After moving into a newly rented house in Ft. Collins, Colo., Alison Webster (not her real name) felt ill. “Within three days, I was waking up with symptoms I never had before,” she explains. “My face swelled up like a balloon, my hands were puffy. I couldn’t see straight or even walk in a straight line.” A graduate student at the time, the formerly healthy 32-year-old said she knew the symptoms were related to the house. “They went away when I was at school and came back a few hours after I got home.”
Alison and her husband rented the place furnished, which included four potent room deodorizers. “We suspected it was the deodorizers,” she says, noting how the strong odor remained, even after they threw them away.
“We thought removing furniture and even washing the walls might help, but it didn’t. The smell and my symptoms wouldn’t go away,” Alison says. She couldn’t imagine how a simple, scented item could make her so sick.
What’s that smell?
You can’t watch TV today without catching commercials peddling fragranced products. In theory that’s not such a bad thing. After all, cultures throughout history perfumed their homes and persons, if only out of necessity given the state of their hygiene and sanitation systems. Think of the potpourris, sachets, and nosegays so much in favor not all that long ago. Perhaps we all have an innate desire to smell like a breath of spring, and what harm could there be in that?
Well, none until you industrialize the process. Before the early 20th century, the fragrances in high demand were derived directly from plants or animals, but after World War II, companies turned to petrochemicals as the source of manufactured scents and expanded the uses of fragrances exponentially. Natural fragrance preparations still exist, of course, but synthetic scents have taken over the marketplace, with sales topping $18 billion annually.
With our spritzed, sprayed, and slathered-on 21st century barely under way, virtually every conventional cleaning and body care product on the market contains chemically manufactured fragrances.
Obvious products include perfumes, deodorants, soaps, shampoos, laundry detergents, candles, and cleaning products. The not-so-obvious range from shirts to sports drinks. And new products keep coming. Japanese filmgoers get a nose full of fragrance while watching movies, as special machines pump out scents synchronized to certain scenes. And several companies recently announced plans to chemically scent the packaging for products: Cookie boxes, fruit containers, and drink caps will soon emit synthetic scents. And last year, more than one thousand new air fresheners appeared on US stores shelves. This phenomenon means more exposure for everyone. Unfortunately, most of the companies behind these marketing schemes never consider the dangers lurking in their fragranced products, and we consumers have little choice about whether or not we’ll be exposed to them-short of never venturing into a supermarket or department store again.
Alison was curious about which chemicals in the air fresheners had made her so sick. “I went to Target and looked at the packaging,” she explains. “But no ingredients were listed.”
Only after searching the Internet did she learn that products containing synthetic fragrances are not regulated by any government agency. Fragrance formulas are considered “trade secrets,” a designation that gives companies the legal right not to disclose product ingredients, even to the FDA.If a company provides an ingredient label, it only need list the catchall term fragrance, even though hundreds of chemicals may make up one formulation. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reports that “95 percent of the ingredients used to create fragrances today are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum, including benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and many other known toxins and sensitizers. Many of these substances have been linked to cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders, and allergic reactions.” NAS targets fragrances as one of six categories of chemicals that should be tested for neurotoxicity. This puts synthetic fragrances in the company of insecticides, heavy metals, solvents, food additives, and air pollutants.
But despite this level of concern, the trade secret laws have ensured that fragrance chemicals remain completely unregulated. Manufacturers may point to the “self-regulatory” system in place, but they’re not required to check their chemicals for safety, so testing is limited, and compliance with recommendations is voluntary and not enforced. The result? The same chemicals that must be disclosed and tested when used in gasoline and cigarettes go unregulated when put into a bottle of shampoo.
Frustrated by this lack of disclosure, Betty Bridges, a registered nurse who became chemically sensitive in 1988 after an acute exposure to the fragrance chemical amyl cinnamaldehyde, a common fixative in cleansers, established the Fragrance Products Information Network. Bridges investigated fragrances for 11 years, and in 1999, worked with Barbara Wilkie, the president of the Environmental Health Network of California, to file a petition with the FDA requesting regulatory enforcement of the fragrance industry. So far, the FDA has not taken any action.
Bridges explains that we breathe, ingest, and absorb untested, unsafe chemicals. “Although most parents today wouldn’t dream of allowing their kids to be in a room full of cigarette smoke,” she notes, “they expose them to equally bad toxins when near scented candles.”
Is your body polluted?
According to the Environmental Health Coalition of Western Massachusetts, approximately 20 percent of the population reacts adversely to synthetic fragrance, with anywhere from 3.5 to 6 percent experiencing debilitating or even life-threatening reactions. Infants, children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable.
“Even for people who have lost their sense of smell,” Bridges points out, “symptoms still appear when they are around synthetic fragrances, since it’s not the smell but the toxicants comprising the scent that are dangerous.” She further explains that while an allergic reaction might cause congestion or sneezing, reactions to synthetic fragrances often consist of a poisoning response, which may include migraines, difficulty breathing, fatigue, hormonal imbalances, and digestive problems.
“But sensitive people,” Bridges emphasizes, “aren’t the only ones affected by synthetic scents.” Fragrances pose a health issue for everyone. Although most people believe small amounts of chemicals are harmless, studies show that the adage “the dose makes the poison” no longer holds true. Researchers have shown that even low-level exposure causes serious health effects, as our bodies absorb and accumulate the chemicals we get exposed to daily. The Environmental Working Group also found troubling results after studying the impact of cumulative chemical exposures termed “the body burden.”
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