There’s Something Fishy With Fragrances

So, I have what feels like a confession to make: I’m one of those people who gets headaches after being exposed to fabric softener-laced clothes dryer exhaust. And my throat closes up when I have to sit near someone on the Metro wearing way too much perfume/cologne/etc… (Luckily, I’m usually riding my bike where I don’t have to worry about fragrances as much as car exhaust and getting flattened.) So what’s the deal—am I chemically sensitive? Is that a diagnosable condition? Are all of us affected in some way by fragrances and I’m just more aware of the trigger? What about the long-term health effects of being exposed to volatile organic compounds found in some fragrances? There are a lot of questions surrounding multiple chemical sensitivity and fragrances, of which these are just a few.

Fragrances are ubiquitous in our modern society. It isn’t too hard to avoid them in my own home (as long as I don’t rent the unit right by the dryer vents, which I sadly have some experience with), by choosing fragrance-free or mildly- and naturally-scented cleaning and beauty products. Kids don’t have much choice, and add to that the countless public spaces where even I can’t avoid overpowering smells. That adds up to the potential for a lot of exposure to volatile organic compounds and other chemicals in fragrances over the stages of childhood (and adulthood).

It’s also very difficult to figure out what is in fragrances, since there is no disclosure required by the Food and Drug Administration or other regulatory agencies for the fragrances in a wide range of consumer products. One recent study found 10 volatile organic compounds designated toxic and hazardous by the EPA in six common air fresheners and laundry products. Here at EPA, the team at Design for the Environment is promoting less harmful alternatives for fragrance chemicals in cleaners and the Indoor Air Quality team is monitoring the scientific research on the topic. I hope that the EPA’s new approach to chemicals management will shed some scientific light on fragrances and their health effects, and protect people from potential harm.

About the author: Matthew H. Davis, M.P.H., is a Health Scientist in EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, working there on science and regulatory policy as a Presidential Management Fellow since October 2009. Previously, he worked in the environmental advocacy arena, founding a non-profit organization in Maine and overseeing the work of non-profits in four other states.