By Claudia Miller, MD.
Over the festive season, millions of us will have received bottles of perfume, aftershave, and scented shower gels. And many of us will have left them unopened; unable to handle the artificial fragrances that for a susceptible, sizeable minority represent an assault on our senses.
But we are not just reacting to a smell we don’t like. Fragrances are to varying degrees toxic* and they are in fact one of the biggest triggers of irritability, mental confusion, and difficulties with concentration or learning. They are, after all, intentionally designed to affect the limbic system; they are meant to enhance our mood, relax us, make us more attractive to those around us and a multibillion dollar industry suggests we have literally bought into that.
The limbic system includes the hippocampus, which governs short term memory, and the amygdala, that ancient reptilian part of our brain that is responsible for our mood. It also triggers the famous fight-or-flight response that helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors but is less helpful for the susceptible individuals who enter it when walking through the perfume floor of the department store. Or down the school corridor.
Chemical fragrances are now used with little oversight and increasing frequency in enclosed public spaces. In recent years, masking unpleasant odors by adding additional odors such as from candles, reeds, and sprays has become popular. Automated fragrance dispensers are appearing everywhere—in offices, banks, airports and schools.
At home, people are using scented laundry products, drier sheets (which are invariably toxic), and are taking their clothes to dry cleaners which often use hazardous chemicals (dry cleaners have traditionally been the largest users of perchloroethylene or PERC, an organic solvent of known human toxicity).
These especially cause problems for sensitive individuals because they are worn close to the individual’s “breathing zone.” Additionally, encountering these odors on elevators, public transport, and in taxis (those little trees that hang from the rear view mirror) is extraordinarily common.
There is virtually no escape. Products marketed for babies often contain fragrances. Fragrances worn by parents or caregivers can affect an infant’s health and behavior. And in schools fragrances used in cleaning products can and do affect a child’s ability to learn; children with allergies, asthma, and ADHD are particularly vulnerable.
How to minimize our exposures? Education is where it starts.
Here at our medical school, we often announce and conduct fragrance-free meetings, teaching our own health science faculty and students about the problems fragrances create for many individuals. In so doing, we hope they will learn to minimize their use around patients as well as in their personal lives.
Chemically affected children and their parents need to become aware of their symptoms and identify, to their best of their ability, particular triggers. These can include fragrances worn by a teacher or fellow student, the odors of cleaning chemicals including so-called “air fresheners,” and phenolic disinfectants*, as well as art materials such as paint and glue, new construction, or carpets. These exposures have useful warning properties; that is, their odors alert the sensitive individual to the presence of these fragrance molecules in the air (There is an unfortunate exception and that is for individuals who lack a sense of smell, or are anosmic.*)
Those who are interested can take our validated and published questionnaire, the QEESI. This is a powerful tool for patients and parents to take to their doctors. The revolution starts with awareness – and it has already begun.
*See Professor Anne Steinemann’s survey of selected scented consumer goods, which showed that the products tested emitted more than 100 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including some that are classified as toxic or hazardous by federal law.
* Phenolic disinfectants are cleaners whose commercial names end in the suffix “-ol,” such as Lysol or Pinesol.
* Chemically intolerant individuals who are anosmic often have difficulty associating their symptoms, such as asthma or headaches, with any particular exposures. Anosmia can be caused by irritants, allergens, chronic allergic rhinitis, nasal polyps, a cold, or chemical exposures causing inflammation and swelling inside the nose, blocking smell receptors in the upper part of the nose.