She found a can of Febreze in her Airbnb rental. Now she wants a refund

Susan Felderman says that she recently booked a “fragrance-free” Airbnb rental. But did she?

This story underscores the importance of verifying all the terms and special conditions of a rental in writing before showing up at the front door.

Felderman contacted our advocacy team and described what happened on the night that she checked into this rental.

“I arrived, cooked dinner and then went to use the toilet,” she says. “On the toilet, I got a headache. I thought maybe there was mold in the bathroom. But I turned to flush the toilet and noticed a can of Febreze air freshener on the counter next to me.”

Why was she so sure that this closed can of Febreze was making her ill?

Felderman says that she suffers from a condition called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity also known as Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance. She explained that as a result of this affliction she experiences severe headaches and dizziness when exposed to fragrance.

“My interest in having this case advocated has more to do with raising fragrance sensitivity awareness than the money,” she told me. “I must avoid air fresheners and deodorizers and my condition fits the ADA act.”

Although Felderman was under the impression that her condition falls under the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act, that fact is debatable. Presently, neither the American Medical Association nor the World Health Organization recognizes Multiple Chemical Sensitivity as a specific medical disorder.

What is not up for debate is that Felderman has discovered that fragrance exacerbates her particular symptoms. So she makes every effort to avoid any air fresheners or scented cleaning products when she travels.

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That objective is not easy. As Christopher pointed out in his article on the topic, fragrance in hotels and other public areas appears to be almost inescapable.

In fact, Felderman told me that she has had similar difficulties with Airbnb rentals in the past and that the company is well aware of her condition. For this reason, she believes that Airbnb owes her all of the prepaid expenses for this rental.

Felderman explained that before booking the property, the owner had assured her that he did not use air fresheners in this rental. Unfortunately, he had overlooked the can of Febreze. Felderman believed that the residue from this closed can had caused the rapid appearance of her symptoms.

After finding the offending can, she quickly gathered her things and left the property. When she contacted the owner, he apologized and promised a refund. Airbnb, however, did not agree to the return of the associated fees that it had collected.

Why? Airbnb had determined that the property was exactly as listed — there is no mention of a fragrance-free home in the listing.

The core of the problem appears to be a verbal misunderstanding between the owner and Felderman as to the severity of Felderman’s sensitivity to even a closed can of Febreze.

To avoid this predicament in the future, I suggested that Felderman write a specific list of criteria that must be met for her to be able to rent a home comfortably. This list should be transmitted through the Airbnb system so that Airbnb, the owner and Felderman will all be on the same page concerning her condition.

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There is no question that fragrance sensitivity can be debilitating and can cause a distinct problem when traveling.

But should Airbnb be liable in this particular situation? That is unclear since the listing did not guarantee a fragrance-free accommodation. And many would argue that a closed can of Febreze would not be considered an active air freshener.

Since we assume that no Airbnb host wants to cause Felderman to become ill, it is critical that she communicate specifically what could trigger her symptoms. The more transparent she is with the potential host before check-in, the better the possibility that she (and the host) will have a positive rental experience.

Our advocacy team discussed this case and decided to offer the question to our readers:

Should we ask Airbnb to refund all fees involved with Felderman's rental?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle is the executive director of Elliott.org. She is a consumer advocate, writer and licensed clinical social worker who spends as much time as possible exploring the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Friedman Read more of Michelle's articles here.

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