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The harmful effects of scented products

By Robin Barrett
Healthy Homes Consulting UPdate Winter 1994-1995

     Currently, the Canadian government prohibits the use of three substances: chloroform, estrogenic substances, and mercury.  It also requires products to be “safe for their intended usage”, but the government seldom does any investigation to verify that a product is in fact safe.1  There are many lists of the different health effects individuals have to scented products.

     The most extensive I have encountered comes from Mary Lamielle, the president of the National Center for Environmental Health Strategies, who in a 1990 press release lists the following symptoms induced by fragrances: “watery eyes, double vision, sneezing, stuffiness, allergic rhinitis, sinusitis, tinnitus, dizziness, vertigo, coughing, bronchitis, difficulty breathing, chest tightness, asthma, anaphylaxis, headache, migraine, cluster headaches, seizures, convulsions, fatigue, confusion, disorientation, incoherence, short term memory loss, anxiety, irritability, depression, mood swings, rashes, hives, eczema, flushing, muscle and joint inflammation, pain and weakness, irregular or rapid heartbeat hypertension”.2

     The recent history of two products used by the fragrance industry may help explain some of these symptoms and raise some additional concerns.  
Case 1
     Musk AETT (musk tetralin) was commonly used until the late 1970’s.  In 1977, it was shown that Must AETT caused permanent brain damage in laboratory animals and further research disclosed additional adverse health effects, including vascular degeneration of the brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves, hyperactivity and irritability, gait anomalies, weakness, foot drop, and irreversible degradation of the central nervous system.  It was voluntarily withdrawn by the fragrance industry after 21 years of usage.3,4

Case 2
     In 1994, Musk Ambrette was also identified as causing “central and peripheral nervous system damage”.  It was voluntarily withdrawn from usage by the fragrance industry.5,6,7

     By the industry withdrawing these products voluntarily, no government regulation was enacted to require their removal.  Unfortunately, tests by the United States Food and Drug Administration for the presence of Musk Ambrette in 1989, 1990, and 1992 found products in the marketplace still containing this substance.8  This raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the industry’s self imposed withdrawal.

     There is at this point in time no requirement for the testing of scented products for chronic neurotoxic effects.  There is also no way to predict how many or for how long some of these chemicals will damage peoples health before the hazard is identified.  Dr. Peter Spencer in a study on Musk AETT concluded that many other widely used aromatic hydrocarbons have properties similar to Musk AETT and should be tested for possible neurotoxic properties.9  Unfortunately such testing is not yet required.

     A summation of the concerns about perfume are as follows:
     Many of the ingredients currently used by the fragrance industry are hazardous.  The written estimates range from 1500 to 4000 hazardous chemicals out of between 1500 to 4000 chemicals commonly used.  The number of chemicals used per product often range from 50 (soaps) up to 700 (perfumes) per product.10,11,12

     “Perfumes and their constituent chemicals are subjected to relatively little legislative control, apart from that imposed on all chemicals.”13  The voluntary withdrawal of known hazards does not appear to be working.  Also, in the past it has taken 21 years of usage before the health hazards of certain products were proven conclusively enough for them to be voluntarily withdrawn.  These figures read surprisingly like those produced on environmental tobacco smoke a few years ago and may be why Doug Appt, Vice President of Hospital Resources at the Victoria General Hospital commented on their clean air policies (including smoke and scent free), “This move reflects our role and responsibility as a leader in the promotion of health and the prevention of disease”.14

     Until there is better control over the fragrance industry, a scent-free policy is the most prudent approach to ensure a safe environment.


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