Scents and Senselessness

Article excerpt

Nine cafeteria workers from the Dirksen Senate Office Building cafeteria in Washington, D.C. were rushed to the hospital last August. "Everyone was getting sick headaches, stomachaches, vomiting, diarrhea," said a cafeteria cashier. One worker suffered head and neck injuries when she collapsed, and the eight others reported nausea. "I threw up. I had a headache. I felt very lightheaded, nauseated," said one.

The cause of this "poisoning"? "The haz-mat [hazardous material] unit went down, and all the readings were negative," a police officer said. "What they found was a bag of onions...and they just gave off a strong odor."

A year earlier, no fewer than 170 students, teachers, and others sought emergency treatment at Warren County High School in McMinnville, Tennessee, after a teacher whiffed an odor that she said turned her stomach. Authorities shut down the school of z,ooo students for more than two weeks, and nearly $100,000 was spent on emergency care alone.

The cause of the odor may never be known, but the cause of the outbreak? Mass hysteria, according to an investigation reported in the January 13, 2000 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Witness ye the powers of man's most underrated sense, that of the nose. A school of z,ooo sounds like a lot, but what if you heard that fragrance fright has already swept an entire province in Canada and become institutionalized? What if you heard that there were efforts to essentially turn the entire United States into a Dirksen building cafeteria or Warren County High School, that powerful environmental groups are involved, and that something already generally accepted by the media called "Multiple Chemical Sensitivity" has already paved the way?

It Came From Nova Seolia

In Ottawa, public buses ask riders to be seated only without scents, while the Queensway-Carleton Hospital has embarked on a "No Scents Is Good Sense" campaign. At least one high school outside Toronto has gone fragrance-free. And though Canada is hardly litigious compared to its southern neighbor, a Toronto resident filed suit against a neighbor for invading her air space with cooking smells. On Prince Edward Island, off the country's east coast, a joint union-employer recommendation recently was made to ban perfumes and aftershaves from government offices.

Yet nowhere is it worse than ocean-fresh Halifax, Nova Scotia. Most of the city's public institutions, and a number of private businesses, now request or demand that workers be "scent-free." The Halifax Chronicle-Herald prohibits its 350 employees from using perfume, aftershave, scented deodorant, shampoo, or even strong-smelling mouthwash on the job. "It's no different from a business's vacation policy," the newspaper's personnel manager says. "Either you abide by it or you don't work there." Meanwhile, a 1,400-employee telephone service center has declared itself off limits to fragrance. Reminders pop up on computer screens when employees log on. Warning signs are posted in toilets reminding you not to use toiletries. Violators are sent home to take a shower on unpaid time (presumably using unscented soap).

Why all the fuss? Because some Canadians claim that fragrances are giving them, well, the same symptoms as those claimed by the Dirksen building cafeteria workers. It seems the more word spreads that fragrances can make you feel ill, the more people say they do get ill from fragrances. Some even claim that one whiff of a fragrance leads them to develop reactions to a huge variety of smells and other agents. The syndrome is most commonly known as "multiple chemical sensitivity" (MCS) or "environmental illness" (EI).

Halifax Hysleria

The Halifax holy war started in 1991 when hundreds of staff members at the Camp Hill Medical Center reported illness from what was widely regarded as polluted indoor air. Apparently the ventilation system was sucking in fumes from the powerful kitchen dishwasher. …