Scents, fragrances and perfumes are ubiquitous. For decades, they have pervaded our life at home and at work. But this exposure may be hindering our health, rather than helping it.
One in three Australians experience health problems when exposed to common fragranced consumer products, according to research coming out the University of Melbourne.
This is an epidemic. Anne Steinemann
A national representative survey of over 1,000 Australians showed common products such as air fresheners, cleaning products and laundry supplies can bring adverse health effects ranging from migraines and skin rashes to nausea and seizures.
"These kinds of products are throughout Australian society and they affect people across all ages, demographics and areas," lead researcher Professor Anne Steinemann told The Huffington Post Australia.
"These health effects can be immediate, severe and potentially disabling or they can be subtle -- to the point where people may not realise they're being affected."
Of these effects, more than half could be considered disabling under the Australian Disability Discrimination Act, according to Steinemann's research, released in Preventive Medicine Reports on Monday.
And they have implications for businesses, workplaces, homes and healthcare facilities. 7.7 percent of Australians have lost workdays or a job due to illness from exposure, with 16.7 percent reporting leaving a business as quickly as possible due to fragranced products.
"I call it a problem with second-hand scents, similar to second-hand smoke. With cigarettes, you can tell whether someone is smoking. But fragrances are ubiquitous," Steinemann said. "A co-worker may use fragranced products at home and whilst they may not use them at work, the residual fragrance is still enough to make other people sick."
What are these hidden hazards?
Professor Steinemann is a world expert on environmental pollutants and air quality who has been studying these products for years.
"I looked at volatile organic compounds emitted from these common fragranced products," Steinemann said.
"There's petrochemicals involved in either synthesising the chemical or extracting it. When these chemicals are in a consumer product, they are mixed with several dozen to several hundred chemicals and we don't really know the full toxicological effects."
This applies equally to those products on the 'organic' end of the spectrum.
"Natural fragranced mixtures have synthetic petrochemicals in them. Even 'fragrance-free' or unscented can mean a product that is fragranced contains an additional masking fragrance to cover the scent," Steinemann said.
And yet these contents remain hidden due to limited regulation laws in Australia that do not require products to disclose their full ingredient list.
"My research showed two thirds of Australians weren't aware of this -- and half of them would not continue to use a fragranced product if they knew," Steinemann said.
How should we respond?
In 2005, the Body Shop phased out artificial musks that were raising health concerns. In 2011, Johnson & Johnson removed two carcinogens from its baby products.
It is safe to say that the United States have responded with more vigour. According to Steinemann, fragrance-fee policies have been implemented in hundreds of workplaces and schools across the country.
"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US has banned use of fragranced products in all of its facilities -- that includes personal use," Steinemann said.
Businesses need to realise that more people prefer their workplaces, hotels airplanes and health care facilities to be without fragrance.
While Steinemann believes that others will catch up in due course, in the mean time she recommends harking back to a simpler time where bicarb soda and water concoctions roamed the earth -- or turning to fragrance-free versions of the same products.
"This research has shown that twice as many Australians would prefer a fragrance-free environment. Businesses need to realise that more people prefer their workplaces, hotels, airplanes and health care facilities to be without fragrance."
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