By Gretchen Passatino, © Copyright 2004 by Gretchen Passantino
Urban legends, or stories that run rampant through the culture but have little basis in fact, frequently touch on issues of faith and religious commitment. Whether the story is about the “vanishing hitchhiker” telling the gospel to a despondent driver or thousands of human sacrifices by “secret Satanists,” urban legends involving religion bring discredit on the discernment abilities of gullible Christians and promote a view of faith that does not correspond to reality.
Further, urban legends of any kind – even those that have no connection to faith encourage sloppy thinking, feed on unhealthy paranoia, and “bear false witness” against others. There are magazine articles, journal studies, books, and web sites devoted to debunking urban legends. And yet they continue to proliferate – proliferating nearly with the speed of light around the world through e-mails. As Christians who claim that we serve a Savior who is “the Truth” (Jn. 14:6), who worship “the God of Truth” (Is. 65:16), we cannot afford to repeat an urban legend just because “it might be true,” or “better safe than sorry.” When we practice good discernment (1 Thess. 5:21-22), we demonstrate that we can be trusted to give testimony to the truth, and are more likely to receive a fair hearing when we encourage people to consider the claims of Christ.
In June of 2004 an urban legend spread through the Internet that put a new twist on an old story: Everyone who uses plug-in air fresheners is endangering the lives of their children, their homes, and their neighborhoods because of this extreme fire danger that has already cost numerous lives and many homes. Supposedly a fire fighter investigating a home fire said “he has seen more home fires started with the plug-in type room fresheners than anything else.” The e-mail continues that “the investigator said he personally wouldn’t have any type of plug-in fragrance device anywhere in his house. He has seen too many burned down homes.”
Here’s the truth behind the urban legend. First, it should not be trusted because it does not carry documentable details for us to test its veracity. We cannot check the family, the fire department, or the company since none are identified.
The bigger question is: Do plug-in air fresheners present an exceptional fire danger? To research this Answers In Action talked to various research sources, including the manufacturers, the federal product safety office, and an arson investigator, and we researched all available data and documentation.
(1) Any electrical device has the potential for sparking and starting a fire. So beware of plug-in air fresheners just as you would any other electrical device. (2) Any material that is flammable can add to a fire danger. Beware of plug-in air fresheners (gels, oils, soft solids, etc.) just as you would any other flammable material (candles, oil, gasoline, etc.) in close contact to a potential spark source. (3) There was a voluntary product recall in 1998 for a particular gel plug-in air freshener since the gel had an unusually low ignition point. That product is no longer available. (4) There was a voluntary product recall in 2002 for a particular “extra outlet” plug-in air freshener because there was faulty wiring internal to the extra plug that could be a fire hazard. That product defect has been redesigned and the defective product is no longer available. (5) Any plug-in air freshener (remember, it combines an electrical device danger and a flammable material danger) must be used according to manufacturers’ safety guidelines. Failure to do so can increase the danger of fire. There was a fire in Reno in 2003 caused by something else in the ruins of which fire fighters found two plug-in air fresheners that had been plugged in to extension cords rather than wall sockets. This is against the safety guidelines since the air fresheners can lie horizontally rather than staying vertical, increasing the risk of the flammable material coming into direct contact with the potential spark source. It was not the cause of the fire under investigation, but it was noted as a safety hazard. (6) There are no records of any unusual number of fires related to faulty plug-in air fresheners or to plug-in air fresheners used improperly.
When we contacted the manufacturer of Glade air fresheners, Margie Mandli of the SC Johnson Public Affairs Office told us they had investigated the rumors: “Internally, we confirmed that no one had contacted SC Johnson to tell us about these fires or to ask us to investigate them. Additionally, we were able to have a fire investigation expert call the fire department representative who is identified in one of the Internet postings. That fireman indicated that he has no evidence that our products had caused any fire. We also know that our products do not cause fires because all of our PlugIns® products have been thoroughly tested by Underwriters Laboratories and other independent laboratories and our products meet or exceed safety requirements. SC Johnson also has worked closely with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to investigate allegations that PlugIns® products have been involved in fires and CPSC has been satisfied that there is no basis for these allegations” (e-mail June 10, 2004). While we did not base our dismissal of the urban legend on the self-reporting of the company, this matched the independent research we conducted.
In summary, if the safety guidelines are followed, and the consumer takes into account the safety steps necessary for any electrical device and any flammable material, the use of plug-in air fresheners should be safe.
The moral of the story? To be taken seriously by others, don’t believe everything you hear. Think critically, test the source, and check it out for yourself. You will be practicing clear thinking.