Mac Musings

Scents and Sensibility

20 September 1999 - Daniel Knight

I love the smell of coffee. I've never been able to drink it, but I love the smell.

There are other great scents: chocolate and freshly baked bread among them.

But what about the smell of fresh computers?

Charles Moore has written about the smell of new Macs in The G4 stinks, and so does my PowerBook. It's the tragic tale of one who suffers what seems to be an increasingly common malady in our technological society: chemical sensitivity.

Moore writes, "being acutely sensitive to a wide variety of common, everyday, chemical substances even at extremely minuscule environmental levels, complicates one's life profoundly."

How right he is. I, too, suffer from chemical sensitivity.

It's All In Your Head

For the most part, these chemicals are inhaled when we breathe. And the path from nose to brain is a direct one, as noted on Betty Bridges' overview of fragrance chemicals:

The sense of smell has a more direct connection to the brain than any other sense. There is no barrier between the brain and the chemicals that you breathe in. While it is well known the effects of "snorting" cocaine, little thought is given to the effects of the other chemicals that pass through our nasal passages.

Studies have shown that inhaling fragrance chemicals can cause circulatory changes in the brain. Changes in electrical activity in the brain also occur with exposure. Fragrances are a frequent trigger of migraine headaches. Changes in circulatory and electrical activity in the brain can trigger migraines in susceptible individuals.

I can't walk past most perfume counters, spend any time in Victoria's Secret, or even make it through a church service where colognes and perfumes are prevalent. For whatever reason, my system reacts negatively to a lot of scents that others enjoy. And it's getting worse by the year. Bridges notes:

Many of these chemicals are sensitizers. This means that they can make a person allergic to them. Once a person has become sensitized to a material even tiny amounts may cause adverse affects. For a person that has become sensitized to a common fragrance material avoidance is very difficult.

It's something I've learned to live with, but there are a lot of stories.

For instance, the first year we owned a home, we bought a real Christmas tree. My folks had had artificial trees since I was a child; I wanted the real thing. But by the time we set it up, I had a headache. I soon learned my father is also sensitive to pine, which explained the many years with artificial trees.

A few years back, the company Christmas party was held at the Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The building was full of beautifully decorated Christmas trees, as well as some marvelous plants. But I had to excuse myself within 10 minutes of arriving.

Sometimes at work someone throws on too much perfume or cologne. If I walk through their scent trail - or worse, they stop in my cubicle - I have to go out for fresh air to clear my head.

Recently a hand lotion my wife has enjoyed using for years crossed the line from nice to nasty.

It's not an easy way to live, but at least I'm not sensitive to the smell of new Macs.


What really surprised me is that about 15% of the population is chemical sensitive (including scents), yet most people have never heard of it.

We all remember the uproar over fragrance strips in magazines causing asthma attacks. (Thank goodness those strips have almost vanished today!)

This is the same thing, but the symptoms may not be as fast or as strong as an asthma attack. Or they may result in a migraine.

I hope this article opens your eyes to what millions have to deal with on a daily basis. If you use scents, please consider stopping. And if you can't, could you at least cut back?


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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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