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Common scents can be harmful to human health

Monday April 23, 2001
Carolyn Wilker


Scent. One little word with a large connotation. You'll know what I mean when you walk into a shop that sells scented candles, or pass a perfume counter with the test bottles in use.

You also encounter it in the detergent aisle of the grocery store, or when you open your bottle of shampoo or shower gel. It's everywhere.

Modern-day scent is made from chemicals. The so-called lemon fresh scent is not real lemon, unless you have just squeezed one. A combination of chemicals make us think we're smelling lemon. Ditto for the scents in cleaning products that tell us we're smelling pine, the scents of perfume, aftershave, hairspray, personal care products, cleaning agents, candles, air fresheners, fabric softeners, smelly markers -- and so on.

Almost all the scents on the market are synthetic. Do we know the long-term effects of the synthetic chemicals on humans?

Scent chemicals are not tested for toxicity, and even if they were, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could not adequately test the new ones produced at the rate of 50 per week.

Statistics from the U.S. food and drug agency tells us that 30 per cent of all allergic reactions are caused by fragrance, and that more than 70 per cent of asthmatics develop respiratory symptoms when exposed to perfume.

Studies of the effect of chemicals on the immune system and what it means for our health are in early stages.

Significant information and awareness have led to clinics to study and treat people who suffer from environmental illness at the University of Toronto and in Halifax. The estimated affected population is 15 to 18 per cent.

Halifax is a leader in this area. There is recognition of the problem that scent causes. Many public buildings, all of the public schools, and Dalhousie University have scent-free policies. Even public transit is promoting a scent-free ride.

During a recent visit to Nova Scotia, I noticed a poster at a hospital in Bridgewater. The poster, put out by the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union and Camp Hill Medical Centre, tells how perfume causes serious problems for some people, mentioning asthma, allergies and environmental illness and how it negatively affects others, how those who usually wear scents can feel better leaving home without them. They encourage the use of unscented alternatives. I like their slogan, "no scents is good sense."

In our own community, the awareness is growing. Nurses do not wear perfume on the job and the chemotherapy clinic at Grand River Hospital asks patients and their families not to wear it, as tolerances are lowest for ill patients.

Our symphony orchestra members do not wear scent. Community choir directors know that scent adversely affects members and their voices.

Just this winter, a sign went up in my chiropractor's office, "For the well being of some of our environmentally sensitive patients, we respectfully request that perfume and cologne not be worn to this facility." Waterloo Recreation Swimplex displays a sign, and The Centre in the Square has an announcement in its programs about consideration for those to whom perfume is harmful.

Ask anyone who has asthma or environmental sensitivities how they feel when they encounter perfume or scents of any kind. One person may develop a severe headache, another may experience respiratory distress, yet another may begin to cough or wheeze. Other possible reactions include dry eyes, sneezing, nasal congestion anxiety, hypertension, inability to concentrate, seizures, even anaphylaxis.

For some, wearing scent has become a habit. As a scent-sitive person, I appreciate the efforts of friends and acquaintances who remember not to wear scent when we will be spending time together.

Carolyn Wilker of Kitchener is concerned about the effects of scent on humans in the world at large.

 Article is courtesy of

Kitchener-Waterloo Record 2002
225 Fairway Road South,
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, N2G 4E5


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