehyde. The average number of VOCs a scented product released was 17, (Potera, 2011). 44% of the products tested released 1 to 24 different carcinogens including acetaldehyde, 1-4 dioxane, formaldehyde, and methyl chloride, (Potera, 2011). Note that these toxicants were not listed on product labels except for ethanol on two labels, (Potera, 2011). Indeed, in 2015, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that while petroleum used as fuel was 15 times more prevalent than as ingredients in consumer products, the amount of VOCs emitted from these two diverse applications was about the same, (Stein, 2018). How can this be? It is because fuels are designed to maximally combust, minimizing vapor release whereas scented products are designed to disperse into the air. The VOCs react with sunlight to form ozone and other pollutants and can even react with other pollutants to create particulate pollution. These chemicals are NOT harmless. Let’s look at just one, and remember, there are over 100… acetaldehyde is a primary as well as a secondary emission of synthetic fragrances, causes acute and chronic respiratory issues, and is classed a carcinogenic air pollutant with no safe exposure limit, (Steinemann, 2016). None of these harmful chemicals need to be listed on the label and are hidden under the term “fragrance” which can be dozens to hundreds of different chemicals mixed together, many derived from petrochemicals, (Steinemann, 2016; Steinemann 2019a). Here is a perfect example: a masking agent used to “freshen” clothing has a mere 7 ingredients besides water. However, one is “Fragrance” which contains an additional 30 chemicals, 6 of which have the warning “…identified as persistent, bioaccumulative, and inherently toxic to the environment…”, (, 2020a;, 2020b). “Green” products are equally deceptive and toxic since there is no legal definition behind the word, (Steinemann, 2016).

“Air fresheners” affect human health via both primary and secondary pollutants and cause adverse events even at low levels. Symptoms in sensitive individuals include, respiratory issues and difficulty breathing, headaches including migraines, asthma, mucosal symptoms such as tingling and burning, dermatitis, and neurological problems to name a few, (Steinemann, 2016). According to Flegel and Martin, (2015), a family of receptors on sensory neurons within the airways, react to noxious stimuli. They respond releasing neuropeptides that have the tell-tale immediate effects, such as bronchoconstriction with increased mucus production, but also produce secondary effects that prolong the effects of exposure via neurogenic inflammation.

So, back to our Uber. At the end of the ride, I rated the driver 4 stars, gave a 15% tip, and wrote a note explaining that synthetic fragrances such as “air fresheners” release toxic chemicals that aggravate asthma. I explained that I had to deal with burning nose, mouth, and eyes, chest pain, headache and trouble breathing for hours after the ride. Uber apparently reads notes to drivers and sent me an email returning my tip and promising not to pair me with that driver again. Is this the answer? Not by a longshot. Considering that over a third of the population is sensitive to fragrances, all transport for the general public should be 100% fragrance-free. If they don’t make it a company rule, then at the very least, apps like Uber and Lyft should have an extra button to the ride selection stage that allows one to choose fragrance-free rides.

Cab companies have been decimated by rideshare apps. Perhaps they should take the fragrance-free ball and run with it; institute a fragrance-free ride and driver policy and advertise that their entire taxi fleet is fragrance-free. This would be a great way to revive their businesses. And for any company interested in creating a fragrance-free policy, environmental engineer Steinemann, (2019b) has researched policies and provides summaries that would surely work for most businesses.

After my rides, I always inform the driver that the ride could have been better if the car had been fragrance-free as many people are made ill or develop asthma in response to the chemicals in air fresheners. If I, perchance, ride in a fragrance-free car, I tell the driver how happy having a fragrance-free ride made me and also write a comment to that affect when reviewing the ride. Does Uber or Lyft care what I think? Probably not, but if enough voices started chiming in about this, they likely would take notice. So, use your voice, we have enough air pollution without dealing with unnecessarily scented cars. As for the Uber and Lyft drivers, I advise them to think about the fact that while I am only in their car 15 minutes or so, they are breathing those toxic chemicals all day. If they one day get sick, no one will investigate any link to their years breathing synthetic air fresheners. Most of the cars used for ride-share are newer and do not smell, so why bother trying to scent the air? Money, hoping for better tips and reviews? Yet when surveyed, 59.2% of the US population preferred unscented airplane air, 55.6% preferred unscented hotels, 53.2% supported fragrance-free policies at work, and 54.8% supported fragrance-free hospitals, (Steinemann, 2016). If its ratings and tips a driver is after, they could try placing pictures in the car that will elicit an emotional response as fragrances do; art, a relaxing tropical paradise, or baby animals; who doesn’t love baby animals? Then just skip the chemicals. As environmental MD Claudia Miller summed it up, “The best smell is no smell”, (Potera, 2011).

Gretchen Kurtenacker, MS, MLS(ASCP), MT(AMT), NTP(NTA) is a Medical Laboratory Scientist who holds a B.S. from the University of Cincinnati in Clinical Laboratory Science, an M.S. in Health & Nutrition Education from Hawthorn University and is currently working on a D.Sc. in Holistic Nutrition, also from Hawthorn University. Her interests include food anthropology, food & the environment, and elder nourishment. Gretchen lives in the First Hill neighborhood of Seattle where she enjoys the incredible selection of local, artisanal, sustainable foods available within walking distance of her home.


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