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?

View Results

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle is a consumer advocate, writer and licensed clinical social worker who spends as much time as possible exploring the world with her family. As the managing director of Elliott.org, she leads the advocacy, editorial and production departments. Read more of Michelle's articles here.

  • John Baker

    If the mere presence of a can of air fresher can cause her symptoms, she might need to consider a non-public mode of transportation like RV or camper. I’m sure there isn’t a hotel, motel, resort, rental, bus company airline, air charter company that can guarantee that no fragrance has ever been used or that nothing with a fragrance is present on the property.

  • LDVinVA

    I was thinking the same thing. Scented products are used everywhere.

  • DChamp56

    Yeah, I’m not completely buying the story that she ONLY felt ill when she sat on the toilet. That kind of sensitivity should have been felt in other places in the house if it were indeed because of the can of Febreeze. JMHO

  • C Schwartz

    I thought that Febreeze was fragrance free — or is that just the type I have?

  • Chris_In_NC

    Should you take this case? No
    As someone who has sensitivities to fragrances and allergens, I sympathize with the OP, but, this case is borderline ludicrous. For someone to incorrectly cite ADA over a condition that isn’t officially recognized gives me the image of a chronic complainer who can never be pleased. Also, for clarification, the ADA specifies reasonable accommodations, and I’m not sure the OPs condition can be reasonably accommodated under any circumstances.

  • Noah Kimmel

    I deeply sympathize with the OP and hope she is able to feel better and can’t imagine how difficult travel must be for her. It seems much of our world has fragrances – even in products that are supposedly fragrance free. However, AirBnB is not a cleaning service or commercial hotel. In cases where a reaction is so severe that you cant be near a closed bottle, the OP holds the burden to painstakingly detail the condition with the owner and AirBnB before the rental. It is not sufficient to say you have a history with the company – there isn’t a person reading every contract and thinking back to your last rental and trying to share tips, etc.

    It is a shame that the owner refunded her but AirBnB won’t, but it isn’t unreasonable either. Next time the OP should go to Hilton and get one of the PURE allergy friendly rooms. The variation in the AirBnB experience and the OPs need for strict cleaning procedures do not align well.

  • Mel65

    Oy vey. I’m not sure that the OP felt ill BEFORE seeing the bottle of Febreeze. If it was on the back of the toilet, I suspect she saw it when entering the bathroom and then “became ill” whether legitimately or psychosomatically, (but I’m also pretty cynical I guess). I suffer from scent-induced migraines, so I’m sympathetic to a degree,(don’t get me started on people who marinate in cologne/perfume/body butter before getting on a plane) but this case seems pretty over the top, if the mere suggestion of fragrance use (and we don’t know that the bottle had been used) bothered her that much. I think the fact that the owner refunded her is enough.

  • EvilEmpryss

    Febreeze does have some scented products. There’s no knowing exactly which kind was in the bathroom at that rental.

  • Blamona

    I’ll sound harsh, she needs to stay home. Wow, everything has a scent, sun tan lotion, body cream, hotel rooms. I️ have vascular rhinitis (chemicals and perfumes) and a closed can does that to her? Does she also avoid grocery shopping? Tons of closed air fresheners there. I️ say no refund

  • Gregg Tonkin

    I’m sure the reason the host refunded is to just get rid of this guest, an unsatisfied complaining guest is for more trouble than what ever money was involved. In our seven years of renting our VR, we have had two like this that we just gave an unwarranted refund just to make them disappear.

  • Stefan de Winter

    Opening a window or turning on a fan doesn’t help? I have friends who are sensitive to smells as well but if you are this badly afflicted you should probably not travel, or ever leave your home for that matter.

  • Jeff W.

    Not going to question her condition. But if it is that serious, she should be using any accommodations that can be used by the public. While a hotel room/AirBnB is not a public place, per se, you certainly do not know who used the place prior.

    Furthermore, if her condition is that bad, she should have checked each room of the house prior to starting her stay. The can of Febreze did not beam into the bathroom on its own.

  • Annie M

    Now she knows to ask if there are any cans of deodorizer in the house. I never would have assumed that an unsprayed can of Febreeze could set off someone this like this. It’s her responsibility to ask the owners about that and tell them they need to remove any and all cans. From the story it also doesn’t state that she followed the Airbnb rules for requesting a refund – which is to notify them right away.

  • Blamona

    I️ fight it. It’s principle. A bad review can be responded, and most see through it

  • tio2girl

    “Fragrance free” doesn’t necessarily mean the complete absence of fragrance, too. Often, scented additives have still been added to cover up the odor of the chemicals that compose the product. It’s kind of like the term “all natural,” little regulation on how the term is used and lots of ways to get around it. Not necessarily a big deal to the general public, but obviously a problem for someone like the OP. (Plus, like EvilEmpryss pointed out, Febreeze has so many different scented products as well.)

  • LeeAnneClark

    If her pursuing this case is really more about “raising fragrance sensitivity awareness than the money,” she’s not doing her cause any favors. If a closed can of air freshener can cause this much trouble, I should think that property owners would simply want to avoid renting to anyone who has this condition. There is simply no way to ensure that a renter will never encounter an odor from a chemical. Chemicals are everywhere.

