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January 30, 2003

Is a fragrance free workplace right for you?

 Many people have had a co-worker at one point that wore so much cologne or perfume that it was practically unbearable.

The solution may be right around the corner: a fragrance free workplace.

The fragrance free policy is cropping up in public buildings and in the next few years it may start hitting the private sector.

It also may prove to be just as controversial as smoke-free policies when they began.

The art of smelling good is a multi-billion dollar industry. In any art there are enthusiasts and there are detractors.

"I'm a perfume person and I don't feel like I'm really dressed in the morning unless I have my perfume on," said Suzie Estudillo.

"I would definitely consider perfumes air pollution because they invade your space," said Roslyn Hamilton

In some Portland offices, the critics are winning the aroma war with fragrance free workplaces.

For example, in the records department at the Portland Police Bureau there's a sign posted "No perfumes, after shaves, or other scented products."

The 911 dispatch center in South East Portland is a fragrance free zone as well.

"I think some of the fragrant men up here were some of the worst offenders," said Julie Talbert.

"We have somebody's whose allergic to - I believe to pine, so we have now have a fake Christmas tree - which is unusual but I mean, that's okay," said Michelle Fiorello.

The dispatch center doesn't even allow magazines that contain foldout fragrance samples. The center may be the strictest scent enforcement in town.

If someone at the dispatch center comes to work wearing scented products, they're asked to wash it off or change their clothing. If that still doesn't work, they get sent home.

Over at the Police Bureau's record division the rules are a little more relaxed. KATU's Anna Song even caught one employee with contraband hand lotion.

"This is what we used to use but it has a fragrance, so I was told to put it away and I have. I was told to put it away, and I will," said Lynn Robbins. "…that's what I use it for - it's a paperweight."

Not everyone at the bureau is happy to comply. Suzie Estudillo says she misses spritzing her White Diamonds perfume and doesn't like the new policy one bit.

"I mean I could see if somebody was bathing in it, you know, and they smelled for a mile away or something," said Estudillo.

But the manager of the records division, Debbie Haugan, says that's actually how bad it got sometimes.

"There were some people that would go in the restroom and put on a healthy dose of perfume, certainly much more than the average person wears," Debbie Haugan. "They come back from lunch, stop in the restroom and freshen themselves and spray on a little extra perfume, and everyone would be immediate tears in their eyes practically."

The more sensitive people in the office would get headaches, have trouble breathing, or lose their voices.

Many of the people agreed that a big part of the breathing problems were caused by the immense volume of paper going through their office, getting copied, shuffled or just sitting around collecting dust.

They couldn't change that particular aspect of their workplace - so they changed what they could and made their office fragrance free.

Haugan admits, it's hasn't been the easiest policy to enforce.

"You wear perfume, which is your business, on the weekends and then a week later you wear that particular sweater into work, and there's a lot of times some residual fragrance on it, and those become very contentious," Debbie Haugan.

"People have asked me 'what are you wearing?' - I'm not wearing anything and I don't, I'm told not to and I don't. But I guess it lingers or something and they think I am." said Estudillo.

"It's not a personal issue really, it's a chemical issue," said Roslyn Hamilton.

Roslyn Hamilton is the Executive Director of the Oregon Eco-building network - and a staunch advocate of scent-free workplaces.

She cites studies that show the chemicals in many fragrances are harmful and feels the need to protect herself with a mask.

"I feel it's an invasion of privacy really, because that person should be entitled to have clean air," said Hamilton. "I carry a mask and I make a cover for it, either a silk or cotton cover. …I carry it in the stores and parking lots, garages, places where I'm going to get some odor."

Not all of us feel the need to be that cautious about what we inhale. Our noses may simply notice and not always like when someone nearby loses their 'scents' and sensibility.

There still is some debate in the medical community on whether colognes and perfumes cause long term health problems.

In the meantime, hospitals, churches and schools are also implementing fragrance free policies.

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