The #1 Thing You Should Do to Protect Your Heart

Stock up on vodka, charcoal, and old lemon peels, and you may just ward off a heart attack.

May 1, 2012

That can of toxic spray is doing more than just covering up a smelly trash can.

Fish oil, check. Exercise, check. No red meat, check. You do everything our doctor tells you to protect yourself from heart disease. Then, you spritz a little air freshener in your home or light a scented candle and start to undo all your worthy efforts.


According to a new study in Environmental Health Perspectives, a daily squirt of air freshener or a few hours around a burning scented candle every day could be doing irreparable damage to your heart.

The findings were based on a long-running Swiss study on air pollution and lung and heart diseases that involved adults over age 50. The 581 adults involved in the study filled out questionnaires based on their use of cleaning products, air fresheners, and other scented household products, and then underwent 24-hour electrocardiograms so the researchers could monitor something called heart rate variability, a marker of cardiovascular health.

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"The strongest associations we found were observed with air-freshening sprays," says Amar J. Mehta, ScD, MPH, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health and at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute in Basel, Switzerland, where the study was conducted. He says that women who used spray air fresheners frequently and over a long period of time were the most likely to show reduced heart rate variability, which is often a sign of heart problems and cardiovascular damage. The changes were seen in women who used them as little as one day a week.

Mehta isn't sure what component of air fresheners could be causing the change in heart rates, but he thinks one reason is that air freshener ingredients can react with ozone, a common indoor air pollutant, and form other compounds that can harm your heart. For instance, one common class of air freshener ingredients, terpenes (which give pine products their piney smell and citrus products their orange or lemony kick), have been found to react with ozone and form aldehydes, toxic pollutants linked to heart disease and diabetes.

Given all the simple nontoxic air fresheners you can make yourself, keeping scented products around the house is a risk that's not worth taking! Swap that nasty can of aerosol spray and those plug-in air fresheners for these natural alternatives:

• A pot of boiling citrus peels. Rather than a synthetically scented spritz of lemon sunshine, get the real thing. Toss a few lemon peels or orange peels, or the peels of any other fruit you like, into a pot on the stove and let them simmer for 30 minutes to wash away the odors from your dinner. Add some spices if you like. Cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom all make pleasant natural air fresheners.

• Vodka. Ethyl alcohol, found in vodka and other spirits, is a main ingredient in most commercial air fresheners. It won't have an odor when it dries, so you can spray it straight into your air as is or add 20 to 30 drops of your favorite essential oil or oils for a pleasant scent.

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• Beeswax candles. These actually clean your air, instead of polluting it, by producing negative ions. They smell sweet and fragrant on their own, but you can also find beeswax candles scented with essential oils, such as those from Big Dipper Wax Works.

• Charcoal. Activated carbon charcoal is great for really stubborn odors, like those from smelly garbage cans, cat litter boxes, and even lingering cigarette smoke. It can be hard to find, but you can find small activated carbon filters designed to place around garbage cans, refrigerators, or in other small (smelly) spaces.

• Coffee grounds. Weird but true: Coffee grounds (even the leftovers from your morning pot) work wonders at absorbing odors. Put dried grounds in a clean old sock and hang them in your closet or pantry to remove bad odors.