    If anything, she’s just making herself, and others with her condition, appear unreasonable and more trouble than they’re worth.

    If I was a property owner, I would not rent to her. What if she got a headache and insisted that it was due to something she “smelled” in my house? How could I prove her wrong?

    Nope, not worth it.

  • Michael__K

    She doesn’t need ADA. She got it in writing that “the owner assured her that he did not use air fresheners in this rental” and Febreze is clearly marketed as an air freshener (Febreze: Air Fresheners & Odor-Eliminating Products>).

    It’s fine to be skeptical of her condition; I’m a little skeptical myself. But she requested this up front and she got it in writing. Kudos to the host for refunding her. AirBnb should have refunded her also or at least applied her fees to another stay.

  • Attention All Passengers

    This is a person that needs to stay home in her “scent-free” house. Seriously where in the world is she going to go without a “whiff” of any odors anywhere? When did we (rather some nut jobs out there) become a society of such entitled, neurotic people who think they can complain and get their money back for every perceived discomfort? Don’t dump your one-in-a-zillion “ailment” on everyone else.

  • Chris_In_NC

    @micha@Michael__K:disqus
    Did she get it in writing? This is the exact quote from the article: “Felderman explained that before booking the property, the owner had assured her that he did not use air fresheners in this rental.”

    In fact, the article advises “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.”

    Nothing there says she got it in writing. At best, its a he said, she said situation.

  • Michael__K

    Is there any other way to communicate with the host besides messages sent via airbnb.com from the listing page? I’m not a customer, but looking at listings on their site that seems that is the process….

  • greg watson

    to all the people who voted no………………..shame..on..you. I don’t have a diagnosed medical condition……but on a recent visit to the Hard Rock Casino…….it was too obvious that some fragrance (chemicals) was being distributed from their air system………maybe to cover the smell of B O……….but who knows. All I know, was that I started coughing & my eyes started to water a little bit………..it improved quickly when I went outside. If someone has COPD are you going to criticise them as well. PS……..consider this, the can was in the bathroom for a reason……it had probably been sprayed in there………..DUH ??………ya think !

  • Travelnut

    I’ve been able to text the hosts after they have accepted my request for the property. I think Airbnb would rather you only message each other via their website/app.

  • Travelnut

    That was the exact question in my head… “How can she even go to the grocery store?” I am not minimizing her condition; it must be a miserable existence. I agree, if it is this severe she should not expect to find many compliant properties.

  • disqus_wK5MCy17IP

    I wonder if this was a whole home listing or a shared listing. If there were guests staying in another room and sharing the bathroom, it may have been their can. The host has no control over that.

  • KJ

    You indicated it was evident Hard Rock distributed fragrance in the air…in this case that was NOT evident. It was only upon SEEING the can. Big difference!

  • NorthtoSouth

    Not to diminish this lady’s problem, because I have a problem with fragrance. It just brings back memories of a lady that came to visit. She had been in the house more than an hour when she told me she had an allergy to cats. I told her we had a cat. OMG! She started running around grabbing her belongings and tearing , sniffling and chokeing up saying I have to leave, sneezing on her way out.

  • greg watson

    the headaches started before she noticed the can………..but maybe you are correct……….the can was just there for decor…………..as the owner stated that “he did not use air fresheners in this rental “………..maybe you need to read the article again………..ya think !

  • KJ

    I did read the article again…she sat on the toilet…got a headache…saw the closed can. She even said she thought mold might be the culprit. She made the assumption based on SEEING the can.

  • joycexyz

    You raise a good point. A litigious person with such a condition might decide to sue.

  • joycexyz

    What you don’t know won’t hurt you???

  • justanotherguy

    IF

  • greg watson

    as incorrect & has unbending as you appear to be………….you seem to be ignoring the owner’s comment…………&….. thinking the air freshener was only for decor…….hmmm…..& not be willing to admit that it actually may have been sprayed sometime before the OP arrived……..hmmm ?? If I thought that there was a chance in hell that you are correct………I would admit it……………you are however entitled to your opinion…peace !

  • KJ

    I’m unbending….hmmmmm! Interesting. I’m out of this convo. I tried to go by what she wrote since that’s all we really have. You added the suppositions & theories…so there you go. Have a good one.

  • Mel65

    You’re comparing an open window that allowed in ragweed and pollen to a closed container of a substance that there’s no proof was ever even used in the location. Not the same thing.. And if this person’s symptoms are so severe that the closed product can set her off she should probably never leave the house without an air filter ration mask. And frankly, if someone came into my home to stay for more than a few days and expected my family to wrap ourselves around the axle to accommodate their unique situation, I would probably say “you might be happier somewhere else” myself.

  • LeeAnneClark

    I certainly hope you’re not accusing ME of greed. I have nothing to do with “fragrance companies”. And sorry but I have more pressing matters in my own life to “put pressure” on. Such as fighting the gun culture in this nation that led to a madman having easy access to assault weapons that murdered the children of my friends from Newtown, my hometown, exactly five years ago today.

