Perspectives on Living with Scent Allergies in a World Full of Scent

Fragrance: Subtle Invitation or Nasty Chokehold?

I bubble over with excitement as I scan the program and then gaze around the theatre taking in the audience, the ambiance. What an excellent view of the stage. This is going to be a great performance. I wonder if – through sheer concentration – I can will the cast onto the stage immediately. Presto! They would suddenly appear as if by magic.

But then my excitement fades. I start feeling dizzy, nauseous and confused. My throat hurts and I’m dimly aware that the unsuspecting person sitting in front of me is in imminent danger of wearing my dinner.

What’s happening to me? I’m now part of the roughly thirty percent of the population that is sensitive to scent. Never again will I look forward to a public performance with such unadulterated anticipation.

I try to avoid scent after that but it emerges unbidden from the pages of magazines, stalks me in the aisle at the grocery store, takes me captive at meetings and sometimes causes me to gaze balefully at utter strangers I might otherwise have taken a liking to.

My choices are a) remain seated as long as I can stand it (and feel increasingly ill), b) move to a different seat (possibly feel better; maybe get people wondering why) or c) leave altogether (probably feel resentful; possibly neglect my responsibilities).

Does this sound far-fetched to you? Welcome to the world of the scent-sensitive. But it is not just those with scent allergies that suffer from exposure to scent; a variety of medical conditions are aggravated by it.

Did you know that asthma attacks are triggered by scented products? Scents trigger migraine headaches. Chronic respiratory conditions like bronchitis, emphysema and sinusitis are all worsened by exposure to fragrances. People with depressed immune systems are often sickened by scent, as are those undergoing chemotherapy.

Derived primarily from petroleum, fragrance chemicals are increasingly recognized as significant sources of indoor air pollution. Thousands of scent chemicals are in use today. Many have never been tested for human safety, alone or in combination, or they have only been tested for skin contact, without addressing their effects on nervous and respiratory systems.

With a little research, it becomes increasingly clear that exposure to scented products poses health risks for everyone. Unfortunately, knowledge about the health risks associated with scented products is not widespread. A lot of people react adversely to their own scented products without realizing it.

And, often people don’t understand how negative the impact of scent can be. Those sickened by scents may have to leave their jobs. They may become increasingly isolated from community, avoiding public events and even essential services, as they withdraw to avoid scented products.

Choosing unscented products (which sometimes still contain scent but have much less of it combined with masking agents), helps those with health issues aggravated by scent be part of the community and it is better for your health and the health of your family, also.

Please remember, too, that heavy use of scent not only detracts from intimacy but also imposes itself on everyone in the vicinity.

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Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Scented Products

Scent Chemicals: Innocent Indulgence or Insidious Threat?

In a research paper presented at an American Chemical Society meeting in 2010, a fragrance designer candidly admits that “anywhere from 800 to 1500 chemicals … can be found in a product, depending on its complexity” (http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2010/august/secrets-of-scents-designing-the-smells-that-sell-household-products.html).

The multi-billion dollar chemical industry would have us believe that exposure to scent chemicals – some that should scare the pants right off us – is safe. We’re apparently okay because it’s only a small amount of 800-1500 chemicals in just the one product, right? But what about all the other scented products around us? Plus, unlike other indulgences, scent exposure is continuous, especially if it’s on your body, in your home and work environment.

Isn’t this rather like sprinkling a little arsenic on your cereal every day and expecting to be safe? No one can predict with certainty how our bodies will respond, especially in the long term. The chemical industry’s priority is to create the “smell that sells” by manipulating emotions and memory. Profits take precedence over health.

Should we trust an industry that commonly includes toluene in its formulations even though toluene can cause autism and asthma? (http://www.thelancet.com/journals/laneur/article/PIIS1474-4422%2813%2970278-3/fulltext; http://www.bc.lung.ca/mediaroom/scents.html )

Fragrances have become such a ubiquitous part of our culture that people often wear them even when they don’t intend to, particularly if they haven’t checked the label of every hair, skin and laundry product for the term “fragrance,” “perfume,” “parfum” or “aroma.”

Carefully selecting unscented products may help reduce the health risks we all face from the onslaught of chemical scents. The Guide to Less Toxic Products (http://lesstoxicguide.ca/), Skin Deep Cosmetics Database (http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/) and the Environmental Working Groups’ Guide to Healthy Cleaning (http://www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners) are helpful resources.

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Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Scented Products

Fragrance Industry Keeps Consumers in the Dark

To discover 1498 scientific research papers on the toxicity of fragrance, click on the link, “Research: Studies on the toxicity of fragrance cited in Pub Med,” located near the bottom of the webpage found at http://safecosmetics.org/article.php?id=222.

