The war against perfume: Is it justified?

Lia Grainger
Shine On
September 18, 2012

Sometimes a gal likes to put on a spritz of perfume in the morning to freshen up before heading to the office, yet these days, it can be an action that will land your employers in court.

Yes, it's the war against perfume. Back in 2008, a Detroit woman sued her workplace under the Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming her co-worker's perfume made her unable to work. She eventually won and was awarded $100,000 in a damages, and prompted the city to encourage its workers to stay away from anything scented, lest they incur the wrath of another sensitive staff member. And earlier this year, the entire state of New Hampshire discussed banning perfume completely for city workers that interact with the public.

While in Canada there is no specific law banning fragrances at work, employers are required to provide a safe workplace, and scents are increasingly being considered a safety issue, reports the Globe and Mail.

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But is this battle merited? New reports out of the U.K. suggest that it is. Researchers found that perfume could cause a whole litany of problems, from allergies and asthma to migraines and reduced sexual desire, according to the Daily Mail.

Dr. Susannah Baron is a consultant dermatologist at Kent & Canterbury hospital, and explained to the Mail that allergies are on the increase, and that the amount of perfumed products is also on the rise.

"Fragrance allergy can show up as contact dermatitis in the site a perfumed product is applied or as a flare-up of existing eczema," Barin tells the Mail. She says that these allergies can develop over time from repeat exposure, so that an individual may suddenly become allergic to a scented product to which they previously did not react.

Though scent sensitivity is not listed as a disability in Canada, environmental sensitivity (ES) does fall under the Ontario Human Rights Code, and as such, employers must make efforts to accommodate those with the condition, including banning scents in the workplace.

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The Environmental Women's Health Clinic in Toronto estimates that about 3 per cent of Canadians have been diagnosed with ES, and that about 15 per cent report sensitivities to perfume and other scented products. Reactions to these products include headaches, dizziness, fatigue, watery eyes, wheezing and shortness of breath.

According to the clinic, which is a leading treatment and research centre for ES and related illnesses, there can be up to 500 chemicals in one perfume. In many fragrances, up to 95 per cent of these chemicals are petroleum-based, and many have been linked with long-term health problems like cancer, birth defects and nervous system disorders. Even still, these chemicals could affect you whether you have a sensitivity or not.

An estimated one third of Canadian workplaces have some type of restriction of scents, according to the Globe, but formal policies have yet to be put in place. Until then, it's up to the individual to decide if they believe their perfume is affecting their health — or the health of those around them.

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