Smelling Good But Feeling Bad

Synthetic Perfumes, Colognes and Scents Are Turning Up Noses

Have you ever wondered which personal fragrance or perfume will make you the most attractive? If the person you're trying to attract happens to be a member of the Sierra Club, then the answer is probably none. In California last year, the club's San Francisco and Loma Prieta chapters resolved to “take action to discourage the use of fragrance products in all public places,” and advocate that this position become a regional and national policy.

Why does the Sierra Club care about how you scent your body or which fabric softener you use? Well, quite literally, these products are making people sick.

For many, the use of fragrances like perfume, cologne, after-shave or scented lotion is a personal choice affecting only the user. But the phrase “personal fragrance” can be seen as a contradiction in terms. Fragrances are, by definition, volatile: that is, they quickly become airborne. Once they're aloft, they're easily inhaled by others, and this can create a health problem akin to second-hand cigarette smoke.

Breathing Hard

Exposure to fragrance chemicals may result in dangerous and painful asthma attacks in which muscle spasms, fluid and excess mucous obstruct the airways. Such attacks afflict about 14.6 million Americans and kill an estimated 5,000 each year, according to the American Lung Association. The Louisiana State Medical Center found that one out of every five of these asthmatics experiences an attack as a result of exposure to perfume.

Even those with no asthmatic history may begin to have attacks after becoming “sensitized” to the chemicals in fragranced products. Betty Bridges, a registered nurse and founder of the Fragranced Products Information Network, was a healthy working mother who had never had an asthma attack before 1988, when her employer switched to a cleaning product with added fragrance. “Almost as soon as I sprayed the solution I couldn't breathe,” she says. “After I ran outside to get some fresh air I could breath again, but I was wheezing badly.” Shortly after the initial attack, Betty began to have reactions to perfumes and other scented products.

People afflicted with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) suffer a host of crippling symptoms upon exposure to low-level chemicals that most people can tolerate. Like Betty Bridges' asthma, MCS can begin at any point in an otherwise healthy person's life. The air freshener that smells great today can make you nauseous tomorrow. And the perfume that makes you feel sexy may be giving the person next to you a migraine headache. Sound unlikely? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn't think so. In 1991, it sponsored a study to identify the compounds found in many fragrance products, in part because “chemical sensitivity may be widespread enough to have significant effects on the country's productivity and health care costs.”

Asthmatics and MCS sufferers aren't the only ones feeling bad about the chemicals in fragrance products. In 1986, The French journal Ann Dermatol Venereol reported that “perfumes are the most common cause of skin allergy to cosmetic products.”

The same year, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) listed fragrances as a category of chemicals that should be given high priority for neurotoxic testing.

Although the FDA has not yet taken NAS' suggestion, Anderson Laboratories has. Anderson is an independent testing lab that specializes in biological effects of polluted indoor air. The lab's president, Dr. Rosalind Anderson, reported in the Archives of Environmental Health that mice experience neurotoxic effects—as well as sensory and pulmonary irritation and airflow limitation—in response to fragrance exposure. Anderson says that her findings, in addition to human reports of adverse effects, are significant enough for her to advocate that people stop using fragrances. “We think that, even if you don't find yourself to be sensitive to fragrances now, you may be later on,” says Anderson. “We also don't know if there is such a thing as silent lung damage.”

If you like scents so much that you're willing to risk your health and those around you to wear them, you probably shouldn't move to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The city recently established fragrance-free policies in most of its public offices and many private businesses. And Halifax isn't the only city to make a public issue out of such second-hand health hazards. In Marin County, California, restaurant patrons are able to choose fragrance-free seating, thanks to the efforts of the Citizens for a Toxic-Free Marin.

A Chemical Soup

Since people have been using perfumes for hundreds of years, it's reasonable to wonder why the problem has surfaced only recently. But until the 20th century, perfumes were made from natural ingredients derived directly from plants and animals. As fragrances became cheaper and more widespread, they also became more synthetic. The National Academy of Sciences reports that 95 percent of chemicals used in fragrances today are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum, including known toxins capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions.

But surely, you might say, if there really was a significant health risk created by perfumes and other scented products, the federal government would protect people by attempting to regulate them, right? Guess again. Since the cosmetics industry is self-regulated, it isn't required to register its formulations, test results or consumer complaints with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “The cosmetics manufacturers aren't required to submit safety data to the FDA, so we don't really know what sorts of tests they run,” says Wayne Stevenson of the FDA Cosmetics Registration Section. “When they run tests, they keep the results in their own files. They don't share the information with the FDA.”

Human health risks aren't the only problem. Fragrances that are washed down the drain from laundry, shower and household cleaning activities may not be removed in waste treatment plants, and so they can stick around to contaminate animals and ecosystems. Synthetic musk chemicals in particular may be ecologically harmful “due to their high bio-accumulation potential in animals and in the aquatic environment, their general persistence, dermal permeability and insufficiently assessed toxicity,” says Dr. Gerhard Rimkus of the Food and Veterinary Institute in Neumunster, Germany.

Next time you reach for that bottle of perfume or cologne, remember that you're using powerful chemicals regulated solely by the industry that sells them. Remember that just because they don't affect you now doesn't mean they won't affect someone in line next to you, or that you'll always be immune to their effects. Think about where they might end up once they've disappeared down the drain. If you do have a reaction to scented products, take action. Complain not only to the producer of the product, but also to the FDA (for cosmetics) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (for other fragranced products).

DAMON FRANZ is an editorial intern at E

; HOLLY PRALL is an environmental educator in Georgia.