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A Friendlier Atmosphere for People Living with Environmental Illness.

Did you know there is a growing number of people who can become ill from simply running an errand in a store, going to work or attending a gathering? Simple tasks that most of us take for granted can cause this group to have mild to severe medical reactions. Even their own homes and work environments can lash out at them.

Why is this happening? “Approximately 12.6% of the population suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a condition in which they experience reactions from exposure to low concentrations of common chemicals…”(1)

MCS (also known as Environmental Illness or Toxic Injury) is “…marked by multiple symptoms in multiple organ systems (usually the neurological, immune, respiratory, skin, ‘GI,’ and/or musculoskeletal) that recur chronic-ally in response to multiple chemical exposures. MCS Symptoms commonly include difficulty breathing, sleeping and/or concentrating, memory loss, migraines, nausea, abdominal pain, chronic fatigue, aching joints and muscles, and irritated eyes, nose, ears, throat and/or skin. In addition, some with MCS show impaired balance and increased sensitivity not just to odors but also to loud noises, bright lights, touch, extremes of heat and cold, and electromagnetic fields.”(2)

The numbers of Americans battling MCS  seem to be rising quickly. Most with MCS tell a story of once being healthy and not effected by fragrances. “MCS usually starts with either an acute or chronic toxic exposure, after which this initial sensitivity broadens to include many other chemicals and common irritants…”(3) Many experts have found that once a  person become reactive to a chemical or toxin, their intolerance is rarely reversible.

Furthermore, “In 1998, it was estimated that 26.3 million Americans have been diagnosed with asthma.”(4) Asthma is a serious respiratory disorder that can constrict and cause swelling of the airways. “The Institute of Medicine placed fragrance in the same category as second hand smoke in triggering asthma in adults and school age children.”(5) What’s more, “Up to 72% of asthmatics report their asthma is triggered by fragrance. Asthmatics and others that are negatively impacted by fragrance often have difficulties working, obtaining medical care, and going about activities of daily living because of others’ use of scented products.”(6)

For those living with asthma and/or MCS, just going to work, a meeting or an activity may expose them to chemicals that could make them ill. These reactions can be very serious and have changed the lives of millions. Because they have to avoid public situations and even having people in their own homes, they can also experience isolation, loneliness, lose their jobs and may even become homebound.

What Chemicals?

Most of us are aware that such things as pollution and car exhaust fumes are not good for us. We even realize that sometimes a work environment, like a lab or factory can be hazardous. However, most do not even think twice when entering a building, automobile or even a home that may contain new paint, car smell, carpet or mold, glue, stain, vinyl upholstery, plastic, rubber, smoke, household cleaners, etc.

Moreover, the culprits most of us will never even give a thought to being bothersome are our sweet smelling   perfumes, colognes and fragranced products. But aren’t these made from natural ingredients like flowers and herbs? Actually, “Perfume formulations changed sometime around the late 70s and early 80s. Today, they are approximately 95-100% synthetic (man-made).”(7) Even seemingly harmless fragrances in our favorite soap, deodorant, lotion, powder, candles, air freshener and laundry products can cause reactions for many.

For the average person, short term exposures to these environmental, every day household products and perfumes may only seem “bothersome” on occasion. Nevertheless, many people claim they never believed they had an issue until they suddenly or gradually developed their sensitivity or intolerance after normal use of these items.

Author Connie Pitts explained why, “Perfumes, colognes, and many other scented products contain an abundance of harmful chemicals, many of which are listed on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste List. They also include numerous carcinogenic chemicals, neurotoxins, respiratory irritants, solvents, aldehydes, hundreds of untested and unregulated petrochemicals, phthalates (which can act as hormone disrupters), narcotics, and much more.”(8)

What Can We Do?

Because many with asthma, MCS and immune disorders risk becoming ill when they go to work, to run errands, to a doctor’s office or when attending a gathering, we can all do our part to help.

  1. For our own wellbeing and for the sake of others, we can discontinue the use of products containing VOC’s, synthetic fragrances and harmful chemicals.
  2. Make meetings and events Fragrance-Free for all to enjoy. This can be done simply by posting this information along with the notices for the event in bulletins, emails, websites and flyers.
  3. Office or building management can ask the  cleaning crew to start using natural cleaning products like baking soda, vinegar, hydrogen peroxide or environmentally safe products. Moreover, they should not use “air fresheners” in the building or bathrooms. Instead, exhaust fans and air purifiers can do the job.
  4. Office or building management can create a list of people who are sensitive to chemicals and fragrances. They would then call people on the list when someone paints the walls, shampoos the carpet, replaces the carpet, gets new furniture or uses glues, insecticides, stains, polishes, etc. In addition, signs should be placed on the doors to notify all employees and customers of the use of these products.
  5. Before visiting someone in their home or inviting them to ours, we should ask those living with asthma, chronic illness, immune issues, MCS and/or allergies what fragrances, lotions, soaps, deodorants, candles, air fresheners, detergents, cleaning products, etc. they can and cannot tolerate.
  6. For added protection, a Fragrance-Free Zone can be implemented.

