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The Nose Knows

When you consider that most of us spend 80 to 90 percent of our time indoors, it suddenly becomes relevant to know that indoor air can be two to five times more polluted than outside air. Indoor pollutants, however, are quite different from the classic idea of pollution - clouds of stinky emissions from smoke stacks. For some people, in fact, the worst "pollution" comes from fragrances that are designed to be pleasing to the nose.

Whether it's a lily-of-the-valley fabric softener or an expensive perfume, some people report that they experience asthma attacks and other health symptoms when exposed to scented products. These products are said to trigger any number of symptoms, which may include headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, malaise, insomnia, respiratory problems, anxiety, and others.

An increasing number of workplaces, schools and hospitals in Canada are addressing the issue by implementing scent-free policies. The Kingston General Hospital, for example, recently introduced a hospital-wide ban on fragrances prompted by workers' complaints that their co-workers' perfumes, colognes and other fragrances were causing significant reactive airway problems. One employee in particular ended up in the hospital's emergency ward because of a reaction to scented products.

Should fragrances be considered a health hazard? While the scent-free movement has its opponents - some claim there is no scientific evidence that second hand exposure to scents can affect a person's health - organizations such as the Canadian Lung Association and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) suggest that scent-free policies are a viable option.

CCOHS advises that in workplaces where chemicals in fragrances are suspected of causing health problems, employers should consider a scent-free policy, in addition to other options such as identifying the exact source of the problem and, if possible, reducing all emissions from building materials, cleaning products and other sources of fragrances. CCOHS also stresses the importance of maintaining good indoor air quality (ventilation) to prevent scents from being spread throughout the building.

Another (potentially delicate) way to address the issue, according to scent-free advocates, is to ask the person to wear less of the offending scent or switch to a lighter fragrance. As a guideline for what might constitute too much of a good thing, CCOHS suggests that no scent should be detectable at more than an arm's length from the individual.

Reprinted with the permission of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety (CCOHS), 135 Hunter St. East, Hamilton, Ontario L8N 1M5; Tel: (905) 572-2981; Toll free 1-800-668-4284; Fax (905) 572-2206


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