Friends and Fragrances

As the weather improves later in the year, more encounters with other Friends may take place as part of a traveling ministry, a weekend trip to a Quaker retreat center or library, or simply a visit when passing through a town. But intervisitation can present problems for Friends with certain kinds of asthma and other conditions acquired from exposure to chemicals.

The presence of chemical irritants in conventional cleaning products may not surprise anyone. But few people may realize that products like room deodorizers and personal fragrances, such as aftershave, cologne, and scented lotions, contain toxins that pollute the air and make people ill. The effects can be sinus swelling, migraine headaches, asthma, flu-like symptoms, and other painful conditions that grow in severity with continuing exposure.

Because of trade secret laws, fragrance manufacturers remain unaccountable for the toxins they produce. They do not have to include warning labels when using the same toxins disclosed in cleaning products under right-to-know laws in workplaces. The absence of such warning labels gives false assurance of safety to consumers of fragrance products and unfairly invites skepticism towards individuals who plead for fragrance-free air.

Despite this unaccountability, there is information available based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies. One study lists the 20 most common toxic chemicals found in fragrances, such as toluene and other benzene derivatives. This list, and the health effects of those chemicals, can be found on numerous Web pages, including:

For those unfamiliar with the dangers of fragrance chemicals, I can offer some starter information. First, please be clear that I am not talking about allergies in the common sense of one’s immune system overreacting to something inherently harmless to most people, like certain foods. Though fragrance chemicals pose an additional threat to people with allergies, I am talking about chemical toxins in the air that are harmful to everyone. Taking an allergy remedy is as effective in this case as it would be for someone in a room where tear gas has been released.

Please consider that there was a time when I and other Friends did not have this problem. We acquired it from exposure to toxins, and other people can, too. Consider us canaries like the ones taken down into coal mines to test for toxic air. We have keeled over as a warning to the sturdier occupants; sooner or later the harmful chemicals will do them in, too.

It is of some value to ask already damaged Friends what products typically make them ill, but keep in mind that an individual cannot predict all brands that may cause a severe reaction in oneself, let alone in another person. Because of the danger of toxins to all attending, what is needed is a broad commitment to healthy indoor air at Friends facilities and places rented by Friends for conferences and retreats—not a separate "accommodation" for those of us already clearly damaged by toxic chemicals. Our need for healthy air is not different from that of anyone else present; it is simply more urgent. For us, walking into a room filled with hair spray, body splashes, scented hand lotion, aftershave, scented candles, cologne, fabric softeners, perfume, room deodorizers, and cleaning chemicals is walking into an ambush. To protect ourselves from this onslaught, we have to get out.

I hope a few people in every meeting will be willing to gather some information to discern if they feel any call to go forward in raising awareness in this matter. There are websites to help Friends become better acquainted with the dangers of fragrance products and some safe alternatives to using them. The EPA lists alternatives to toxic products at http://es.epa .gov/techinfo/facts/safe-fs.html. The Public Broadcasting System has a Web page on the subject of pollutants at .html. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration website includes a plea filed by Amy Marsh of the Environmental Health Network (EHN) with the FDA regarding pollutants in fragrances:

Among concerns addressed by the EHN are the effects on children’s learning and health, and the marketing of fragrances to small children. Amy Marsh points out that the Miss Piggy line of fragrances is the marketing equivalent of the Joe Camel cigarette campaign to teens. Children, because of their breathing rate and small body mass, are especially vulnerable to toxins. They, most of all, should not wear fragrances, breathe in room deodorizers, or wear toxins infused into their clothes by fabric softeners. Solvents like toluene, commonly found in perfumed products and markers, alter the functioning of the brain and affect performance. Studies show that effects of such toxins can mimic true learning disabilities and lead to an incorrect diagnosis of the difficulties some children have trying to concentrate in the presence of cleaning chemicals and in the wake of teachers’ and classmates’ perfumes.

It is very, very important to read labels. If "fragrance" is listed as an ingredient, assume that the chemical formula contains toxins. Note that products labeled "unscented" typically contain fragrances.

If you read the ingredients, you will usually find "masking fragrance" listed. Assume that the formula for that masking fragrance contains toxins. Keep in mind that the problem is not that some people find the scent unappealing—the smell may actually appeal to a person made ill by the chemicals in a fragrance. The strength of the scent is also irrelevant.

I’m hoping to discover Friends’ meetinghouses, churches, libraries, campuses, retreat centers, and other Quaker facilities that have made themselves fragrance-free. Since I’d like to make this information available to Friends who would find it helpful, I am compiling a list of Quaker places where travelers can have a reasonable chance of breathing healthy indoor air. If you would like your meetinghouse, church, or other Quaker facility to be listed as a fragrance-free place, please send the information to: Gerry Glodek, PMB 231, 221 E. Market Street, Iowa City, IA 52245; e-mail: chemfree2travel

I’m looking for ways to make this list available; for now, I can respond to requests by e-mail or post.

I realize that visitors accustomed to wearing fragrances may show up at any time. Friends need to consider that if they don fragrances when they set out to worship elsewhere, visit Friends libraries, or partake in conferences, retreats, or committee meetings, chemically injured Friends will be faced with a difficult choice. They will have to depart altogether, or continually retreat to hallways and porches to dodge fragranced Friends. I can testify to the battle fatigue that results from these retreats.

Intervisitation has long been an essential aspect of the ministry of Friends to one another. Please consider how the use of fragrances is curtailing this treasured practice.
© 2003 Geraldine Glodek