Think about the last time you felt nauseous or had a headache for no apparent reason. Could it have been from the perfume you smelled in the elevator? Or from walking down the detergent aisle at your grocery store? These reactions are your body’s way of telling you something is wrong with the air you’re breathing. And perfume happens to be one of the biggest olfactory offenders!

The National Academy of Sciences reports that out of the 5,000 known chemicals used in fragrances, 95 percent are derived from petroleum-based "petrochemicals" that were synthesized after World War II. As fragrances became cheaper and more widespread, they also became more synthetic and dangerously toxic. Today our 20th-century perfume is as romantic as hazardous waste!

For many, the use of fragrances, including perfumes and other lotions, is a personal choice. But once fragrances become airborne, they’re easily inhaled by everyone in the area, creating public health problems identical to second-hand smoke. The problem is not so much the smell but the chemicals that produce the smell. Many perfume ingredients are the same as those used to make gasoline and cigarettes. When inhaled, these molecules enter the bloodstream and travel through the nasal passages into the nervous system. Many have a "narcotic" effect, which is why some people seem addicted to their perfumes.

Toxic Fumes

Most perfumes contain the same toxic chemicals found on the hazard waste lists of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. To name a few: acetone, ethanol, toluene, camphor, methylene chloride, benzaldehyde, benzyl acetate, benzyl alcohol, formaldehyde, limonene, linalool, g-terpinene, beta-phenethyl, musk amberette, musk xylene and musk keytone.

There is reason for public concern about the possible health effects of synthetic musk fragrances–8,000 tons are produced annually! Musk xylene has carcinogenic effects in laboratory mice. Musk keytone damages genes in animal experiments and has other worrisome consequences. The compounds can be absorbed through the skin and build up in fat tissues. They get into the environment through wastewater and sewage and are major chemical contaminants in many fish and water samples. Dr Gerhard Rimkus of the Food and Veterinary Institute in Neumunster, Germany states, "Synthetic musk chemicals are ecologically harmful due to their high bio-accumulation potential in animals and in the aquatic environment, their general persistence, dermal permeability and insufficiently assessed toxicity."

The US Food and Drug Administration has still not reacted to this very serious health hazard. Furthermore, back in 1992, the administration performed additional chemical analyses and wrote up their results in the report "Polar Organic Compounds in Fragrances of Consumer Products." The 10 products analysed were Giorgio cologne for men, Chantilly spray mist, Giorgio perfume, Aqua Net hairspray, Coast soap, Renuzit Freshell air freshener, Downy fabric softener, Sure solid deodorant/antiperspirant, Vaseline Intensive Care lotion and Max Factor nail enamel remover. Ninety per cent of the EPA’s hazardous waste list was discovered in these chemically scented products!

Material safety data sheets prove that some ingredients are linked to a long list of health problems: cancer, irregular heart beat, muscle spasms, hay fever symptoms, birth defects, infertility, central nervous system disorder, slurred speech, dizziness, nausea, kidney damage, headache, respiratory failure, drowsiness, irritation to the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, lungs and gastrointestinal tract, depression, eczema, double vision, fatigue, seizures, testicular atrophy and swollen lymph glands. Even diet and personal tolerance to different foods can be affected.

Something Smells Fishy

According to the National Institute of Health, in view of the escalating cancer incidence and a 58 percent increase in asthma over the past decade, the above information is crucial. Nearly 72 percent of asthmatics have adverse reactions and hypersensitivity reactions to fragrances–among the most costly of US health problems. The American Lung Association also states that asthmatic attacks affect about 14.6 million Americans and kill an estimated 5,000 people each year. Headaches cost $50 billion in lost productivity and medical expenses, and multiple chemical sensitivities in adults and children are growing at an alarming rate!

So if chemicals in perfume are as damaging as tobacco smoke and the vapours can kill mice in research laboratories, is the government regulating the fragrance industry and protecting the public? No. The fragrance industry self-regulates and is not required to register its formulations, test results or consumer complaints with the FDA. Due to fragrance and cosmetic "trade secret" status, little information is available to the consumer as to what is really in the fragrances. Most consumers are not aware that the fragrance industry does not routinely test for neurological, respiratory or long-term effects.

The FDA has suggested the best method to protect sufferers with sensitivities might be to curtail odour exposures under specific circumstances through local or state regulatory action. Citizens of Halifax, NS, and Marin County, Calif., have already taken action and recently established fragrance-free policies in most of their public offices, restaurants and private businesses.

Using safe products is as important as recycling. If everyone stopped buying chemically-scented products, companies would stop making them. Next time you reach for that bottle of perfume or cologne, remember that you’re purchasing powerful chemical products regulated solely by the industry that sells them. There is nothing romantic about exposing yourself and others to toxic carcinogenic fragrances. And if you do have a reaction to scented products, complain to not only the producer of the fragrance, but also to the Healthy Environment and Consumer Safety Branch of the federal government in your province. Contact the US Consumer Product Safety Commission at 800-638-2772 or cpsc.gov. For more information on the dangers of chemicals in perfumes and colognes visit ameliaww.com/fpin/fpin.htm. The government won’t take action until there’s a public outcry!

About the Author

Kimberly Easterbrook is a natural health products consultant, longevity researcher and director of public relations for the Cancer Prevention Coalition in Vancouver, BC.