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Air fresheners in the home – Professor Alastair Lewis investigates

Wednesday, 27 January 2016 at 10:46:AM

CaliforniaAnalytical expert and long-time Markes customer Alastair​ Lewis has again waved the flag for analytical chemistry by featuring in the 4th series of BBC Two’s highly popular investigative documentary Trust Me, I’m a Doctor.

The latest programme (Episode 2), first aired on 13 January, describes the results of an investigation into the chemicals present in indoor air where fragranced products are used. The programme can be seen on YouTube (skip to 15:30 minutes for the relevant clip), and at the time of writing is still available on the BBC’s iPlayer.

Chemicals from air fresheners

The team focused on the limonene common in air fresheners, and found that levels at six houses correlated with the amounts of the hazardous pollutant formaldehyde, which is generated when limonene reacts with ozone.

The news has of course been highlighted in predictable style by the Daily Mail, and in a ​more objective piece by The Telegraph, which quotes him as saying “The really surprising thing is just how high the concentrations of some fragrances are now in people’s homes …Fragrance chemicals now completely dominate the inside of most homes.” Full results are available on the programme’s webpage.

The programme shows canisters being deployed, which were set to sample air over a period of five days. Sadly the analytical equipment used doesn’t feature in the programme, so you will have to take our word for it that monitoring limonene and the other VOCs used one of our CIA Advantage instruments with gas chromatography. Well, the important stuff always happens behind the scenes, doesn’t it?

Can houseplants help?

A particularly interesting aspect of the work was the deployment of houseplants to see if these might help to absorb some of the pollutants. Despite the shift into autumn raising levels of other VOCs in this second experiment because of the reduced air circulation (and perhaps the increased use of scented candles), formaldehyde levels actually decreased.

This is line with previous research that highlights the potential of houseplants to ‘mop up’ indoor pollutants – one such paper by Kwang Jin Kim and team in South Korea uses our UNITY Air Server to investigate uptake of toluene.

All fascinating stuff, and we’re particularly pleased that Alastair Lewis is showing the relevance of analytical chemistry to everyday life – as he’s done in the past with the public understanding of atmospheric chemistry (see these videos from the organisation Sensing Change)… and we’ve been doing ourselves with our analytical chemistry awareness campaign. We look forward to hearing of his next endeavour!

David Barden


David BardenDavid Barden received his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Cambridge University in 2004, and during his time as an editor at the RSC wrote news pieces for Chemistry World on various scientific topics. He is now Technical Copywriter at Markes International, where he draws on the expertise of his colleagues to explain how new thermal desorption and mass spectrometry technologies can be applied to analyse volatile organic compounds in a wide variety of situations.


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