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Dan Knight's Soapbox

Air Quality

A look at Environmental Illness

Dan 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.

The Environment

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 scents.

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 quite small.

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 migraines.

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 Seattle's 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 problem.")

It would be a perfect solution, except for one thing: life isn't fair.

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 Gillian McKinnon.

"Excuse me, dear," she says. "Are you aware that this hospital is a
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 illness.


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.

The Environment

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.

Further Reading

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