Scents To Die For - Literally

Charles W. Moore

September 1999

"My dear friend," French novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922) wrote, "You know how I can't bear any perfume... the last time you were so good as to come and see me... I was obliged to take the chair you sat in and keep it out in the courtyard for three days."

As one of a growing cohort of persons who are made ill by perfumed scents and other chemical odors, I can identify with Proust's problem. Many times I have had to air out furniture occupied by perfumed visitors, an exercise many find curious bordering on eccentric. However, science is gradually catching up with what those of us among the ranks of the chemically-sensitive already know all too well anecdotally; many purpose-made scented products contain poisons that do our bodies serious mischief.

New Scientist magazine recently reported on a survey of 14,000 pregnant women by epidemiologists at the University of Bristol which found that aerosol deodorizers and air fresheners may cause headaches and depression in women and ear infections and diarrhea in babies. "Aerosols and fresheners contain dozens of volatile organic compounds such as xylene, ketones and aldehydes, which can be toxic in high doses," said the report, which suggested that these chemicals contribute to health problems by making the skin more permeable and weakening the body's defences.

In July 1998, 16-year-old Jonathan Capewell of Manchester, England died due to spraying his body with too much deodorant. Jonathan had 10-times the lethal dosage of propane and butane in his blood when he suffered a fatal heart attack. The coroner's report determined that chemical fumes built up in his body following months of "high" deodorant use. "When we told him he was using too much, he said he just wanted to smell good," Jonathan's father Kieth Capewell told reporters. "You wouldn't have thought that could have been the cause for someone to die. What a price to pay for smelling nice."

That was of course an extreme case, but we chemically sensitive folks pay a heavy price nearly every day because other people insist on the chemical version of "smelling nice," although we would characterize it somewhat differently.

Almost everyone today walks around in a cloud of chemical fumes carried on their persons - sort of like the character "Pigpen" in Peanuts cartoons - only in this case the cloud is invisible. Constant low-level exposure to synthetic chemicals - virtually all of them known poisons in larger doses - is not normal for humans, except in the distorted perception of industrial/technological society.

In fact, environmental medicine specialist Dr. Sherry Rogers, M.D. suggests that "perhaps [chemical sensitivity sufferers'] intolerances are a safety feature that makes them avoid these chemicals, which may be triggering cancer 10 to 20 years later in others who seem to be unaffected by them now."

People who are personally unaffected sometimes have difficulty taking perfume intolerance seriously, but for we chemically sensitive individuals, it is no trivial affliction. The scent of perfumes and colognes, shampoo, deodorant, hair spray, detergent and fabric softener odours on clothing, etc. can make us seriously ill.

Some researchers believe perfume is also a health hazard to the general non-sensitized public. Pulmonary disorders increased by 54 per cent in women and 41 percent in men between 1981 and 1991. Asthma has become more prevalent and less treatable over the past 15 years. It is suspected that increased use of perfume and perfumed products is a significant factor underlying these phenomena. Dr. Rogers notes: "We don't really know the long-term and cumulative effects of these chemicals in the bloodstream and how they are affecting the gene pool of future generations."

About 4,000 different chemicals are used in proprietary fragrances. Of these, 95% contain synthetic compounds derived from petroleum. No agency regulates the fragrance industry, yet some perfume chemicals may be more toxic than tobacco smoke. Not much is known about how toxic, since according to a study by The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, "virtually no testing for neurotoxic effects is done on fragrance chemicals."

In recent years, the perfume industry has shifted to stronger, synthetic aroma chemicals, relying less on natural oils. Synthetics cost as little as $10 per pound, while naturals like jasmine can cost over $10,000. Natural oils are not necessarily benign, but synthetics tend to be more potent toxins and sensitizers.

Musk ambrette, a common ingredient in musk fragrances, was shown in a 1989 study to cause "nervous system damage characterized by degeneration of myelin and related distal axions," which can result in multiple sclerosis. Musk AETT was voluntarily withdrawn from the market in 1977 after it was found to cause brain damage in animal testing.

Toxic chemicals found in fragrances include: toluene, ethanol, acetone, formaldehyde, limonene, benzene derivatives, methylene chloride, and many others known to cause cancer, birth defects, infertility, nervous system damage, or other injuries.

Toluene was found in every fragrance sample collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a 1991 report. Toluene has been proven to cause cancer and nervous system damage and is designated as hazardous waste.

Chemical fragrances are present in most laundry detergents, fabric softeners, anti-cling products, dishwashing liquids, disinfectants, soaps, shampoos and other hair products, deodorants, cosmetics, suntan/sunscreen lotions, aftershaves, colognes, and lip balms. Even products marked "unscented" often are falsely labelled and actually contain toxic fragrances.

More and more consumer commodities are being perfumed every year. The perfume industry now derives some 80 per cent of its revenues from scenting products like plastics, fabrics, clothing, car interiors, soap, cleaning products, toilet and facial tissue, medicines, even rubber tires.

Ontario-based researcher and Environmental Illness activist Bruce Small calls environmental illness "a cultural medical phenomenon." It isn't caused by some microbial infectious agent, but rather by our lifestyle--by the artificial environment we've fashioned for ourselves.

Many people presumably enjoy the smell of perfume and scented products, but many people also enjoy cigarette smoking, which is now banned in many public airspaces. With strong and growing evidence that perfumes are significant environmental pollutants, health hazards, and cause distress and/or physical harm to many people, the "No Scents"' policy being introduced at more and more hospitals, institutions, and businesses makes good sense.

The Halifax Chronicle-Herald now has a no-scent policy: Employees may not wear perfume, aftershave lotion or scented hairspray at work. At some schools, students may be sent to the principal's office if the teacher can smell them. One telephone customer-service centre sends employees home to bathe if they show up wearing scent.

Charles W. Moore

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987. His The Road Warrior column is a regular feature on MacOS Daily, and his Miscellaneous Ramblings appear regularly on Low End Mac.

Charles lives and works in Port Hilford, Nova Scotia, on the shore of Indian Harbour Lake and in sight of the Atlantic Ocean. His newspaper columns are syndicated across Canada, and he writes regularly for several magazines, as well as doing Mac website journalism.

This article was first published in the Guysborough Journal.

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This article 1999 by Charles W. Moore.