Creating a Fragrance-Free Zone

A Fragrance-Free Zone is a smoke, fragrance and chemical free area, designed for those who report mild to serious reactions to these items. Adding a Fragrance-Free Zone can help many in our community work and frequent your establishment in comfort.

At first glance, we may think there are enough people who struggle with these issues to justify the hassle of providing a Fragrance-Free Zone. However, for every 100 people in America, there is an average of 10 with asthma, 20 with an autoimmune disorder and/or 12.5 with MCS.

Here are 3 basic types of Fragrance-Free Zones that can be implemented in the office or business:

Fragrance-Free Zone #1: Building, Office or Store Policy. Establish a policy of no perfumes or fragrances worn by employees inside the building. In addition, the use of non-toxic cleaning supplies, natural pesticides, etc. can be included. This concept is becoming more and more popular among businesses, doctor’s offices and churches, because it makes it possible for many to work in or visit your building. Many medical facilities and religious organizations are also asking patients and congregations not to wear fragrances.

Fragrance-Free Zone #2: Separate Room in Workplace. This is a separate room or floor of a building for employees that provides extra protection from fragrances, as well as paints, glues, formaldehyde, mold, smoke and chemical cleaners. It is sealed off with walls, a door to a direct entrance and exit. It also contains a Fragrance-Free bathroom and a break-room (if space permits).

Fragrance-Free Zone #3: Section in Office. This is a simple and quick way to set up a section in the office. Designate several rows of desks just for those with chemical sensitivities. You can post signs to signify that this section is a perfume, cologne, fragrance and smoke free zone. Put this section in an area where they can have easy access to an outside entrance and away from high traffic areas.

Please note that just creating a “section” within a room is not always a viable answer. Perfumes and  fragrances can permeate the air and waft through the area, as well as linger in the hallway, lobby and bathrooms. “Scented products are volatile substances and get into the air quickly. Once in the air, containment to a defined space is impossible. Further, scented products are designed to diffuse into the air and linger.”(9)

Finally, “According to the AARDA, approximately 50 million Americans [or] 20 percent of the population… suffer from some 80 autoimmune diseases.”(10) Thus, for the benefit of all around us, particularly those with immune disorders, when we are sick with a cold or a virus, maybe we should consider staying home. After all, l we could infect several more people, who in turn infect several more people – causing them to miss work, activities and maybe even be hospitalized.

Consequently, even when we are just “coming down with” a virus or we are “getting over” something, we can still be contagious. If we cannot stay home from work, we should at least steer clear of other people, especially those with immune issues.

Thank you for your desire to create a safer environment, so that millions of people can live better lives, with fewer boundaries! Without everyone’s help, going to work or entering a building can put many at risk of having mild to severe reactions that may last several hours or even several weeks. With it, many can lives with less risk of exposure.

(1) Brandon Adams, “More than 12% of Population Reports Extreme Sensitivity to Low Levels of Common Chemicals. Journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), (September 2003): (accessed June 15, 2005). Body
(2) MCSRR, “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome- Fact Sheet,” Introduction.
(3)MCSRR, “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome- Fact Sheet.” MCS Referral and Resources (accessed June 15, 2005). Introduction.
(4) ALA, “Asthma: FAQs.” American Lung   Association of Texas (accessed August 13, 2005). Introduction.
(5) FPINVA, “Fragrances by Design: Materials that quickly get into the air.” Fragranced Products Information Network (accessed August 13, 2005). Introduction.
(6) FPINVA, “Fragrances by Design: Materials that quickly get into the air.” Introduction.
(7) Connie Pitts, “Featured Author. Connie Pitts – Get a Whiff of This: Perfumes (Fragrances) – The Invisible Chemical Poisons. Integrative Ink. (Accessed June 15, 2005). Body
(8) Pitts, “Featured Author Connie Pitts.” Body.
(9) FPINVA, “Fragrance Facts and Fiction.” Fragranced Products Information Network (accessed August 13, 2005). Body.
(10) AARDA, “Press Release: Autoimmunity Named a Leading Cause of Death Among Women in New Study.” American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (accessed June 15, 2005). Conclusion.

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