The AGE FRIDAY July 9, 2004
Australia is only just waking up to a new kind of global battle – demands for a fragrance-free environment. Elisabeth King reports.
Ever had to move away from someone who was wearing too strong a perfume because you felt the first inkling of a headache coming on? You’re not alone.
The fragrance-sensitivity issue is looming as the new millennium’s equivalent of the anti-smoking campaigns of the 1980s. Could we soon be working in a strictly no-fragrance workplace? Or shopping in scent-free stores? It wouldn’t be as easy to police as smoking bans, but the growing body of evidence linking allergies and symptoms to a host of smells is poised to present one of the biggest challenges of the next decade for governments and businesses.
It encompasses scents emanating from an array of everyday products, from cleaning fluids to deodorants. Just as people sue companies for the effects of passive smoking on their health, the day could be coming when spritzing on cologne could turn you into a walking health hazard. The storm over fragrance sensitivity, which plays a leading role in the multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) syndrome, has been brewing for over a decade, but the stakes have become higher since 2000.
In the past three years, a growing number of fragrance-sensitive employees in the US have claimed protection under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which governs employment- related civil rights.
Lady Mar, a regular campaigner on chemical poisoning issues in the UK who appears on the BBC’s watchdog program, Face Value has almost singlehandedly stopped the excessive use of perfumes and colognes in the House of Lords.
In 2003, the European Commission proposed new legislation called Reach (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) to identify and govern the uses of all chemicals on the European market. The information produced by Reach will be global and, because of the international nature of the cosmetic and pharmaceuticals industries, its impact will be felt worldwide including Australia.
Dr Mark Donohoe, an Australian specialist on the environment, believes the issue is set to be bigger than the anti-smoking campaign. “Smokers were already in the minority when legislation was finally formulated, and they were easy to spot,” he says. “Chemicals are everywhere in modern offices photocopiers, cleaning fluids, air fresheners, personal fragrances. But, in my belief, what will really clinch governmental action in Australia is that many MCS sufferers are young, talented and vigorous people who would be sorely missed if they were forced to leave the workplace.”
Germany is the only country to have a national health policy to fight the effects of MCS. Donohoe is campaigning for similar regulations here, but he says Australia is still a long way behind Europe and the US in tackling the issue.
“Having said that, there is a growing number of employers in most states who are already instituting fragrancefree environments on an ad hoc basis in response to the complaints of individual workers. But after banning the wearing of freshly dry-cleaned clothes, perfumes and over-fragranced cleaning products on a trial basis, they often discover that all of their employees, not just MCS sufferers, feel much better. What started as a temporary policy becomes a permanent one because of the lift in general productivity.”
So how do fragrances and chemicals connect? Some fragrance components are organic, but today over 80 per cent are synthetic compounds, a large chunk being derived from various petrochemicals. Over 5000 different fragrances can be found in the products used daily from health aids to laundry detergents.
And while synthetic compounds have been in used in fragrance products for over a century, perfumed formulations changed in the 1980s with the development of more powerful synthetics that could be used at higher levels.
According to many researchers, this has been responsible for the number of MCS cases multiplying since then.
Meanwhile marketers have rushed to exploit psychological research claiming that individual scents can change our perception of certain products and environments. And perfumed products have expanded to include scented candles, upholstery fresheners and even sweet-smelling air-conditioning systems.
However, fragrance doesn’t only enter the body through the nose. It can be absorbed through the skin (some components have been found in breast milk) and ingested by consuming those contained in food flavourings. In fact, many of the world’s leading perfume manufacturing companies reap as much and, in some cases, more money from their food flavouring businesses as they do from making eau de toilettes.
It is this blanket use that underpins studies, reports and anecdotal evidence identifying fragrance as a key trigger in health problems such as migraines, asthma and allergies. Other studies have linked them to unrelated conditions, from sinusitis through to dizziness, depression, vertigo, irritability, reproductive problems, hypertension and irregular heartbeat.
According to the report Pretty Nasty conducted by Healthcare Without Harm, the British Women’s Environmental Network and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation the latest concern is pthalates. These chemical compounds are found in many cosmetic products including perfumes, hairsprays, gels and deodorants, as well as toys, flooring materials and pharmaceutical products. Again, they have been in use for years but recent fears were prompted by studies in animals that linked pthalates with birth defects such as testicular atrophy in males, some types of cancer, and their ability to mimic the actions of oestrogen in the body.
In 2003, two types of pthalates used in cosmetics and fragrances were banned in the European Union. Estee Lauder and Procter & Gamble have announced that they will stop using pthalates in cosmetics and some nail polishes although both companies say that they do not believe that they are harmful to humans.
These announcements came just as a bill aimed at the use of pthalates was introduced in the California legislature earlier this year. The bill was rejected, but will be re-introduced. However, cosmetic industry leaders such as Dr Gerald McEwen, vice president for Science of the US Cosmetics, Toiletry and Fragrance Association are not convinced that experiments prove the chemicals are dangerous to human health. They say that research animals were exposed to pthalates far in excess of normal human exposure.
Regardless, there has been a call for greater transparency in labelling. At present, fragrance formulations are regarded as “trade secrets” and manufacturers are not required to reveal the chemical make-up of many products.
In 2001, the US Food and Drug Administration acknowledged that there was little research data on how pthalates and other cosmetic fragrance chemicals affect human health.
For further information on MCS, contact AESSRA (Allergy and Environmental Sensitivity Support and Research Association Inc), www.vicnet.net.au/~aessra or P.O. Box 298, Ringwood 3134.