Many public places, including hospitals and theaters, have no-perfume policies. But I think the time is coming when all workplaces will be scent-free zones. In a recent high-profile case, a U.S. federal court upheld an employee’s right to a scent-free workplace. A Detroit city office worker filed a lawsuit complaining about a co-worker’s perfume. The city fought the suit, but eventually lost in U.S. District Court was ordered to make three of its office buildings scent-free and to pay a large cash settlement to the worker.
The problem isn’t just that some people don’t like the smell of some perfumes. Chemicals in fragrances can literally make some people sick. In the ever-growing number of sensitive people, they can trigger reactions ranging from headaches, watery eyes, stuffy nose, coughing, fatigue and dizziness to anxiety, loss of concentration, heart palpitations, muscle pain and numbness. Obviously, such reactions make it difficult for these people to work effectively. Statistics Canada says that about 2.4 percent of the workforce experience major reactions to scents, which at least 15 per cent of the population is estimated to have lesser reactions.
Colognes and perfumes are part of the problem and there can be up to 500 chemicals in one perfume. And who hasn’t experienced watery eyes after an elevator ride with someone who was too liberal with the spray? But fragrances are in many other products too. The Environment Working Group, which has long researched this problem, says that 50 percent of all products on the market contain added fragrance – complex mixtures of chemicals.
In an article on this topic in Natural Life Magazine in 2006, I quoted the American Academy of Dermatology, which says that more than 5,000 different fragrances are used in perfumes and skin products, in hundreds of chemical combinations. But because the chemical formulas of fragrances are considered trade secrets, companies aren’t required to list their ingredients.
Twenty years ago, the National Academy of Sciences targeted fragrances as one of the six categories of chemicals that should be given high priority for neurotoxicity testing. Their report states that 95 percent of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum. They include benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and many other known toxics and sensitizers. Propylene glycol is a common ingredient in fragrances and is considered an immunotoxic chemical. Others include cyclohexanol, which has a depressive action on the central nervous system; linalool, which has been shown to provoke ataxic gait, depression and respiratory disturbances; methyl ethyl ketone, which can induce unconsciousness, emphysema, congestion of the liver and kidneys, eye, nose and throat irritation, and numbness of the extremities; and formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen with many other damaging traits.
While there are no Canadian laws regulating the wearing of fragrances in the workplace, employers have an obligation under provincial health and safety codes to provide a safe workplace. and scents are increasingly being considered a health and safety issue. That, and the Detroit case, is prompting companies to create scent-free policies.
And to create a truly healthy, green workplace, those policies need to look at other things besides workers’ personal care products. For instance, many office products are scented, including whiteboard markers and cleaning products. The Women’s Health Centre at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital suggests that you consider making other improvements to the indoor air quality in your workplace, whenever possible. For example, make sure there is proper ventilation – open windows (when appropriate); use alternatives to scented office products and avoid pesticides and harsh, strongly scented cleaning products.