Yet as I write to you, shoppers are buying their loved ones scented products laced with respiratory irritants, sensitizers, registered pesticides, carcinogens and nerve toxins. Others are applying them to their skin and hair, clothing and homes. And doctors aren’t warning pregnant women to keep scented products out of their homes even though they are a primary source of exposure to phthalates or endocrine disruptors (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3404651/).

How can there be so much evidence about the toxicity of fragrance yet such widespread use of scented products? Obviously, there is a gap between what scientists know and what the public knows. This gap is deliberately maintained by the fragrance industry.

If you think it’s impossible to keep people in the dark about adverse or even dire health consequences from commonly used products, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, consider this: In the 1940s and 50s, cigarette smoking was unequivocally proven to be the cause of the global epidemic of lung cancer yet 50 % of American doctors were still smoking by 1960 and only 1/3 believed that smoking causes lung cancer (http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/21/2/87.full).

The tobacco industry used propaganda to cast doubt on the validity of the research. Note that they did not actually have to prove anything. All they had to do was cast doubt. Doubt breeds inaction. We see the same phenomenon with big industry casting doubt about the greenhouse effect so they can carry on with business as usual.

The fragrance industry uses similar strategies as the tobacco industry, including propaganda. They label incriminating research papers, “Bad Science.” They liken today’s intense, persistent chemical concoctions with the plant-based fragrances of days gone by. They fail to disclose. They use misleading labels. They target young people. They attack the experts. They discredit those who have scent reactions as neurotics in need of psychiatric help. They claim they are a highly regulated industry yet Health Canada relies on them to voluntarily regulate themselves.

They form powerful lobbies to protect their interests. They create associations composed of fragrance industry members to “educate” the public yet their true purpose is to spread propaganda. They encourage wearers to keep their fragrance within an arm’s length but their products are designed to disperse widely, settling and sticking to every available surface, including the food we eat. They’ve even created food-approved fragrance chemicals (aroma chemicals) which are used in packaged foods.

We are all at the mercy of the runaway fragrance industry in ways that few of us have considered. Unfortunately, unlike cigarette smoke, the toxic VOC’s in scented products waft around us invisibly, day and night, indoors and even outdoors from dryer vent emissions. And, unlike the tobacco industry which created one type of product, cigarettes, the fragrance industry’s chemicals permeate a profuse array of products.

So, what can we do about it? We can carefully select the products we bring into our homes using websites like the non-profit Guide to Less Toxic Products (http://lesstoxicguide.ca/), Skin Deep Cosmetics Database (http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/) and the Environmental Working Groups’ Guide to Healthy Cleaning (http://www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners). We can minimize how many types of body products we use. We can try to avoid using too many packaged foods. We can ask for scent-free policies and we can speak up when people ignore them.

Finally, we can hope it won’t take too long for knowledge about the health risks of fragrance to flow from researchers to the public and for the government to start reigning in the industry.

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Healthy Solutions to Scented Products

Phasing Out Scented Products

Perhaps after learning about the harmful ingredients in scented products, you wonder whether fragrance chemicals are triggering a family member’s asthma attacks, insomnia or headaches. Maybe you suspect you’ve been led down the garden path by the fragrance industry.

But phasing out scented products can seem like a daunting proposition, once you start looking at labels and find synthetic scent in every hair and body product you own, plus the laundry and cleaning supplies. There it is in the toilet and tissue paper, candles and potpourris. Why, it’s even in the diapers, kitty litter and garbage bags.

You could ease into it by replacing each scented product that runs out with an unscented one. An “unscented” product may still contain a masking fragrance to cover up the smell of other chemicals. “Fragrance free” usually indicates that the product is free of scent chemicals.

I started by feeding the brand names of my personal care products into the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database (http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/) and was dismayed to learn that my shampoo and conditioner had high toxicity ratings because of respiratory irritants, hormone disruptors, common allergens and sensitizers. Like so many people today, I had inadvertently made unhealthy, uninformed choices.

I used the Cosmetics Database to learn which products had lower toxicity ratings, consulted lists of less toxic products at the user-friendly Guide to Less Toxic Products (http://lesstoxicguide.ca/) and phoned around until I found stores that carried those products.

Sure, it was a hassle at first, not very convenient and some products were more expensive. But then, I also found recipes for making natural products out of ingredients in the kitchen and these were much less expensive. I began to feel better. I found products I liked and, after a while, choosing safer products became second nature.

