What can I do to prevent harming people affected by scents?

You can adopt scent-free practices by avoiding perfumes, aftershaves, colognes and scented lotions, and opting for 'fragrance-free', 'scent-free' or 'unscented' versions of such personal care products as hand and body lotions, soaps, hair products and deodorants.  Many scent-free personal care products can be found at your local supermarket and pharmacy.  As well, there are a variety of special stores throughout the area.  

Is this a real problem? Perfumes and scents have been used by people since the dawn of time.

While there is much that we do not understand about scented products, there is no doubt that these materials make some people unwell.

I know a few people who have allergies to certain foods or suffer from hay fever. But I don't know anyone who has a reaction from coming into contact with scented products. How real is this concern?

It is very real. It's well documented that the incidence of asthma is on the increase, especially in young people.  In fact, there are many environmental illnesses—illnesses that are triggered by things in our environment.  Among the best known are spring and late summer allergies to the pollen from flowers, grasses or trees. It is also known that asthma and migraine headaches have multiple triggers, including chemical exposure. Asthma attacks can be set off by pollen, moulds, extreme cold, dust, and exposure to chemicals, including paint and perfume. Bright light, loud noise, foods such as chocolate, a change in barometric pressure, exposure to paint, and fragranced cleaning and personal care products can all trigger migraine attacks. So it is well known that exposure to materials in the environment can cause illness.

There are also people who suffer from sensitivity to multiple chemical triggers. This condition is now called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity or MCS.

People with chemical sensitivities confuse dislike with disease.

If this were true, there would not be so many people with chemical sensitivities who report that they are most acutely sensitized to their favourite chemical fragrances—the ones they themselves wore for many years.  This claim also fails to explain the reactions of people who have lost their sense of smell due to disease or trauma, but continue to have reactions to the chemicals that they can no longer smell.  The Nova Scotia Advisory Committee on Environmental Health and other expert groups who have researched the area have concluded that MCS is an illness not a dislike or even a discomfort, in the same way that allergies, asthma and migraines are illnesses.

What is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)?

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity is an acquired illness characterized by severe reaction to exposures easily tolerated by most individuals. Common triggers include volatile organic compounds of the sort often found in paints, cleaning products, perfumes and fragranced personal care products, gasoline and similar products, as well as such naturally-occurring substances as citrus oils and turpenes in softwood. Reactions range from sinus congestion and watery eyes through more serious reactions such as temporary rashes, flu-like symptoms with headache, nausea, and muscle or joint pain, to debilitating reactions including migraine and asthma attack. There are many theories about the cause of this illness, and at present there is much that we do not understand about the condition.  But while the research continues, the only reliable way to avoid painful and dangerous reactions is for the MCS sufferer to avoid as many triggers as possible.  While people with MCS are responsible for ensuring that their home environments are as free as possible from chemical triggers, they require the cooperation of others to make their classrooms, workplaces and recreational sites safe.

The fragrances from personal care products contribute to a person's individuality, self-esteem, and sense of well-being.  Scent-free programs threaten these aspects of personal identity.

While the fragrances from personal care products can be pleasing to some, they also can be unpleasant and even harmful to others.  Few would disagree that little pleasure or satisfaction can be derived from learning that these fragrances are causing harm to other people, especially when it is harm that could have been avoided.

I've heard that it is fine to wear scents, as long as they remain within my 'scent-circle' (i.e. I use only enough fragrance that can be smelled by others within an arm's length of me).

The 'scent-circle' is an idea which sounds good but which does not work very well in the real world.  Have you ever stepped into an empty elevator, a hallway or room and been able to tell that the person before you had been wearing perfume or cologne? 

As molecules of fragrance chemicals evaporate from your skin, they do not stay within an arm's distance of you. They are picked up by the currents of air that constantly move around us, and the fragrances dispersed into the atmosphere we all breathe. Fragrances are volatile organic compounds and it's their nature to waft in the air.  Even if you sat very still in one place, you could not keep a circle of air containing the fragrance close around you.  

Even if this myth were true, many public environments — the classroom, the workplace, the theatre, the gym — do not allow for people to be at an arm's length from each other.   

Health Canada knows of, tests, and approves, the entire contents of fragranced personal care products.  Therefore, it's perfectly safe to wear them.

Although Health Canada allows these products for use, this in no way provides a guarantee that some people won't have reactions to them.  If scented products are making people with allergies and chemical sensitivities sick, then clearly they are unsafe for some and it makes good sense to take reasonable steps to avoid this harm.

Asthma, migraines and allergies are fairly common health problems, but I've never heard of MCS.  If the origin is unknown, then is it a real medical illness?

