"If you had a factory pumping these compounds out, the whole community would be protesting," said Professor Jean Golding, who led the study. "But when you have them in the home, people somehow assume that it's just cleaning their home."
A survey of 14,000 pregnant women found that those who often used aerosols had headaches 25 per cent more often than those who used them less than once a week. Women who frequently used air fresheners were also 19 per cent more likely to suffer postnatal depression.
Babies aged less than six months who were exposed on most days to air fresheners were 30 per cent more likely to have ear infections, and those often exposed to aerosols had a 22 per cent higher chance of diarrhoea. The results are reported in today's New Scientist magazine.
The likely culprits are highly volatile organic compounds which comprise the active parts of many aerosols, although the research does not prove cause and effect. "We have not come up with a mechanism," Professor Golding said at the University of Bristol. However, studies in the US on mice suggest that the compounds may make the skin more permeable, weakening the body's defences.
Professor Golding's survey found that socio-economic factors were not relevant, suggesting that pests could not be blamed for both causing the illnesses and prompting the spraying.
Britain is Europe's biggest user and producer of aerosols, with the average household buying 36 spray cans annually.Reuse content