It is not only possible but highly desirable to replace unhealthy scented products with healthier alternatives. The BC Lung Association says, “The only safe assumption about scented products is that they contain numerous toxic chemicals, which constantly vaporize into the air and attach themselves to hair, clothing, and surroundings” (http://www.bc.lung.ca/mediaroom/scents.html). Keep in mind, too, that the impact of multiple exposures day after day has never been studied.

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Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Scented Products

Hormone Disruptors in Scented Products Linked to Attention and Behavioural Disorders in Children

They’re everywhere; in our homes and schools, theatres and work places, in and on our bodies. Fragrance even wafts from our dental floss. Those that don’t like fragrance are supposed to grin and bear it. Those that get sick from it are supposed to suffer in silence. But, maybe there are valid reasons why some instinctively recoil and others get sick.

It’s not common knowledge that registered pesticides, probable human carcinogens and hazardous, toxic and polluting volatile organic compounds constantly vaporize and disperse around us from scented products (www.drsteinemann.com/Articles/Steinemann%20et%20al.%202010.pdf).

If that’s not enough to rattle your cage, consider this: hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates are routinely used to stabilize scent in scented products. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors. The endocrine system of glands produces our hormones.

Scientists at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Cornell University and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention link prenatal exposure to the phthalates in scented products to attention and behavioural disorders in children (http://ehsehplp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.0901470). In their public release statement, Dr. Engel says, “There is increasing evidence that phthalate exposure is harmful to children at all stages of development” (http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-01/tmsh-msf012710.php).

Why is that? Phthalates are classified as both developmental and reproductive toxins so not only can they affect the unborn child, they can interfere with child development (http://www.cela.ca/publications/regulating-toxic-substances-consumer-products).

An Environmental Health Perspectives study of a wide range of consumer products, Endocrine Disruptors and Asthma-Associated Chemicals in Consumer Products, found that scented products are a primary source of exposure to phthalates. Other than vinyl products which contain very high concentrations of phthalates, they discovered that scented products and sunscreens contain the highest concentrations and kinds of phthalates (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3404651/).

Phthalates are implicated in childhood cancers, in addition to prostate, testicular, breast and ovarian cancers. Yet none of this is disclosed on product labels nor is the general public aware of the phthalates in scented products or the many toxic and hazardous compounds emitting from scented products. Don’t consumers have the right to know so they can make informed choices about the risks they are willing to take with their health and the health of their families?

Consumers baffled about how to change over to healthier products might find the non-profit Guide to Less Toxic Products (http://lesstoxicguide.ca/), Skin Deep Cosmetics Database (http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/) and the Environmental Working Groups’ Guide to Healthy Cleaning (http://www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners) excellent resources.

Additional Sources:

Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Dept. of Preventive Medicine: Dr. Shanna Swan (http://shswan.com/articles/)

  • Women’s exposure to phthalates and personal care products:
  • Lifestyle behaviours associated with exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals in a Mennonite population

Environmental Health Perspectives Paper of the Year, 2009: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2702420/

Chemical Exposure Linked to Attention Deficit Disorder in Children: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/children-chemicals-fragrences-cosmetics-pthalate-attention-deficit-womb/

Breast Cancer Fund: http://www.breastcancerfund.org/reduce-your-risk/tips/choose-safe-cosmetics/

Metametrix Library: Phthalates & Paraben Profile: Urine https://www.gdx.net/product/phthalates-parabens-test-urine

Healthy Child Healthy World: Avoid Phthalates: Find Phthalate- Free Products Instead http://healthychild.org/easy-steps/avoid-phthalates-find-phthalate-free-products-instead%E2%80%A8%E2%80%A8/

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Perspectives on Living with Scent Allergies in a World Full of Scent

Stigma & Sensitivities: Must They Coexist?

Those with environmental sensitivities look like others do but their bodies react differently to substances like automobile exhaust, mould, fragrance, tobacco smoke and pesticides. While reactions vary, neurological symptoms such as headaches, depression, insomnia, anxiety and difficulties with coordination, memory and concentration are almost universal. Symptoms like these strongly impact employability.

Though the Canadian and Ontario Human Rights Commissions formally recognize environmental sensitivities as a disability, people tend to respond differently to those with non-evident disabilities than they do to visibly-disabled persons. What happens when accommodating the needs of someone with a non-evident disability involves personal sacrifice? Let’s explore the impact that environmental sensitivities may have on personal relationships, when a person – like many afflicted with environmental sensitivities – has adverse reactions to synthetic fragrance.

Say a scent-sensitive person wishes to attend a function and asks someone attending to please reduce or refrain from wearing a fragrance that has made them ill before. The person may be outraged that someone would presume to suggest what they can and cannot wear. Why should they change their personal habits? They may feel controlled and suggest the person making the request has an overly developed sense of self-importance. They may delegitimize the person and trivialize their concerns by suggesting the disability is psychosomatic. Thus they rationalize their decision to wear fragrance anyway.

