A look at Environmental IllnessDan Knight
May 7, 2000
"Who said life was fair?"
As parents, it's a question we often pose to our children when
they complain, "That isn't fair!"
Much as we would like it, life isn't fair.
It isn't fair that glorious sunshine can burn you skin - and even
cause cancer in the long run.
It isn't fair that a single bee sting or peanut can kill.
It isn't fair that careless drivers seem to make the roads more
dangerous every day.
It isn't fair that a custody battle involves federal agents
sticking a gun in a child's face.
It isn't fair to have nonsmoking dining mere feet from the smoking
section, or to force patrons to walk though the smoking section to
get to smoke free seating.
"Who said life was fair?"
Environmental Illness (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity)
Nature, nurture, and the environment are all factors in multiple
chemical sensitivity (MCS, environmental illness), which is a severe
reaction to levels of chemicals most people can tolerate.
There are those who say it's a crock, but as someone who lives
with it every day, I know otherwise. Airborne chemicals, scents in
particular, are a constant reminder that life isn't fair.
If life were fair, nobody would tell MCS sufferers that it's all
in their head, the cause of MCS would be immediately obvious to
researchers, doctors would take the diagnosis seriously, and people
would be very considerate about scented products. Shoot, if life were
fair, there would be no such thing as environmental illness.
But life isn't fair. The scent that can arouse passion in one
person can give another person a migraine.
Each of us responds to environmental chemicals differently. Some
people enjoy scents from cans and candles, others find them cloying,
and still others find themselves growing ill from the same
In fact, about 15% of the population reacts adversely to some
scents, whether due to asthma, sinusitis, allergies, MCS, or other
medical conditions. That's one person in seven.
Attacking the Problem
There are a vocal few who believe the best way to attack the
problem of environmental illness is to pretend it doesn't exist and
label those who suffer from MCS as hysterical hypochondriacs.
Thankfully, despite the noise they make, this ill-informed group is
One way of dealing with MCS is retreat; it's the option most of us
use time and again. We smell something we know will cause a reaction,
and we get away from it. However, one serious problem with MCS is
that it tends to grow worse over time, meaning there are more scents
and airborne chemicals for us to flee.
Another partial solution is chemical itself: medication. This
includes medication for the migraines as well as those that will help
minimize the severity of an attack and possibly avoid the
Going Scent Free
The best solution, of course, is to eliminate exposure to the
chemicals that trigger the reaction, eliminating the need for costly
medication. It's an approach being used from Seattle, Washington (see
English Country Ball) to Halifax, Nova Scotia (see Halifax
leads the way with fragrance free policies).
In many ways, this parallels the move to smoke-free workplaces of
the past decade. To protect the health of their employees, many
businesses no longer allow smokers to light up indoors. In the same
way, some employers are working to protect the 15% of the population
that is troubled by scents. (In the case of my employer, they see
environmental illness as covered by the Americans with Disabilities
Act and state that employees "are responsible to eliminate this
It would be a perfect solution, except for one thing: life isn't
Many people, once they become aware of the policy and the health
issues involved, are happy to comply. They look into unscented
deodorants and less scented shampoos, remove pot pourri and scented
candles, and make other small adjustments to accommodate those of us
who react adversely to airborne chemicals.
But some people just don't get it. Worse, some seem to increase
their use of scented products when such a policy is instituted. One
such example is Leah McLaren, who wrote in the
Globe and Mail:
- I am sitting in a Halifax hospital waiting room, reading a
magazine. I am also committing a public offence.
This morning before I left my hotel room, I showered with
aloe-scented soap, applied honeysuckle deodorant, combed a glob of
fruity-smelling gel through my hair and, before dressing,
liberally spritzed my neck with Dior's J'adore eau de toilette
(white-hot-rose notes), my wrists with Noa (an ethereal musk), and
the backs of my knees with Chanel No. 5 (a classic).
Slipping into a trench coat marinated in that drugstore favourite,
Charlie, I hopped in a cab and came straight here to the Grace
Health Centre in Halifax.
The place is humming with activity as I sit leafing through an
outdated copy of Canadian Living. A swirl of nurses, doctors,
patients and visitors hurry by my chair, and a number of them make
audible gagging noises as they pass. "Some people sure do wear
perfume!" a passing pregnant woman exclaims irritably. A nurse
turns, coughing, to an elderly receptionist, "Have you died of
that smell yet?" The receptionist shushes her companion and nods
her head in my direction. I turn my eyes to the spinach-quiche
recipe on my lap.
Soon a small group of nurses has congregated at the reception
desk. After a brief whisper conference, a middle-aged woman in
pink scrubs approaches. I look up and read her name tag. Nurse
"Excuse me, dear," she says. "Are you aware that this hospital is
- fragrance-free environment?"
"Pardon?" I say.
"We ask that you respect our scent-free policy, since many people
here are highly sensitive to perfumes and such."
I would certainly call Ms. McLaren an insensitive reporter, at the
very least. She's one of the vocal few who believe environmental
illness is "probably all in their heads," so she apparently doesn't
think twice about how offensive the actions she reports are. She not
only shows blatant disregard for those who suffer chemical
sensitivity, but also of the law, hospital policy, and those who
simply find bad smells offensive.
For the most part, natural scents are not a huge issue, at least
as long as they are in nature. But bring the hyacinths indoors, and
the scent can drive out people who suffer from environmental
The probable cause of MCS is continued exposure to man-made
chemicals. The more one is exposed, the less tolerant the person with
environmental illness becomes. Scents once enjoyed may become
bothersome and later sickening.
Believe me, it's not fair.
Whether in the workplace, shopping mall, or church (one of the
hardest places for MCS suffers to go), we need to work together to
create a safer environment for those adversely affected by airborne
chemicals. It's just common decency.
Scent-free products rarely cost more than scented ones, and they
seem to work every bit as well. The idea behind deodorant, for
instance, is to prevent body odor which would make you smell bad;
deodorant need not make you smell good.
In fact, if you have good personal hygiene and use deodorant, you
don't need to mask yourself behind perfumes, colognes, scented
lotions, or after shaves.
It would certainly benefit those around you with MCS, sinusitis,
allergies, and asthma.
And it would help make life a little bit more fair.
sensitivities, Invisible Disabilities Association of
- Fragranced Products
Information Network, Betty Bridges, RN
in clean air: Our fragrance-free policy, Seattle's English
Country Ball. "The Seattle English country dances are advertised
as 'fragrance free.' This is because about 15% of the general
population and about 20% of our English country dance community
have adverse health effects from perfume and solvents, and become
ill from even small amounts of fragrance products. Reported
adverse health effects from perfume range from migraine headaches
and asthma attacks to cardiac and neurological symptoms, including
permanent brain damage. This is not a preference issue - it is a
serious health issue for a significant number of people."
leads the way with fragrance free policies, Betty Bridges,
That Stink, John Knight. My father's story.
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