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Your Perfume Is Making Them Sick : Overwhelmed by the Scents of Chemicals in Products and in the Air, Some Activists Are Leading the Push for a More Fragrance-Free Environment


Marie Schmidt of Arcadia cringes when she sees her monthly department store bills in the mailbox.

Schmidt isn't worried about making payments. She is worried about getting sick from fragrance strips that some stores include with their bills.

"I start sneezing and my nose starts running the minute I smell them," says Schmidt, whose respiratory system goes on red alert at the least whiff of scented products.

"It's sort of like cigarette smoking," she complains. "They are invading my privacy."

Whether she realizes it or not, Schmidt is part of what could be the next big nationwide battle that pits individual rights against public health concerns: the push for fragrance-free environments.

"Ten years from now it will be politically incorrect to wear perfumes in public," predicts Paul Imperiale, disability coordinator for the mayor's office in San Francisco. That city's fragrance-free plan, drafted in 1990, was never enacted.

With Americans now using perhaps a dozen scented personal-care products each day, fragrance foes' basic argument is this: your right to wear these products ends where my chemical sensitivities begin.

Doctors say those sensitivities are heightened by chronic sinus problems (suffered by 33 million Americans, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America) or allergies (endured by more than 50 million of us).

Beyond perfume, activists for fragrance-free environments are targeting restaurant bathrooms with those pungent deodorizers, office buildings that use pesticides and astringent cleaning products, and the neighborhood mall, whose host of synthetic odors assault the nostrils, especially around the holidays.

"We are putting so much into our environment that people are getting sick. I don't think it's a matter of personal rights now, I think it's a matter of everyone's health," says Joan Ripple, a consultant to state Sen. Milton Marks, who chaired a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the rights of the disabled.

Two years ago, Marks, a San Francisco Democrat whose district includes Marin County, sponsored a controversial bill to deal with environmental chemicals and fragrances.

The bill, which was opposed by the fragrance and cleaning industries, would have required the management of all public buildings to post when the last pesticide application was and the chemicals used. It also asked people to refrain voluntarily from wearing fragrances to public meetings and designated fragrance-free zones near window or doors.

But even though the bill failed last spring, the sentiment behind it appears to be growing. Consider these developments:

* On Tuesday, the City of Oakland approved a wide-ranging policy that accommodates those with chemical sensitivities. The policy requires the city to provide fragrance-free meeting areas for chemically sensitive individuals who need to meet with city employees. They will be asked to refrain from wearing scented products on that day. The policy still needs full council approval.

* Several months ago, the University of Minnesota's School of Social Work banned students and faculty from using perfumes, colognes, shampoos and other products that might trigger allergic reactions.

* In Santa Cruz, officials have passed a resolution supporting the concept of smoke-free and fragrance-free environments as part of the city's implementation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The city wants to "discourage the use of fragrances within city facilities and vehicles" and "provide information on alternative products which are fragrance-free."

* Marin County has set up fragrance-free zones where those with chemical sensitivities can sit during the monthly public hearings on county parks.

* In Boise, Idaho, Pastor Jon K. Brown of the First United Methodist Church has launched a fragrance-free service each Sunday at 2 p.m. He says his wife has multiple chemical sensitivity.

"In public policy terms, this could be defined as an issue of handicapped access, just like having a wheelchair ramp into a church or public building," Brown says. "To have services that aren't fragrance-free is to deny services to a group of people whose population is growing every day."


Multiple chemical sensitivity, or MCS, has been hotly debated in recent years, mainly because no one can conclusively say whether it exists. Suffers describe MCS as a hypersensitivity to synthetic chemical compounds ranging from Lysol to L'Air du Temps. They complain of symptoms that include headaches, nausea, dizziness, respiratory difficulties, fatigue and fainting.

But while some doctors regularly treat patients with MCS, others challenge its very existence and suggest that MCS could be psychosomatic. The California Medical Assn. doesn't recognize MCS; the American Medical Assn. does not list it on its roster of recognized diseases.

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