Is Perfume the New Second-Hand Smoke?

The lesson we can learn from the Susan McBride lawsuit is simple: we need to learn the proper do's and don'ts when it comes to using scented products.
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You may have heard about Susan McBride, the civil servant in Detroit who recently won a $100,000 settlement with the City of Detroit because they failed to accommodate her allergy to perfume and other scented products. McBride claimed a co-worker's excessive use of perfume and air fresheners made her sick and made it difficult for her to breathe, and after her superiors did nothing to accommodate the complaint, she sued the city and won.

The blogosphere is in a tizzy over this story, pretty much saying something stinks about McBride: why couldn't she just switch offices or work from home? Some also see it as a stunning example of government waste and as just one more reason why the City of Detroit is spiraling to the brink of bankruptcy. The reality is this: excessive use of fragrance is the new second-hand smoke. Susan McBride deserved the right to work in a clean work environment and the City of Detroit simply failed to address her concern seriously. In addition to losing $100,000, the City of Detroit has been forced to also post signs banning government workers from wearing cologne, perfume, deodorant, scented lotions and from using scented candles, plug-in air fresheners and room sprays.

This could've all ended in a more civilized way.

While many of us are rolling our eyes over the insanity of this lawsuit, we shouldn't. According to New York magazine, a survey revealed that 74% of women have an allergic reaction to fragrance at least once in their lifetime. And it's easy to understand why: the volatile organic compounds (or VOC's) emitted by fragrance products can contribute to poor indoor air quality and are associated with a variety of adverse health effects, just like McBride's shortness of breath and overall sense of feeling ill. Just think about the last time you shared an elevator with someone reeking of perfume and covered your nose with your sleeve, or held your breath walking past an Abercrombie & Fitch store where employees are required to spray the store's signature scent into the air every 30 minutes.

Instead of banning fragrance altogether, the lesson we can learn from this lawsuit is simple: we need to learn the proper do's and don'ts when it comes to using scented products. Just as much as you wouldn't blow cigarette smoke into someone's face if you're a smoker, you shouldn't dose yourself with excessive fragrance.

Many people reapply fragrance throughout the day for two reasons: the scent changes throughout the day as the top, middle and bottom notes evaporate and because the wearer grows accustomed to the overall scent which the brain filters out as a background scent. While you may no longer smell your perfume, others around you will register the scent as a strong smell. Reapplying perfume only makes more pungent.

The other problem with fragrances is a chemical called diethyl phthalate, or DEP, which is added to help dissipate perfume further. When you spray the perfume and breathe it in, it goes through your respiratory system and into your lungs. DEP has been found to be a possible cause of reproductive and developmental disorders, cancer, organ damage, childhood asthma, and allergies.Spraying perfume around others can unintentionally release DEP into the air and make others around you sick.
The solution is to wear less and apply at home. Choosing a solid perfume in a wax base is a good alternative since you can enjoy your favorite scent, but control the application by applying it directly to the skin. And a new fragrance trend is to look for USDA certified organic perfumes, which must contain at least 95% organic ingredients and no more than 5% proven safe ingredients that are also free of harsh artificial scents, DEP or other carcinogenic chemicals.

Clean clothes should smell like absolutely nothing, not like a field of lavender flowers. If you're clothes are coming out of the dryer smelling sweetly scented, there's a very good chance you've been overdosing your clothes. I've been working closely with the eco-friendly cleaning company Method for years as a consultant. This year, they launched a new product called Method Laundry in response to the detergent industry's guilty secret: consumers have no idea how much detergent to use to wash their clothes. A study conducted by Method showed that 53% of consumers "eyeball" it when pouring detergent and many consumers felt using a little bit extra detergent got clothes cleaner. Why is this bad? Because our washing machines are more efficient today and detergents are becoming more concentrated, a film of soap is often left on our clothes. Since detergent is designed to attract dirt, wearing overdosed clothing actually makes what you wear dirtier, quicker. Throughout the day, your overdosed clothes become a pungent mix of fragrance, odors and grime.

The solution is to use the right amount of detergent. Use a Sharpie to mark the inside of the detergent cap fill line; it's usually about ½ the cap. Or try Method Laundry's new product, which is 8X concentrated and uses a pumping system (like handsoap) to only deliver precise doses. Whatever you choose, just use less soap.

Have you ever ridden in a car oversaturated with the strong smell fragrance from those rearview mirror air fresheners? Or walked into a bathroom that was recently sprayed to mask the, um, lingering odor inside? Not only are these nauseating, but they can be incredibly unhealthy for you, too.

The problem with air fresheners---sprays, plug-ins and solids---is that they do nothing to actually address the cause of the odor. Instead, they cover them up with a chemical cocktail of artificial fragrances and oils that simply "coat" the inside of your nose or impair your olfactory senses so you simply can not smell the offending odor.

The problem? Covering many of these odors prevents you from getting to the real root of the problem, which could be a mold or mildew infestation or something hidden that's rotting away.

Because our homes and office buildings are more energy efficient today, that means less outdoor air has as chance to get indoors. Over time, chemicals, odors and stale air builds up, which leads people to perfume the air with sprays and plug-ins. If you are able to, I suggest opening a window in the front and back of your workspace or home on a nice breezy day. This will cross-ventilate the entire space and safely flush out all of the toxins to create a clean, fresh space.

The other alternative is to look at naturally detoxifying products that kill or absorb odor-causing bacteria. One idea that goes back thousands of years is bamboo charcoal, which features millions of tiny holes that suck in excess moisture and odors. The small square packets of bamboo charcoal can be placed discreetly throughout any room to detoxify the air. New compact fluorescent lightbulbs from a company called Ionic bulb also shows promise. The energy efficient CFL bulbs with ionic technology emits negative ions when lit that attaches to airborne pollutants to neutralize them.

Outside of perfumes and air fresheners, one comment I haven't read about the Detroit lawsuit is the use of indoor pesticides. If there's anything that's going to create an unhealthy work environment, it's insect control sprays. Pesticides are a tricky double-edged sword: yes, we know these sprays can create an unhealthy environment, but we also don't want our office or home crawling with ants, cockroaches and other insects.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that 75% of US households use at least one pesticide and that some 79,000 children were involved in common household pesticide poisonings or exposures. The problem with pesticides is that they are a mixture of both active and inert ingredients; the active agents designed to kill targeted insects, and the inert ones used as a carrying agent to disperse the insecticide. Ironically, it's the inert ingredients that are not toxic to the pests, but are harmful to us.

The EPA also reports conventional insecticides increase the VOC levels in the home and release airborne toxins from both the active and inert ingredients that can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat; damage to the central nervous system; and headaches, dizziness and nausea amongst a host of other ailments.

One company that is addressing the dangers of insecticides is EcoSmart, which studied the natural defense mechanisms found in plants that naturally repel insects. They discovered certain plants in nature are completely protected from invasive insects and mimicked the essential oil blends found in these plants to create the first all-organic insecticide line. EcoSmart uses a patented blend of both active and inert organic ingredients that kill and repel targeted insects, but are so safe, you could actually eat them. Now if EcoSmart would only create a room spray, perfume and plug-in, maybe we can find peace in the city of Detroit.

For more information, visit Danny Seo's website or read his syndicated column "Do Just One Thing" distributed by Universal Syndicate to newspapers nationwide.

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