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Article 10: Scents in the Workplace

Kootenai Valley Times – October 1, 2000

– by Dr. Gloria Gilbere

Dear Dr. Gilbere:

This article is adapted from one in my employer's company newsletter. Please share it to support your efforts to raise awareness of fragrance problems in the workplace.

A little scent goes a long way

Just pumping gas can leave you smelling of gasoline for hours. Walk through the haze of smokers outside your favorite store or restaurant, and the acrid smell of tobacco lingers for hours.

Over time you may become accustomed to the smell—I'm sure smokers must. But the odor of gasoline or smoke can remain long after you've become used to it, and others will smell it.

This doesn't apply only to unwanted scents. Your aftershave, perfume, hand lotion, deodorant, shampoo, or soap may surround you with a scent you've become desensitized to, but one others can and do smell.

I have multiple chemical sensitivity, an environmental illness caused by repeated exposure to airborne chemicals reaching the brain via the nose. It's a disorder recognized and covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Over time the problem gets worse; scents we tolerated or even enjoyed begin causing problems. Mine gets worse in winter, when the cold weather dries out the nasal membranes, allowing the scents to more readily make their way to the brain.

Victims of scent sensitivity appreciate smoke-free restaurants, but wish something could be done about the cloud of smoke they have to pass through when entering. Ditto for stores—whether the nearby grocery store or the local mall.

Inside the smoke-free mall, we are accosted by the smells of lotions, oils, and perfumes from cosmetic counters and scent-filled stores. In some cases, we have to walk on the far side of the mall to pass by these stores without being overcome.

In church, it may mean months of leaving worship well before the sermon, because no matter where you choose to sit, sooner or later someone with aftershave or a powerfully-scented deodorant sits nearby.

And it's a huge problem at work. In my case, it's triggered by scented candles, pine boughs, poinsettias, perfumes, colognes, and some soaps. That's the short list. Because sensitivity increases over time, the list grows every year. Nothing seems to help, and the very medications that help some deal with allergies can cause worse problems than the scents themselves.

I have a sign outside my work cubicle, marking it a "scent-free area," but it didn't seem to help. The scented still walked right in, forcing me out for fresh air as soon as they leave, and occasionally home for the rest of the day.

The problem of fragrance sensitivity isn't limited to my cubicle. Hardly a day goes by that I don't have to walk in the scent trail of someone who overdid it or walk down a hallway with scent-filled offices.

Using scents originated in the era when bathing was a once or twice a year event, and perfumes masked the body's natural odors. In this era of personal hygiene and deodorants, the original reason for perfumes is gone. Since they no longer need to mask bad odors, there's no need to apply them heavily. In fact, some who are scent-sensitive suggest that because fragrances are often intended to enhance intimacy, they should only be noticeable at intimate distances.

Just as we now have a smoke-free workplace, I would love to see companies go scent-free for the approximately 15% of the population that suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity.

Until then, consider a scent-free or minimal scent lifestyle. The scent you think makes you more attractive may make others very ill. And if you feel you must use a favorite scent, please be aware of those who are sensitive and use as little as possible.

Thankfully, my employer adopted a scent-free workplace policy in November 1999. I'm breathing a bit easier at work!

Dan Knight


Dear Dan:

Unfortunately, most people, and their doctors, are not educated in multiple chemical sensitivity and the effects and dangers of fragrances. Millions are being affected, and don't even consider fragrances as part of the cause. Asthma, sinus disorders repeated infections, and some learning disabilities, to mention a few, can be triggered by the chemicals used in an effort to smell "good". We buy into the advertising, without consideration to potential health risks. Those that oppose fragrance restrictions feel their rights are being violated, what about the violation of personal air space for the person who has sensitivities? Wearing fragrances is no different than smoking; it should remain a personal choice used in personal air space, but not at the cost of someone else's health. Congratulations to your employer for taking a stand, instead of just sitting on the fence.

Dr. Gilbere


This and subsequent articles are for the purpose of education and to provide support to the millions afflicted with allergies and multiple chemical sensitivity syndromes.

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