For the most part, however, the EPA doesn't concern itself with the levels of acetaldehyde in air fresheners, because they have limited their jurisdiction to outside air. That's somewhat unfortunate, since VOC concentrations tend to be 10 times higher indoors than out, due to products like air fresheners, paint, and cleaning supplies.
Right now, no one really knows what long-term exposure levels of acetaldehyde or other VOCs are safe. Nor do we know what kind of dose we're getting from a quick spritz of alpine fresh.
If you're looking to minimize VOC exposure but just can't resist the smell of French vanilla, your options are limited. Products marketed as being all-natural or organic may emit the same types of VOCs as other products, according to Steinemann. And your beloved patchouli incense is no better. The problem isn't the delivery device; it's the chemical used in the fragrance itself—and most incense and scented candles contain the same VOCs as those scary aerosol cans.
So what's a conscientious consumer with a rank apartment to do? Here's one time-honored solution: Open a window. Unfortunately, the air outside the Lantern's New York apartment smells more like garbage than a "gentle brook when lavender, Casablanca lily and fresh water meet." He may have to get medieval on an orange instead.
Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and check this space every Tuesday.
Correction, Sept. 14, 2010: The original article mistakenly stated that a barrel of oil produces 18.4 kWh of energy. (Return to the corrected sentence.)