Chemical sensitivity is a physiological reaction. Small amounts of certain chemicals called neurotoxins can cause a sufferer’s neurons to fire uncontrollably. Perhaps 1% of the public has full-blown chemical sensitivity, and perhaps 5% have a noticeable reaction to neurotoxins. Chemical sensitivity is a federally recognized disability under the ADA.
Airborne neurotoxins can penetrate a chemical sensitivity sufferer’s nose-brain barrier in seconds, just as natural human pheromones penetrate this barrier in seconds and enter the specific section of the brain devoted to mood, and just as snorted cocaine penetrates this same barrier. A common instant reaction is mood changes including getting upset (the brain’s mood center is just behind the nose and so is affected first). Headaches and fogginess can come minutes later, as the neurotoxin diffuses out to the brain’s cerebral cortex. Extreme medical reactions include stoppage of the vagus nerve, which causes the heart to stop working. Longer-term reactions stem from general physical exhaustion from each one of the sufferer’s neurons and muscle cells firing uncontrollably for many hours on end.
Almost all fragranced cosmetics contain neurotoxic solvents, used to push the actual fragrance into the air. Herein lies the social problem. One person’s personal preference is another person’s toxic chemical, and we share the air.
Note that retired flight attendants and pilots, as a class of people, are more likely than the general public to be chemically sensitive. Some researchers believe that flight crews’ occasional exposure to leaking rudder control fluid, a neurotoxin, causes this professional disability.
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The very first flight attendants were always registered nurses. Their primary task was to deal with airsickness. Dealing with passenger sickness remains one of their priorities.
In past generations, all nurses were cautioned to never wear fragrances. Fragrances triggered asthmatic (histamine) and chemical sensitivity (cholinesterase inhibitor) reactions even then. Nurses must first do no harm.
It would be an inexpensive and most reasonable accommodation to the fractions of the public who are asthmatic and who are chemically sensitive, if flight crews were trained to never wear fragrances. Because all fragrance sources in an airplane add to the cumulative air pollution, it would be a reasonable accomodation to reduce or eliminate all neurotoxins used in airplane bathroom fragrances, all neurotoxic cleaning chemicals used to wipe airplane seats between flights, and neurotoxic pesticides used in planes when alternatives exist.
Within airport terminals, scents in bathrooms, cleaning chemical scents and pesticides, are equally toxic to chemical sensitivity sufferers and asthma victims, and add to their total absorbed load of neurotoxins. Neurotoxins such as xylene and formaldehyde stay in the body for perhaps 18 hours. Neurotoxins such as mercury, lead and many modern pesticides accumulate permanently in body fat over a lifetime.
Once when I worked in a building that housed chemistry labs, a small amount of mercaptin was released into the ventilation system. Mercaptin is added to propane gas to give gas a distinct smell. We all thought we smelled ‘gas’ and evacuated the building, but in reality we only smelled the chemical that gives propane gas its distinctive smell. We were never in real danger. In the same way, passengers who smell “fragrance” and who are sensitive to neurotoxins may assume that scent-free neurotoxic chemicals may also be in the air. Airlines are encouraged to remove all scents from their bathrooms, not just their neurotoxic solvent component, because any fragrance smell currently means that neurotoxins are present and so sufferers must take precautionary action.
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Previously, airlines accommodated people who became violently ill in the presence of other passengers’ cigarette smoke. For a number of years, smokers were put in the back of the plane. Therefore a precedent in airplane air circulation isolation has been set by the FAA and has been proven to have some effectiveness over those years for which it was tried.
It would be an inexpensive and most reasonable accommodation to the fractions of the public who are asthmatic and who are chemically sensitive, if coach section passengers who insist on wearing fragrance on the plane were relocated to the back of the plane. At a minimum, airlines can relocate the class of fragranced passengers, or can relocate the class of asthmatic or chemically sensitive passengers, at least two rows back or forward of the other class of passengers. Cabin air circulation tends to stay pretty much within each certain row on modern jets.
As with the seat assignation for smokers and non-smokers that all airlines once practiced, seats can be pre-assigned forward or in back of a certain line on the plane. For airlines with non-assigned seating, the dividing line on the plane can be worked out during boarding. The class of fragranced passengers is small. A trained flight attendant at the front of the plane should be able to readily identify all fragranced passengers.
At the very least, flight attendants can move people around on the plane after boarding to accommodate medical needs. Southwest Airlines flight attendants regularly move passengers around on full flights to accommodate personal seating preferences.
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In the event of an asthmatic or chemical sensitivity poisoning, the flight crew’s first responsibility is to remove the victim from further poisoning. The flight crew’s current typical reaction is to see a chemically sensitive victim as a malcontent and to argue with them. This current protocol is a medical mistake, as the delay increases the net neurotoxin toxicity buildup in the victim’s body and in the victim’s brain’s mood center. A better approach would be as follows:
1. In the presence of an upset passenger, diagnose the problem. Is the victim complaining specifically about fragrances? Most victims know from long experience that fragrances mean medical trouble. Also, is there any complaint of the onset of a headache? Is the victim getting foggy? If chemical sensitivity is not indicated, are there other obvious causes for the victim’s mood that would rule out chemical sensitivity? For example, does the flight crew smell alcohol on the passenger’s breath?
2. Airlines already advise that in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, passengers are to immediately put oxygen masks on themselves first instead of on their children. In the same pragmatic spirit, if chemical sensitivity is diagnosed, the flight crew should first try to move the fragranced passenger immediately away from the victim, as the fragranced passenger probably has more neurons functioning than the victim. Prompt removal is best.
3. If a member of the flight crew is fragranced and is causing the poisoning, try to reassign that particular flight crew member to another section of the plane. That flight crew member can minimize the victim’s further exposure by walking quickly by the victim’s row and not stopping to talk with nearby passengers. In particular, the fragranced flight crew member should never make long apologies to the victim at close range, nor seek to justify actions to the victim. Let another flight crew member do all of the talking.
4. In the rare event that the fragranced passenger is incapacitated for whatever reason, then get the victim to step away from the fragranced passenger.
5. Oxygen often helps the victim. If the plane carries oxygen, get it out.
6. A few minutes of time will spread the current dose of neurotoxin from the victim’s mood center behind the nose (generally where the neurotoxin entered the brain and where the neurotoxin is temporarily concentrated) throughout the body. This will lower the toxin’s concentration in the brain’s mood center. A flight crew should stall for a few minutes, then see if the poisoning victim is able to exhibit better self-control with respect to mood. At this point, the flight crew can best deal with the chemical sensitivity victim’s being upset. Complete respect and sympathy for any disabled passenger, when any temporary loss of any physical or mental capacity occurs, is of course desirable.
8. With asthmatic attacks flight crews should of course see if the victim needs prompt medical attention.
It would be a reasonable accommodation to update the flight crews’ protocols to respond more properly to fragrance problems.