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Scents and Sensitivity

Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 106, December 12, 1998


article by Brandy E Fisher

Fragrance is ubiquitous in nature and plays a major role in both helping animals and humans locate food and enticing them to reproduce. Throughout history, humans have drawn fragrances from the natural environment for a variety of purposes, including use in religious and burial rituals, in aphrodisiacs, and to cover foul odors. In the late 1800s, the first fragrance containing synthesized ingredients was introduced. Since then, people have used chemicals extensively to mimic scents from nature.

Consumers' fascination with scent has increased with the manufacture of a multitude of scented "personal" products including cosmetics, lotions, soaps, oils, and perfumes. There are more than 1,000 body fragrances (including colognes, perfumes, and toilet waters) on the market today, according to The Fragrance Foundation, a non-profit educational arm of the fragrance industry. Furthermore, scents are now added to a slew of commercial products ranging from cleaning products to tissues, from candles to diapers.

While many people enjoy wearing perfumes and using scented products, there is a growing outcry from some people who claim that exposure to certain fragrances, including perfumes and scented products, adversely impacts their health. They report symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, shortness of breath, difficulty with concentration, and allergy-like symptoms. It has been shown that many asthmatic patients have adverse reactions to perfumes and other fragrances, and some researchers hypothesize that exposure to fragrance may actually cause asthma. People who suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a health condition in which exposure to one chemical is thought to lead to adverse reactions to other chemicals, claim that exposure to fragrance triggers various symptoms, often to the point that sufferers are incapacitated or must forgo many of their usual activities to avoid exposure.

As information continues to surface on the issue of indoor air pollution, it appears that fragrances may represent part of the problem. Some researchers believe that exposure to the types of chemicals found in many scented products may contribute to the development and exacerbation of sick building syndrome, a health condition allegedly caused by indoor air pollution. The chemicals in perfumes, colognes, and deodorants worn by employees add to the chemical mixtures in indoor air, as do fragrances in cleaning products. In addition, some building owners pump certain fragrances--believed to evoke an emotional response that results in increased work productivity--through office ventilation systems.

Claudia Miller, an associate professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio, says that several studies indicate that 15-30% of the general population report some sensitivity to chemicals, including fragrances, and 4-6% report that chemical intolerance has a major impact on their quality of life. Of these people, more than 80% report that exposure to fragrances is bothersome. Miller, who has conducted extensive research on MCS and coauthored the book Chemical Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes, adds that many Gulf War veterans report new chemical intolerances since the war, including sensitivity to fragrances.

Gerald McEwen, vice president of science at the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association, a Washington, DC-based trade association for the personal care products industry, says that fragrance materials in most products are at very low concentrations, and that people who claim to be adversely affected by scented products may actually be reacting to other chemicals in the products or in their environments. He says that affected people are more likely to identify fragrances as the offending agents because they are readily noticeable. McEwen further suggests that reactions to fragrance could be psychological. "This could be a conditioned response just as easily as an organic response," he says.

This theory has many proponents, including Sally Satel, a lecturer in psychiatry in Yale University School of Medicine's department of psychiatry. In her article, published in the May 1997 issue of Psychiatric Times, Satel refers to MCS, sick building syndrome, and other chemical sensitivity illnesses as having "elements of paranoia and hypervigilance (directed toward the physical environment), somatization (as well as stress-induced psychosomatic symptoms), hypochondriasis, hysteria, and suggestibility."

Next: Components of Fragrances
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