Making a Stink 

Plug-in air fresheners pose fire risk—and they’re kind of pointless besides

Plug-in air fresheners pose fire risk—and they’re kind of pointless besides

Last week, SC Johnson and the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) recalled about 2.5 million Glade® Extra Outlet Scented Oil Air Fresheners. According to the CPSC’s press release, the things “could pose a risk of fire.”

Well, let’s just think about this for a minute. What is a scented oil air freshener, anyway? Best I can tell, it’s a semidecorative plastic doohickey that plugs into a wall receptacle. Inside the doohickey, there’s some kind of little electric resistance heater that heats up some flammable scented oil. In the case of the Extra Outlet units, you have the added convenience of being able to plug, say, a big-ass refrigerator into the thing, and build up even more heat.

To SC Johnson’s credit, the extra outlet is labeled “15 Amps Max,” which means you shouldn’t plug a refrigerator into the thing. Trouble is, people don’t read outlets. Also, most homeowners don’t know what amps are, or what kinds of things use 15 of them. Most people just know that when you need to power something up, you plug it into an outlet.

When I heard about this recall, I decided to do a little science. Lucky for me, we Jowerses were the proud owners of two non-recalled, no-extra-outlet Glade® Plugins®, one of which was busy covering up catbox odors, the other of which was a virgin, still in the box. We also had a three-pack of apple-cinnamon scented oil refills. Here’s a little warning from the refill box: “Do not use in small, confined pet areas without adequate ventilation.” And here’s another: “Contact with concentrate may cause eye irritation. If contact is made with eyes, flush with water for 15 minutes.”

I had already misused my Glade® Plugin®. First, it was in a small, confined pet area, where there’s no window or any other form of ventilation. Second, since the whole idea of the thing is to heat up the concentrate and get it airborne, I’ve probably had it in my eyes for weeks. And I haven’t flushed them out even once.

Understand, I’m a little out of practice as a scientist. I haven’t done any real science for this column since I dissected a Cabbage Patch Snack Time Kid hair-eating hell-doll back in 1997. Still, I think you people should know what happened when I started monkeying with my Glade® Plugin®.

First thing, I got my fancy laser-guided thermometer, which is dang accurate at close range. I put it about a quarter-inch away from the oil pack in the Glade® Plugin®, and it measured 103 degrees. Then I recruited wife Brenda to hold the oil pack with a set of tongs and fire up a fireplace lighter under it. That left me free to man the thermometer. Well, don’t you know, the oil pack burst into flame at about 120 degrees.

I’m here to tell you, when you set a whole pack of apple-cinnamon Plugin® concentrate aflame at one time, everything in a 40-foot radius is going to reek of industrial, fake-a-zoid apple-cinnamon. It’s not really an apple-cinnamon smell, either. It’s more like radioactive-toxic-waste-urinal-cake apple-cinnamon. The smell sticks to you worse than beer, cigarettes and Krystal burgers combined. I’ve showered twice, and I still can’t get the smell off me. I don’t know if we’ll ever get Brenda clean. She might smell like Plugin® for the rest of her life, or even longer. And I’ll only have myself to blame.

Half-assed scientist that I am, I thought, “It’s a pretty long way from 103 to 120. These things are probably safe.” But I decided to check one more thing. I cut the front cover off the Plugin®, to expose the heat source. Then I plugged the thing in and let it heat up for about 10 minutes. Well, don’t you know, the little heater maxed out at exactly 120 degrees.

I know, I know. The oil pack acts as a heat sink, so a 120-degree heat source won’t necessarily bring the pack up to the ignition point. Even so, I think these gadgets shave the safety factor way too close, especially considering that their only benefit is to cover up stink. “I inspected a house last week where they were using them to mask the strong sewer odor inside the house,” says my smartypants home inspector friend, Mark Cramer.

You plug-in air-freshener-using people, listen to me: SC Johnson makes some fine products, including Windex®, Ziploc® bags, Drano® and Saran® Wrap. But you don’t want them making your electrical outlets. You surely don’t want to use a cheaply assembled electrical outlet that has a pack of flammable oil inside it. The things could catch on fire and burn your house down.

Don’t take my word for it. Plugin® fires have been reported in Battle Ground, Wash., and right nearby in Smyrna, Tenn., according to KIRO-TV in Seattle. The regular Plugins®—not just the Extra Outlet ones—have been recalled in Britain.

If you want your house to smell good, just clean it up—without Lysol® or any fake-lemony-smelling product—and bake an apple pie. That way, the house not only smells good, but you’ve got some good eating besides.

Visit Walter Jowers’ Web site at www.housesenseinc.com, or e-mail him at wjowers@nashvillescene.com.

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