Fragrance Industry Fights to Regain N. S. Market

UPdate June 2000

      It started with the Wall Street Journal.

      When the newspaper that is consulted by business for investment decisions notices Halifax's scent free policies, you can be sure they are having an effect.   In July '99, the Journal noted "as [Halifax's] antifragrance forces move off the fringes and into the mainstream, perfumiers are getting a glimpse of their worst case future. So far, they don't like what they see."

      At first I thought it was a tempest in a teapot. "I mean, they can't be serious, right?" says Patrick Carroll, general manager of Calvin Klein Cosmetics (Canada) Ltd..."Then I started looking at our numbers. Our [Nova Scotia] business has certainly stagnated and probably declined, which is not the case for the rest of the country."

      Now, the fragrance industry and friends are on the offensive, waving the banner of "individual freedoms" and waging a campaign of ridicule and mockery in the U.S., Canada, and more recently in Australia and Scotland, in an attempt to stop the spread of scent-free policies.

      Charges of mania and hypocondria, or that they are professional victims, wimps and whiners are being hurled at those who say perfumes make them sick. But what is striking in all this noise is the absence of facts to back up these attacks. The attacks often focus on people with MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity), taking advantage of the fact that the disease itself is also controversial in medical circles.  MCS sufferers have been one of the forces working for scent-free policies but they are certainly not alone.

      Fragrances are respiratory irritants. This is readily acknowledged by the fragrance industry, doctors, and scientists." It is well established that people suffering from asthma, allergies, chronic sinus problems, rhinitis, and chronic lung disease can have health problems triggered or exacerbated by exposure to fragranced products," according to health researcher Betty Bridges.   Seventy-two percent of asthmatics develop respiratory symptoms when exposed to fragrances. Fragrance is also a known trigger for migraine headaches.

      Fragrances are no longer found mainly in perfumes. More than half of the fragrance industry's profits come from products other than perfumes, from toilet paper to rubber tires, dolls to garbage bags.

      The friends of perfume imply that if government approves their products, there can't be any health risks. But according to John Baily, Director of Colours and Cosmetics, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "The fragrance and cosmetic industry is the least regulated industry. There is no pre-clearing of chemicals with any agency." Other than a few ingredients prohibited by-law, anything can be used to make fragrances.   Although fragrances are designed to be breathed in, routine testing of respiratory, neurological and systemic effects of perfumes are not done by either the industry or federal regulatory bodies in the U.S. or Canada. In 1986, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences targeted fragrances as one of the six categories of chemicals that should be given high priority for neurotoxicity testing. Recent research at Tulane University found perfumes to be a trigger for asthma, and named the top 7 scent offenders. Occupational health literature includes extensive documentation that fragrances make a significant contribution to indoor air quality problems.

      Complementing the public ridicule campaign, behind closed doors, representatives of the Cosmetics, Toiletries and Fragrance Association are lobbying government departments. In some cases they are implying a possibility of legal action if scent-free policies are passed. The Association recently publicly backed a Sheet Harbour student who continues to wear scented products to school, in spite of the schools scent-free program and his teacher's sensitivity to scents.

      The source for much of the "its all in their heads" material seems to be Michael Fumento, whose opinion piece in the National Post sparked a rash of similar articles across Canada. Who is Fumento? Charles Moore wrote in the Halifax Daily News, "For a bit of context, Fumento - a pro-industry, pro-technocracy activist - also considers the following things to be 'small or non-existent problems'; asbestos hazards, wife abuse, dangerous pit-bulls, health risks of obesity, second-hand tobacco smoke, pesticide and herbicide pollution, global warming, ozone-layer depletion, heterosexual AIDS, black-church burnings in the US and Gulf War Syndrome."

      Perhaps, all that sounds reasonable too. If so, there's a nice piece of land in Cape Breton called the Tar Ponds that's available - no health problems there either.