    The fact that I don’t make fighting fragrance toxicity my life focus does not mean I lack compassion. Nor does it mean I’m greedy.

  • Mel65

    Also, I should point out that I have seasonal allergies, hayfever, mold spores, dust, pet dander etc. my son is deathly allergic to tree nuts, and my daughter and I both suffer from scent migraines. So I am not entirely unsympathetic; however, when I travel I make sure that the accommodations are going to work for me I don’t expect other people to make those accommodations for me.

  • Mel65

    She never said she actually smelled any fragrance. We don’t know that it was ever used. If the landlord has multiple units it is possible that that can was carried in and out of multiple units but not used in that one.

  • Mel65

    I agree. I think it’s far more likely and common sense that the owner did not spray did not use chemicals and cleaning etc. but left the can in there because they leave it there so that when people stay there if they stink up the place they can choose to freshen up it’s just something they provide to the tenants. The OP asked for a fragrance free room but did not ask for a room with no cans bottles or anything evident anywhere that might possibly have fragrance in it even when closed; that is a huge difference.

  • Mel65

    Good ideas, but rubbing alcohol and vinegar both have very strong sense! The smell of rubbing alcohol burns my eyes and nasal passages big time. So now what’s left?

  • Mel65

    Just acquittal, we don’t know that the fragrance is what made her sick. We don’t know that Hannah for breeze was ever opened or used. It could have been stuck on that shelf or year ago in case any guest wanted to freshen up after they poop. We don’t know that it was ever opened and the OP herself never said the words “I smelled fragrance and then felt nauseous.”

  • Annie M

    Can someone else clean it out for you to at least get them out of the house?

  • Laura J Mac

    Alternative to Dawn dish soap: Ecover Zero – I can use this with bare hands! YMMV but it scores an A rating on http://www.EWG.org (Bulk Barn has recently started carrying a brand called The Unscented Company, might only be available in Canada? The dish soap I needed gloves but no respiratory hell, again your mileage may vary)… Dawn really is the worst. And Palmolive, they’re tied 😃

    You might be able to find a safer dishwasher product on their website.

    Depending on what’s being “bleached” hydrogen peroxide may work for your needs.

  • Wendy Kearley

    Good for you Susan, perpetration of systemic discrimination is not acceptable.

  • Wendy Kearley

    Febreeze is toxic for everyone. It doesn’t actually eliminate smells, it chemically changes what you can smell. On the @Environmental Working Group database of products, none of their products are safe for human use or the environment. Just because they sell it doesn’t mean it’s safe. Their top ingredients are rated for toxicity or health concerns.
    FRAGRANCE
    ETHANOLAMINE. …
    QUATERNARY AMMONIUM COMPOUNDS. …
    BENZISOTHIAZOLINONE. …
    CYCLODEXTRIN.
    SILICON COMPOUNDS. …
    DEODORIZING AGENT.

  • Wendy Kearley

    Is unsafe or lacks promised amenities as per her many discussions with Airb&b.

    “Eligible travel issues
    Situations that may be eligible for a refund under this policy generally fall into one of three categories:

    The host fails to provide reasonable access to the booked listing.
    The listing booked is misrepresented (ex: number of bedrooms, location, lacks promised amenities).
    The listing isn’t generally clean, is unsafe, or there’s an animal in the listing that wasn’t disclosed prior to booking.
    Airbnb will either provide you with a refund or use reasonable efforts to find and book you at another comparable accommodation for any unused nights left in your reservation. The amount of any refund will depend on the nature of the travel Issue suffered.”

    https://www.airbnb.ca/help/article/544/what-is-airbnb-s-guest-refund-policy

  • Riki Luri

    Under the ADA, disability is not defined by one’s condition, disease or any specific condition. The definition of disability per the ADA is:

    Disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

    A physical impairment is a physiological condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss that affects one or more of the following body systems: neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory, speech organs, cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genito-urinary, hemic and lymphatic, skin, and endocrine.

    A mental impairment is a mental or psychological disorder such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.

    The ADA does not list diseases or conditions that are considered disabilities, however it does list those which are NOT included. Not covered under the ADA are homosexuality, bisexuality, transvestism, transsexualism, compulsive gambling, kleptomania, pyromania, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments, other sexual behavior disorders and psychoactive substance use disorders resulting from the current illegal use of drugs. The ADA does not cover individuals who are currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs.

    A short-term condition such as a broken limb generally is not a disability. The test is whether the impairment substantially limits one or more major life activities and should be determined by examining the extent, duration and impact of the impairment.

    The EEO considers the following as major life activities: walking, seeing, speaking, hearing, breathing, learning, performing manual tasks, caring for oneself, working, sitting, standing, lifting, reaching, thinking, concentrating, interacting with others, and sleeping.

    When neurotoxic fragrance chemicals interfere with your “major life activities”, as above, then you are considered legally disabled under the ADA. There is NO DEBATE ABOUT THIS.

  • C Schwartz

    Thank you for the explanation, always good to learn.

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