I get scent headaches. They hurt, make me irritable and make it difficult for me to concentrate. Often, I have to flee the area—or person. I'm lucky all I get is a headache. And I'm grateful for a scent-free workplace and home.
Many suffer much worse from toxic chemicals in synthetic fragrances. They can't find a safe place to live (e.g., free from laundry scents), have quit their jobs, and can't ride in a bus or elevator or new car, take a plane, use a new laptop, or enjoy a movie in the theatre.
It's hard to comprehend how we suffer, because environmental sensitivities are a poorly understood medical condition. They're complex and not easily defined. And the causes, symptoms and triggers vary from person to person. Three per cent of the Canadian population suffers.
Did you know that environmental sensitivities are considered a disability in Canada (PDF) as well as the U.S. under the Americans with Disabilities Act? And employers (but unfortunately not neighbours) are asked to show reasonable accommodation.
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In 2012, Ecojustice won a lawsuit that supported Varda Burstyn because they believed that access to a safe environment is a human rights issue! (And now, there's a movie about "fragrance", too, called Stink!)
What is reasonable accommodation?
A list of 14 actions can be found in this report, including:
- Fragrance-free environments
- Carpet-free environments
- Windows that open
- Moving an employee's work station or modifying work schedule
To illustrate the diversity of causes, symptoms and triggers faced by my Queen of Green fans alone, I recently asked them (via Facebook), "What's the worst scent bomb experience you've had?" Here are 30 stories from real people who need your empathy and compassion:
"Being at work where co-workers use cologne/perfume despite scent-free workplace signs. And management does nothing." Robert
"Three of my five kids have asthma. If we go near the cleaning products in stores I can't trust that they won't have an asthma attack. When my older kids stay with family and their laundry gets done while gone, we need to rewash the clothes AND not let them mix in the laundry with other things. If they come in contact with my asthmatic kids clothes or towels in the machine they wheeze and their eczema flares up." Anon.
"Over 20 years ago my son had a serious allergic reaction to brand name dryer sheets." Sharon
"I had to quit my job (partially) because my co-workers refused to stop wearing perfume. I am now chronically ill from working in that office and can't tolerate synthetic chemicals or fragrance without becoming sick for days." Rebecca F.
"It's so serious we need to give our children their asthma medicine before even walking through the zoo since the indoor exhibits are full of people wearing scents." Amy
"I was in an elevator that broke down for 42 minutes, with a man who wore cologne. It gave me a migraine which caused me to vomit. I had to use my favourite carry bag to avoid messing on the floor." Lisa
"I wish everyone could experience a nebulizer/emergency room, airway closed, asthma attack. Maybe then they would switch to scent free products?" Rebecca S. (Allison said her son suffers like this, too.)
"I get migraines from certain scents. I have been trapped with perfumes and colognes in, elevators, offices, cars, buses, etc. A migraine follows soon after. It is debilitating." Jean
"We can't use our side door, as my next door neighbour's dryer (constantly in use) pumps out fabric softener perfume that shuts down my sinuses. Their vent blows it right into our house." Rebecca P.
"I put a stop to teachers using sensy oil warmers in our school. My kids were coming home smelling horrible. And imagine trying to do work in that?" Liz
"Rushing into an elevator to rush right back out again, overwhelmed by perfume, so much that it felt as though my lungs were closing. Cleaning aisles in stores, or aisles with excessive amounts of plastics are also bad." Roxanne
"A single stall bathroom at work is unusable because air freshener is heavily used. This is a daily event and that stuff is suffocating!" Heather L.
"Scented candles section in stores; trapped in a cab with multiple air fresheners." Heather B.
"I'd rather not smell any of my neighbour's laundry (so would my asthma and migraines). Weekly my neighbours do a load of overly bleached laundry." Desiree
"I hate walking the neighbourhood during the fall/winter here in Langley. Everyone has the horrendous dryer sheet/fabric softener concoction blowing." Sarah
"I work at a college in the office of the registrar. One day a person came to the back office so drenched in someone else's cologne that I had an asthma attack. I never saw the student but had to handle his paperwork and that was enough to cause an asthma attack. Just imagine if I had to actually speak with the student." Brenda
"Brand name dryer sheets send me into a severe migraine. And I have to get off the bus if overly scented people get on." P Jean
"I once had to ask the manager of a store that I frequented to ask an employee to stop wearing so much perfume as it made me ill after just a few seconds of contact. It's a small town and I felt bad but it was supposed to be a scent-free workplace. I am in a small town but find that no matter where I go a scent free policy is not enforced." Cameron
"I am allergic to perfumes used in laundry products. My clothes stink with it after I wash in the communal laundry; it's hopeless to ask people to stop. I cough every time I pick my wet laundry up. Even after it dries it stinks! What can be done?" Joan
"Walking the trails and being unable to breathe for a few seconds after passing someone who washed their clothes in heavily scented detergent. But the worse one was a person dowsing herself in perfume before a 6:30 A.M. at hot yoga class = asthma attack." Helene
"I hate running past a house when their doing laundry. You can taste the scent from the dryer sheets." Allison
"Women who apply perfume before dinner! It's volatile, ends up on my clothes, in my mouth and on my date." Violet.
"Going through stores and being even two aisles over from the laundry/cleaning aisle." Kelly
"Scented hand sanitizer or hand cream! My students often forget that these products have very strong scents!" Rachel
"I call it death by fabric softener. Apartment buildings and condos tend to be pervaded with these scents." Melissa
"Bug spray cloud at a relay for life cancer event!" Carrie H.
"The public laundromat." Lisa
"Perfumes, cleaning aisles in grocery stores, fabric softeners from dryer vents and driving behind diesel trucks. It seems to get worse as I get older." Jeannie
"The scent from my neighbour's dryer on my patio is overwhelming. Also when I take my walk and use the pathway between houses." Anon.
"The laundry room in my building is down the hall and around the corner. Yet there's someone every week, without fail, does at least one load with bleach that we can smell it by simply opening our door." Anon.
On behalf of those who suffer from Environmental Sensitivities, thank you for believing us!
Please don't feel judged or shamed, but do ask us how you might help us stay healthy and seek to understand. (We often know what triggers us — down to the exact brand name of laundry product.) And thank you for complying with scent-free policies as it allows us to keep working, going to the dentist, doctor, etc.
Lindsay Coulter, a fellow Queen of Green