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Scent-Free Policy: FAQ

What can I do to prevent harming people affected by scents?

You can adopt scent-free practices by avoiding perfumes, aftershaves, colognes and scented lotions, and opting for 'fragrance-free', 'scent-free' or 'unscented' versions of such personal care products as hand and body lotions, soaps, hair products and deodorants. Many scent-free personal care products can be found at your local supermarket and pharmacy. As well, there are a variety of specialty stores throughout the area.

I know a few people who have allergies to certain foods or suffer from hay fever, but I don't know anyone who has a reaction from coming into contact with scented products. How real is this concern?

It is very real. It's well documented that the incidence of asthma is on the increase, especially in young people. In fact, there are many environmental illnesses - illnesses that are triggered by things in our environment. Among the best known are spring and late summer allergies to the pollen from flowers, grasses or trees. Another is smog. Smog alerts have become common in many North American cities, including Toronto. It literally is not safe for some people to go outdoors on smoggy days.

It is also known that asthma and migraine headaches have multiple triggers, including chemical exposure. Asthma attacks can be set off by pollen, moulds, extreme cold, dust, and exposure to chemicals, including paint and perfume. Bright light, loud noise, foods such as chocolate, a change in barometric pressure, exposure to paint, and fragranced cleaning and personal care products can all trigger migraine attacks. So it is well known that exposure to materials in the environment can cause illness.

There are also people who suffer from sensitivity to multiple chemical triggers. This condition is now called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS).

What is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)?

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity is an acquired illness characterized by severe reaction to exposures easily tolerated by most individuals. Common triggers include volatile organic compounds of the sort often found in paints, cleaning products, perfumes and fragranced personal care products, gasoline and similar products, as well as such naturally-occurring substances as citrus oils and turpenes in softwood. Reactions range from sinus congestion and watery eyes through more serious reactions such as temporary rashes, flu-like symptoms with headache, nausea, and muscle or joint pain, to debilitating reactions including migraine and asthma attack.

There are many theories about the cause of this illness, and at present there is much that we do not understand about the condition. But while the research continues, the only reliable way to avoid painful and dangerous reactions is for the MCS sufferer to avoid as many triggers as possible. While people with MCS are responsible for ensuring that their home environments are as free as possible from chemical triggers, they require the cooperation of others to make their classrooms, workplaces and recreational sites safe.

Asthma, migraines and allergies are fairly common health problems, but I've never heard of MCS. If the origin is unknown, then is it a real medical illness?

The Nova Scotia government's Advisory Committee on Environmental Hypersensitivity concluded that MCS is an illness. In the Committee's 1997 report, members concluded that some people are severely symptomatic to the point of incapacity and there are many instances where this condition has been catastrophic both economically and in the personal lives of people with MCS and their families. A copy of this document is available in the Employment Equity Resource Centre.

Some people with MCS cannot work or even take part in the daily routines most of us take for granted: grocery shopping, going to restaurants, bars, movies, concerts-virtually any place where the majority of people will be wearing scented products.

Why should I adopt scent-free practices when there isn't anyone in my unit, classroom or residence who suffers from an allergy or sensitivity? The perfume I wear and the scented products I use aren't bothering anyone.

Do you know that for a fact? Perhaps someone is suffering in silence. Or maybe you will come in contact with someone with a chemical sensitivity during the day-in the cafeteria, at the gym, in a meeting, at a concert, in the classroom, or in the library. By putting all the responsibility for coming forward on the person who is at the most at risk of becoming ill, you increase their chances of having a reaction-they have to approach the person wearing a scent that triggers a reaction in them, in order to tell that person to refrain from wearing the scent.

I would resent being told, or feel uncomfortable telling others, what kind of personal care product to use. Isn't the request to adopt scent-free practices intrusive on the individual's right to wear whatever he or she wants?

It may at first seem that asking people to use scent-free personal care products touches on a personal and private matter. But when the scents from these products affect the health and well-being of other people, it then goes beyond just being a matter of private concerns. The goal of this awareness campaign is not to target people personally or to criticize people's preferences. Rather, it's to prevent real harm to real people.

We can also remember the words of Jesus, who reminded us to do to others as we would like them to do to us (the “Golden Rule”). Showing concern in this area is a practical way to act in a Christ-like manner.

If we ask people to avoid using scented products, perhaps they will stop using personal care products altogether. Poor hygiene and strong body odour might be the result. Surely we want to avoid this?

This is not the likely consequence of adopting scent-free practices. There are more than 100 alternatives to scented personal care products, from the most essential (soap, shampoo, deodorant), to the additional products we rely on to make us look good and feel good (body wash, hand cream, body lotion, hairspray, gel and more).

Don't I have to spend a lot of time and money running around looking for scent-free products?

Going scent-free may not be as difficult as you think. While specialty store items do tend to be a bit more pricey, many of these items are of high quality, and are effective in smaller quantities than the scented products. As a result, while the up-front cost may be higher, the cost-per-use can be comparable.

In addition to the specialty store products, many brand name personal care items come in 'scent-free', 'fragrance-free' or 'unscented' versions. These are available at your local supermarket and pharmacies on the shelf next to their scented versions. As well, some of the large chains have bulk or natural products sections that sell many specialty store items at a lower price.

Of course, it is easy and cost-free to simply not wear unnecessary perfume or cologne at work or at school.

What's the difference between products labelled 'fragrance-free', 'scent-free' or 'unscented'?

These terms are used in industry virtually without restrictions. They may only mean that the product has less scent than the scented version of the same product from that manufacturer. Therefore, these labels can offer no guarantee that a product won't trigger a reaction in someone who is chemically sensitive. Nonetheless, choosing products with these labels is still safer than choosing the scented versions. While it is possible that somebody could have a reaction to your personal care product even if you've taken all precautions to avoid this outcome, the important thing is that you realize this and are prepared to react in a positive way, should this situation ever arise.

What is the difference between an allergy and a sensitivity?

Physicians and the general public often use these words differently. An allergy is a condition in which exposure to material prompts the body’s immune system to respond inappropriately. One can have a skin or a respiratory system allergy. For many people, the workings of the human immune system are a mystery and they sometimes report that they are “allergic to” something when they are adversely affected by something in their environment.

The situation regarding sensitivities is even more complicated. Some people have been coming forward to report that they are adversely affected by chemical exposures in their environment. There is much we do not understand about the problems that these people experience. Because they report a wide range of adverse impacts—often following exposures that most people tolerate without difficulty—many of the suggested names have included the terms “sensitivity” or “hypersensitivity”.

What happens if I don’t adopt scent-free practices?

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity is an acquired illness characterized by severe reaction to exposures easily tolerated by most individuals. Common triggers include volatile organic compounds of the sort often found in paints, cleaning products, perfumes and fragranced personal care products, gasoline and similar products, as well as such naturally-occurring substances as citrus oils and turpenes in softwood. Reactions range from sinus congestion and watery eyes through more serious reactions such as temporary rashes, flu-like symptoms with headache, nausea, and muscle or joint pain, to debilitating reactions including migraine and asthma attack.

There are many theories about the cause of this illness, and at present there is much that we do not understand about the condition. As research continues, the only reliable way to avoid painful and dangerous reactions is for the MCS sufferer to avoid as many triggers as possible. While people with MCS are responsible for ensuring that their home environments are as free as possible from chemical triggers, they require the cooperation of others to make their classrooms, workplaces and recreational sites safe.

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