The Nova Scotia government's Advisory Committee on Environmental Hypersensitivity concluded that MCS is an illness.  In the Committee's 1997 report, members concluded that some people are severely symptomatic to the point of incapacity and there are many instances where this condition has been catastrophic both economically and in the personal lives of people with MCS and their families.  A copy of the Advisory Committee’s Report is available in the Employment Equity Resource Centre.

Some people with MCS cannot work or even take part in the daily routines most of us take for granted: such as shopping for groceries, going to restaurants, bars, movies, concerts—virtually any place where people will be wearing scented products.

What happens if I don't adopt scent-free practices?

You are taking the risk of possibly causing harm, perhaps even severe pain and discomfort, to someone around you; harm that could easily be avoided.  Second, when employees or students miss time from work or school because of illness—asthma, allergies, migraine, MCS—there is a cost. Illness means lost productivity and lost opportunities for learning.  Finally, you undermine the University’s efforts to meet its moral and legal obligations to provide an environment which supports all members of the University community.

I would resent being told, or feel uncomfortable telling others, what kind of personal care product to use.  Isn't the request to adopt scent-free practices intrusive on the individual's right to wear whatever he or she wants?

It may at first seem that asking people to use scent-free personal care products touches on a personal and private matter. But when the scents from these products affect the health and well-being of other people, it then goes beyond just being a matter of private concern.  The goal of this awareness campaign is not to target people personally or to criticize people's preferences.  Rather, it's to prevent real harm to real people.

Why should I adopt scent-free practices when there isn't anyone in my unit, classroom or residence who suffers from an allergy or sensitivity? The perfume I wear and the scented products I use aren't bothering anyone.

In many cases employees will not bring an issue like this up with co-workers because it can be awkward.  There is also the chance that maybe you will come in contact with someone with a chemical sensitivity during the day—in the cafeteria, at the gym, in a meeting, at a concert, in the classroom, or in the library.   By putting all the responsibility for coming forward on the person who is at the most at risk of becoming ill, you increase their chances of having a reaction—they have to approach the person wearing a scent that triggers a reaction in them, in order to tell that person to refrain from wearing the scent.

If we ask people to avoid using scented products, perhaps they will stop using personal care products altogether. Poor hygiene and strong body odour might be the result. Surely we want to avoid this?

This is not the likely consequence of adopting scent-free practices. The products section offers more than 100 alternatives to scented personal care products, from the most essential (soap, shampoo, deodorant), to the additional products we rely on to make us look good and feel good (body wash, hand cream, body lotion, hairspray, gel and more).

Don't I have to spend a lot of time and money running around looking for scent-free products?  

Going scent-free may not be as difficult as you think.  While specialty store items do tend to be a bit more pricey, many of these items are of high quality, and are effective in smaller quantities than the scented products.  As a result, while the up-front cost may be higher, the cost-per-use can be comparable.  

But in addition to the specialty store products, many brand name personal care items come in 'scent-free', 'fragrance-free' or 'unscented' versions.  These are available at your local supermarket and pharmacies on the shelf next to their scented versions.  As well, some of the large chains have bulk or natural products sections which sell many specialty store items at a lower price.  The products section provides alternatives to scented personal care products that will appeal to all tastes, budgets and schedules.  Of course, it is easy and cost-free to simply not wear unnecessary perfume or cologne at work or at school.

What's the difference between products labelled 'fragrance-free', 'scent-free' or 'unscented'?   

These terms are used in industry virtually without restrictions.  They may only mean that the product has less scent than the scented version of the same product from that manufacturer.  Therefore, these labels can offer no guarantee that a product won't trigger a reaction in someone who is chemically sensitive.  Nonetheless, choosing products with these labels is still safer than choosing the scented versions.  While it is possible that somebody could have a reaction to your personal care product even if you've taken all precautions to avoid this outcome, the important thing is that you realize this and are prepared to react in a positive way, should this situation ever arise.  

What about the use of dangerous cleaning and maintenance chemicals in University buildings?

The University has dramatically altered its use of custodial and maintenance chemicals. As a matter of routine, it only uses environmentally-friendly paints and adhesives. On the custodial side, the University will be looking into systematically replacing problematic chemicals with less scented and generally safer products. If you have concerns about any particular product, contact Facilities Management or the OHS Department.

What is the difference between an allergy and a sensitivity?

Physicians and the general public often use these words differently. An allergy is a condition in which exposure to material prompts the body’s immune system to respond inappropriately. One can have a skin or a respiratory system allergy. For many people, the workings of the human immune system are a mystery and they sometimes report that they are “allergic to” something when they are adversely affected by something in their environment. The situation regarding sensitivities is even more complicated. Some people have been coming forward to report that they are adversely affected by chemical exposures in their environment. There is much we do not understand about the problems that these people experience. Because they report a wide range of adverse impacts — often following exposures that most people tolerate without difficulty — many of the suggested names have included the terms “sensitivity” or “hypersensitivity”.



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