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.


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


Canadian Human Rights Commission, Accommodating Environmental Sensitivities: State of Knowledge, Balancing Conflicting Interests, see introductory section and Section 4:

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):

Canadian Human Rights Commission, Initiating factors, triggers and symptoms of environmental sensitivities, and their impacts in the workplace, Table 7: Environmental sensitivity symptoms/reactions:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, What are “environmental sensitivities”?, Summary:

Dalhousie University, History of Dal’s Scent-Free Program

Dalhousie University, Questions & Answers:

Dalhousie University, Statement on the Use of Scented Products:

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:

Ontario Human Rights Commission, Policy and Guidelines on disability and the duty to accommodate, Section 4.1.1, Respect for Dignity:

The Environmental Illness Resource, Secondary Reactions and Effects of Having MCS, excerpted from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: A Survival Guide by Pamela Reed Gibson, PhD:

Women’s Health Matters, Why Fragrance Free Works at Work:


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

A Moral Dilemma: “Scentual” Pleasure at the Expense of the Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of Others

Hundreds of Canadians have contacted the Canadian Human Rights Commission to find out whether their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are being violated because they are unable to access basic services or social and cultural events in their community without becoming ill from fragrance exposure.

Legal rights under the Canadian Charter include equality of person, freedom of association, the right to pursue a livelihood, the “right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.” It can be argued that Canadians have the right to clean air and an environment that is conducive to their health since the Charter includes the right to life and security of person.

Under the UN’s, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone “is entitled to realization … of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality,” “the right of equal access to public service” and “the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community.”

Yet, many Canadians with health conditions aggravated by respiratory irritants, asthma triggers and neurological toxins in scented products do not experience the same freedoms enjoyed by other Canadians. What about their rights? The degradation of the quality of life for these Canadians can range from mild to severe.

Those suffering from environmental sensitivity – a poorly understood disability recognized by both the Canadian and Ontario Human Rights Commissions – experience varying degrees of adverse reactions to chemicals and other environmental factors that many people are able to tolerate. The Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) reports that scents in perfumes, personal care products and air fresheners are “typical agents that trigger reactions in susceptible individuals.”

The choices made by others can impact the quality of life for those afflicted by environmental sensitivities enormously. The CHRC points out that “the health and ability to work for those with environmental sensitivities rests with the choices and actions of others, such as building managers, co-workers and clients.”

Environmental illness is often misdiagnosed and ranges in severity, so reliable statistics on the number of affected Canadians is unavailable. According to the CHRC, while 1 million Canadians have been diagnosed by doctors with environmental sensitivities, evidence suggests that “up to a third of the population may be experiencing discomfort.” Environmental sensitivities worsen with age and women are twice as likely as men to be affected by them.

But those suffering from environmental sensitivities are not the only ones whose fundamental right to be part of community is degraded by exposure to scented products. The Asthma Society of Canada urges asthmatics to “avoid … triggers in order to keep airway inflammation to a minimum and reduce the symptoms.” Perfume is listed as a symptom trigger for asthma. Yet how can asthmatics realistically avoid exposure to perfume if they wish to be involved in community? They cannot.

Significant numbers of Canadians with chronic respiratory problems and other medical conditions aggravated by scented products are in the same position.

The Canadian Lung Association notes that reactions to scent range from mild to severe and lists common symptoms such as “headaches, feeling dizzy, feeling tired or weak, shortness of breath, nausea, cold-like symptoms and worsening asthma symptoms.”

Additional symptoms reported to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health include lightheadedness, fatigue, insomnia, malaise, confusion, loss of appetite, depression, anxiety, numbness, upper respiratory symptoms, shortness of breath, difficulty with concentration and skin irritation.

The Centre notes that “the severity of these symptoms can vary. Some people report mild irritation while others are incapacitated and/or must give up many ‘normal’ activities in order to avoid exposure (such as going to public places).”

Why do we continue to passively tolerate or contribute to the constant bombardment of fragrance in offices, stores, churches, restaurants, theatres, malls and virtually every indoor environment when so many of us experience reduced quality of life because of it? Do preferences for the intense fragrances manufactured today really outweigh health needs? Is it morally acceptable for heavy scent users to enjoy their “scentual” pleasure at the expense of the rights and freedoms of others?



Asthma Society for Canada, Common Asthma Triggers:

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, Scent-Free Policy for the Workplace, See “Can Scents Cause Health Problems?”:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities by Margaret E. Sears, “Initiating factors, triggers and symptoms of environmental sensitivities, and their impacts in the workplace, See Table 6 & Summary”:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities by Margaret E. Sears:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities by Margaret E. Sears, p. 2 See “What are “environmental sensitivities?” & “Summary”:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities by Margaret E. Sears, p. 7 See “Scents”:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, Policy on Environmental Sensitivities:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, Personal Communication, Jan. 5, 2010 1-888-214-1090

Department of Justice Canada, Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms:

Office of the Auditor General of Canada, Right to Clean Water, Clean Air and a Healthy Environment, Petition: No. 163A:

Ontario Human Rights Commission, Policy and Guidelines on disability and the duty to accommodate, Section 2.3: Non-evident disabilities:

The Canadian Lung Association, Pollution and Air Quality, “How can scented products affect my health:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 21, 22 & 27: