I got into an Uber taxi the other day and was almost knocked back out the door by the smell. Only politeness and my tight schedule prevented me from refusing the ride.

It surprises me that some car owners find the sickly chemical smell of air fresheners even remotely appealing. Air fresheners with names like Pine Forest and Spring Bouquet often smell (at least to my nose) like something you might find oozing out of the ground near the ill-fated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

As I sat in the back of that car, inhaling odours that should have been more aptly named Treacherous Toxins, my breakfast began to make its presence felt. I craned my head to look through the space between the two front seats. Mr Uber’s air freshener pod was attached to the air-conditioning vents; all the better to blast those CARcinogens into every corner of his car.

I wondered if it would be impolite to ask him to do something about the smell.

I was brought up to be ever so polite and was repeatedly told not to make a nuisance of myself in public. For example, a shark could bite my arm off, forcing me to somehow swim back to shore, walk 2km to the nearest hospital in the pitch dark with no shoes on, and upon reaching the emergency department of the hospital, I would say something like, “Excuse me. So sorry to bother you, but would it be possible for someone to come and have a look at my arm? Or at least, what’s left of it. If you don’t mind. Thank you very much.”

Upon seeing the blood dripping onto the floor from the stub that used to be my arm, I would probably add, “I’m so sorry for making a mess. Give me a cloth and I will clean it up.”

“Excuse me,” I said to the back of Mr Uber’s head. “I was wondering if you could do something about your air freshener. You see, I’m hugely allergic to it.”

I’m not sure why I said I was allergic to it, because I’m not. I guess I didn’t want him thinking I was being overly finicky.

“No problem,” he responded.

He reached over and unclipped the offending pod from the air-conditioning vents and stashed it in the door pocket.

“Sorry to be so fussy,” I said.

“It’s not being fussy if you’re allergic to it. That’s just being sensible.”

I thought that would be the end of it, but I had obviously piqued Mr Uber’s curiosity.

“What happens if you breathe in too much air freshener?” he asked.

“Well, it restricts my breathing. And if I can’t get rid of it, my lungs will start burning and I will eventually begin coughing up blood all over your car’s upholstery.”

“That bad?”

My little fib had expanded and expanded and I needed to stop the lie roller coaster before I started telling him about my lung transplant.

“You might not mind the smell,” I continued, “but you don’t know what sort of chemicals you’re inhaling for hours on end while you’re driving around.”

Pandan leaves make excellent natural air fresheners. Photo: Filepic

Pandan leaves make excellent natural air fresheners. Photo: Filepic

“I don’t think it’s harmful. Just about everyone uses them,” he said.

“You know, when people first started smoking, they were told that nicotine wouldn’t harm them. What a lie that turned out to be.”

“But you can’t compare air freshener to cigarettes.”

“If you start developing some unusual skin tags on your hand, you might want to check it out as soon as possible, before it starts growing into an extra finger,” I said, as if I were a huge authority on the issue.

“Now you’re joking, aren’t you?”

“You might want to Google it later. That’s all I’m going to say.”

That conversation got me thinking, so I did a little research of my own later that day.

It would appear that the jury is out on air fresheners, but there are enough carcinogens in most of them to raise a big red flag.

According to Anne Steinemann, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Melbourne who has studied extensively the health impacts of fragranced household products, one-quarter of the ingredients in air fresheners are classified as toxic or hazardous.

“Ultimately your risk depends on exposure,” she says. “You don’t have to have symptoms. Just because it doesn’t kill you, it doesn’t mean it’s not harming you. Some effects are not immediately obvious.”

I hope Mr Uber did his own research.


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