And what of the person with the disability? As they struggle to come to terms with being exposed to fragrance in virtually every indoor environment, as they grieve the loss of rights and freedoms, do they lash out? Most likely. When everything from buying eggs to going to work becomes complicated by fragrance sensitivity, do they talk about it too often? Perhaps they speak out while anxious or disoriented from a fragrance reaction. How sensitive are they when they make their request? Yet, how can a request for someone to alter personal care habits be sensitive?

Actually, the person making the request may feel as uncomfortable as the person being asked. According to Dalhousie University’s scent-free program, although such a request may seem intrusive, “when the scents from these products affect the health and well-being of other people, it then goes beyond just being a … personal and private matter” because it involves “real harm to real people.”

Those unwilling to resign themselves to a life of either sickness or isolation, may repeatedly request that others respect their health needs. Do they grow weary with frustration and despair? Do they find themselves viewing others with fresh eyes? Do others begin to see them differently? These types of dynamics can lead to the stigmatization of people with environmental sensitivities.

Going back to our hypothetical situation, is the refusal to accommodate the request, the equivalent of a person placing a barrier across a wheelchair ramp and then going in to enjoy the function while the person with the disability sits alone outside? No, it’s not similar, is it? The effect may be the same – in both cases, a person with a disability experiences a barrier that prevents them from experiencing a full and normal life – but, in one situation, a person creates a physical barrier, whereas, in the other, a person creates a chemical barrier by wearing fragrance.

Some might suggest that the person with environmental illness can still attend. But, if they do, they may be ill for 2-3 days. Should they wear a mask? A mask impedes breathing and talking which can compound feelings of alienation. Others may not know how to respond since they cannot see their facial expressions. A mask can lead to ostracism and is not conducive to personal comfort or dignity.

Though it is not common knowledge, “about one-third of the Canadian population is sensitive to fragrances,” according to Nancy Bradshaw, community outreach coordinator for the Environmental Health Clinic at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. Will society continue to ignore the needs of those with sensitivities? Are we to fight the good fight unsupported, even stigmatized, by community? Alternatively, need we resign ourselves to a life of isolation from others?

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

Sources:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, Accommodating Environmental Sensitivities: State of Knowledge, Balancing Conflicting Interests, see introductory section and Section 4: http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/research_program_recherche/esensitivities_legal_hypersensibilitee/page4-en.asp

Canadian Human Rights Commission, Initiating factors, triggers and symptoms of environmental sensitivities, and their impacts in the workplace, Table 6: Typical agents that trigger reactions in susceptible individuals (and may contribute to initiation of environmental sensitivities): http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/research_program_recherche/esensitivities_hypersensibilitee/page4-en.asp

Canadian Human Rights Commission, Initiating factors, triggers and symptoms of environmental sensitivities, and their impacts in the workplace, Table 7: Environmental sensitivity symptoms/reactions: http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/research_program_recherche/esensitivities_hypersensibilitee/page4-en.asp

Canadian Human Rights Commission, What are “environmental sensitivities”?, Summary: http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/research_program_recherche/esensitivities_hypersensibilitee/page2-en.asp#2

Dalhousie University, History of Dal’s Scent-Free Programhttp://www.dal.ca/dept/safety/programs-services/occupational-safety/scent-free.html

Dalhousie University, Questions & Answers: http://environmentalhealthandsafetyoffice.dal.ca/radiatio_7451.html

Dalhousie University, Statement on the Use of Scented Products: http://environmentalhealthandsafetyoffice.dal.ca/radiatio_7450.html

Ontario Human Rights Commission, Policy and guidelines on disability and the duty to accommodate, 2.2 A broader approach to understanding disability: a social perspective: http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/resources/Policies/PolicyDisAccom2?page=disability-2_.html#Heading119

Ontario Human Rights Commission, Policy and Guidelines on disability and the duty to accommodate, Section 4.1.1, Respect for Dignity: http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/resources/Policies/PolicyDisAccom2?page=disability-4_.html#Heading176

The Environmental Illness Resource, Secondary Reactions and Effects of Having MCS, excerpted from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: A Survival Guide by Pamela Reed Gibson, PhD: http://www.ei-resource.org/articles/multiple-chemical-sensitivity-articles/secondary-reactions-and-effects-of-having-mcs/

Women’s Health Matters, Why Fragrance Free Works at Work: http://www.womenshealthmatters.ca/resources/show_res.cfm?ID=43933

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