David Suzuki: Has your workplace gone fragrance-free yet?

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      We’ve all had the experience of a scent magically transporting us to a particular time or place. Some scents evoke meaningful memories, like frolicking in a field of flowers as a child or smelling the skin of someone near and dear. Some bring on different sensations, like a blinding headache.

      Recently, I walked through a store’s cosmetics department. The jumble of scents made me light-headed and reminded me of an old maxim: Your nose knows. Although the phrase entered the public’s consciousness through a cartoon toucan shilling for a sugary breakfast cereal, it has some truth. Your sense of smell can often detect when things are amiss. When I walk into the potent cloud of perfumes, colognes, and fragranced body products, I get dizzy and I start to sneeze. My nose tells me that something isn’t right.

      In centuries past, the lack of basic sanitation and questionable personal bathing regimes might have made for some sticky, and stinky, encounters. So having some nice lavender oil or a spritz of floral essence to mask body odours would have been kindly appreciated by your kith and kin.

      Today, most scents don’t come from local fields and gardens, but rather from far off laboratories and overseas factories. And with running water and sanitation in our homes and workplaces, keeping personal odours under control shouldn’t be much of a challenge. Yet, as a society, we continue to spend billions to bathe our bodies in artificial scents. The cosmetics industry has done a great job of casting a romantic light on its wares. These companies rarely miss an opportunity to present full-page ads and two-storey billboards with their products propped up by scantily clad supermodels to make synthetic scents seem sexy.

      While my disorienting trips through the cosmetics aisle are irritating to me, I know that for many Canadians the aversion to chemicals used in body-care products is much more serious. For some people, exposure to these scents and fragrances can trigger acute health problems, ranging from disorientation to breathing difficulties and asthma attacks. What’s more, some of the chemicals used as fragrance ingredients have been linked to chronic health issues like reproductive problems and cancer.

      I’m happy that the office where I work had the foresight years ago to implement a fragrance-free policy. Groups like the Canadian Lung Association have long argued that workplaces should adopt policies to keep staff and guests from dousing themselves in scents before heading to the office. This is done as a courtesy to colleagues who are sensitive to such chemicals or who may simply not be as enthralled with the scent of the month, even if it bears the name of a hot celebrity or the hippest fashion label.

      The one thing you won’t find advertised on billboards, or even the ingredient list of your personal care products, is exactly what chemicals are used in the fragrance mix. Manufacturers aren’t required by law to disclose the ingredients used to scent, or sometimes “unscent”, their products. It is considered a trade secret. Instead, the general terms “parfum” or “fragrance” appear on ingredient lists.

      Groups like the David Suzuki Foundation are demanding that the fragrance loophole be closed and that consumers be told what ingredients are in their products. Author and broadcaster Gillian Deacon’s book There’s Lead in Your Lipstick and the U.S. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ website are good resources for learning about toxics in cosmetic products and about products to avoid.

      Unfortunately, the list of things that fail the sniff test in our daily lives goes beyond the office and body-care products. That new-car smell is really a host of harmful chemicals. Some air fresheners contain heavy metals. The smell associated with new vinyl shower curtains includes dozens of volatile chemicals that are bad for you. And of course, any kids’ toys that smell like a chemical refinery when you open the packaging should be avoided.

      While these hazards are all too common, using the sniff test is a good start. We can control the amount of fragranced products and chemicals that we bring into our home and work environment. Adopt fragrance-free policies. Shop wisely. Read ingredients lists. And use some common sense to avoid harmful scents.

      Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation communications specialist Jode Roberts. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.



      Jennie Ramstad

      Mar 16, 2011 at 3:35pm

      I can't help but think that if the public had an adequate level of personal hygiene and consideration for others, this wouldn't even be an issue.


      Mar 16, 2011 at 8:32pm

      This is the of hard hitting controversial cut to the chase research and reporting that makes a real difference to the health of the planet.

      Jebus really?

      Mar 17, 2011 at 11:04pm

      Oh and by the way I endorse the Enbridge pipeline now.


      Mar 18, 2011 at 8:40am



      Mar 25, 2011 at 9:10am

      l'm having to deal with this issue right now! I've asked if my manager who l meet with can refrain from wearing her harsh perfume or l will have sinus infections all the time along with headache and that sick feeling! something l cannot help! She said l will try? Im at the point where l'm trying to find out if l have any rights or not, or l might be looking for a new job before l even get into this one! My last job, the whole building was a fragrance fee envioment, why do people feel the need to wear perfume while at work anyway....if you take a shower that should be enough!


      Mar 28, 2011 at 7:16pm

      I have experienced anaphylactic reactions to fragrances in a college setting. Many people are unaware that such a life threatening reaction can occur. The public needs to be educated about risks of using heavily scented products. Mr. Suzuki you would do a great public health service if you could take up this issue and help us get fragrances banned from any school, theatre, or office envirnoment.


      Jun 5, 2012 at 6:01am

      I work in an office of 100's of employees. We have an employee that is sensitive (supposedly) to perfumes and I guess also the smell of Popcorn. Meanwhile she ingests dozens of highly toxic chemicals several times every hour. Yes, she is a smoker. Personally, I am a bit miffed by the whole thing. Until recently, nobody had any problems with this. Why? Because its all B as in B. S as in S. You whiny control freaks can go stuff and friggin bottle of cologne up your collective asses. Everything has a scent. Even your shit. Are we going to go to a no shit bathroom policy? Maybe open shit free bathrooms ........or pee has a scent too. Lets open shit free piss free bathrooms as well. Good grief Charlie Brown. Can anyone say "Hypocondriac"? piss off


      Aug 4, 2012 at 4:27pm

      Mappy, I find your comment quite ignorant. Chemical scents are not the same as natural ones. Do some research, the facts are out there to find.


      Dec 9, 2013 at 5:12pm

      We have dealt with this issue for years, even in our home. Most laundry products contain these same chemicals (think pthalates, etc.) and can cause headaches, breathing problems, nausea, rashes... We can't open our windows when our neighbours are doing laundry, and there is almost always someone doing laundry nearby. I often come home from work, where there are scent-sprayers in the bathrooms, and have to wash my hair repeatedly to get the stuff out. We have also had to wash food products from the grocery store reeking of perfume because of hand lotions worn by workers and the public (workplaces need to provide unscented soaps/lotions for those who need to handwash often). Years from now we will look back and wonder why we felt the need to bathe ourselves in artificial scents in every possible way. Clean does not have a smell.