A Health Guide to Using Aerosol Sprays

Aerosol sprays have developed an image problem and concerns about their adverse effects on health have mounted: they harm the environment and they contain CFCs, which destroy the ozone layer. Health advocates suggest avoiding aerosols at all costs. But are all these concerns true? Experts say that in the past, yes. Today, no.

For years, aerosol products contained chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which were used as spray propellants. In the 1970s, CFCs were found to damage the ozone layer, and in 1978 the United States banned their use in commercial products; other countries (Canada, Norway, and Sweden) shortly followed suit. Records show that by 1996, CFCs were almost entirely phased out. They are currently used only in certain industrial machines (recycled in refrigerators and air conditioners) and medical products (inhalers).

Experts warn, however, that even the new generation of aerosols presents potential health hazards. Many of them contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a group of propellants and solvents that are highly flammable and contribute to smog. The most common VOCs are combinations of propane and butane. VOCs are found not only in aerosols but also in many fast-drying products, including pump sprays, perfumes, and hair gels.

The biggest danger of using an aerosol is inhaling the chemical spray. The spray’s fine particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and are easily absorbed by the bloodstream, possibly causing a variety of health problems.

A growing number of teenagers inhale vapors from aerosol cans in search of a cheap high. The practice, called “huffing,” deprives the lungs and brain of oxygen and can cause brain damage or death. Parents should be aware of the signs of aerosol abuse: changes in a child’s appetite or sleep patterns, a rash or blisters around the mouth, mood swings, and a chemical smell on the breath.

If you must use an aerosol spray, follow these precautions:

– The first basic rule is to be sure to read – and heed – the label.

– Always use aerosols in a well-ventilated area and do not inhale the vapors. The chemicals in the vapor can be absorbed by the lungs and the bloodstream, potentially causing headaches, dizziness, nausea, and respiratory problems.

– Avoid misdirected spray; it can harm the eyes and skin.

– Keep aerosol cans away from heat and flame. Even the heat of a nearby furnace can cause a can’s pressurized contents to expand and explode.

– Dispose of the cans in your regular trash. Even though many of them are now made of recyclable materials, recycling centers do not usually accept them because they may explode. Never disassemble, puncture, or incinerate an aerosol can.