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TAKE THREE / Three Views of the Southland | AL MARTINEZ

The Sweet Smell of Excess

January 23, 1998|AL MARTINEZ

I was in an elevator the other day with a woman who smelled like my late aunt Orestia.

Well, Orestia wasn't really her name, and she wasn't really my aunt, but her essence was the overpowering fragrance of lilacs and gin. And in that elevator, for a moment I thought that Orestia had returned from beyond the grave.

I studied the person in the elevator but she offered no hint of hostile intent so I tried to ignore her until I got off.

But her aroma brought back memories of my aunt, a big woman who drank excessively and was known to frequent cowboy bars in East Oakland.

She would hug me when she was drunk until I thought my ribs would crack, and then pass out on the couch in a cloud of lilacs and cheap gin.

I mention this because the incident also made me think of Judith Sanderson. She's the teacher at Culver City High with an asthma-like sensitivity to chemical aromas.

She claims that the mere whiff of perfume, aftershave, scented underarm deodorant or other aromatic cosmetics makes her physically ill. Her students know that, of course, and amuse themselves by wearing the stuff.

Sanderson smells them as they walk into class and sends the offenders to the principal. Parents complain she's spending more time sniffing than teaching.

Sympathizers to her plight, however, would not only kick the kids out of school but would also ban chemical fragrances in public places. They'd force perfume-wearers into the street next to cigarette smokers in evil little clusters of public offenders.

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Sanderson is not alone in her sensitivity to chemical fragrances. Anywhere from 40,000 to 100 million Americans say they suffer from it, depending on whose estimate you're willing to believe.

It has gained such stature in certain areas that some churches and governmental agencies have declared themselves fragrance-free. Tax money helped build a so-called Ecology House in Marin County that was supposed to be free of any chemical aromas but made its residents sick anyhow.

I became aware of the existence of multiple chemical sensitivity, or MCS to the medically hip, when a woman named Edna refused to come to a dinner party at our house unless it was fragrance-free.

Unlike Judith Sanderson, I was not prepared to sniff everyone who came in the door and would not make aromatic purity a condition of attending the party. So Edna, who considered herself on the cutting edge of a new cause, declined to join us, and I haven't seen her since.

Sanderson, by the way, is not among those who would ban perfumes in public places. She's just careful.

If someone wearing a chemical fragrance gets on her elevator, she gets off and takes another elevator. On airplanes, she wears a kind of filtered half-mask, explaining to anyone interested why she has to. During the holiday season, she shops by catalog.

"I don't think people know how dangerous it is," she said. "I feel as though I'm living my life in a minefield."

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Perfume has been around for about 6,000 years. It was used in the beginning to hide offensive odors, then became synonymous with sexual seduction. Some use it sparingly, others, like my aunt Orestia, excessively.

I was repulsed by the suffocating aroma of the lady on the elevator, but it didn't make me throw up. However, I did get a flash of how this must affect those who suffer ill effects from even lightly applied aromatic cosmetics.

Some suggest that their problem is more psychological than physiological and what they need is therapy, not scent masks. The American Medical Assn. doesn't even recognize the malady as an actual disease.

But when students began spraying perfume around Sanderson's classroom as a joke, a state mediator called the mischief "fragrance assaults" that amounted to physical injury and ordered cameras mounted to catch them at it.

This gives the whole episode the stamp of authority and that worries me. Any time a government agency is involved in anything, the situation always gets a little more screwed up. What next, perfume police?

The school district has already spent $20,000 trying to alleviate the problem, but that apparently isn't enough to satisfy Sanderson. I'm sure that lawyers are already jostling for the right to sue somebody, anybody, on her behalf. There's money to be made. It's the American Way.

The whole thing, though serious enough to some, threatens to take on a comedic tone, like the Bubble Boy episode on Seinfeld. Sanderson ought to realize that as much as she might like teaching, it's not working.

I have a suggestion for her based on a Harry Truman motto. It's extreme but effective: If you can't stand the smell, you'd better get out of the classroom. Amen.

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Al Martinez can be reached online at al.martinez@latimes.com

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