Scents of Smell: A Case for Living Scent-Free

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January 2011

First to fall over when the atmosphere is less than perfect
Your sensibilities are shaken by the slightest defect
You live your life like a canary in a coalmine
You get so dizzy even walking in a straight line

“Canary in a Coalmine” is from the 1980 album Zenyatta Mondatta by The Police—you know, Sting’s old band? Back in the day, Zenyatta Mondatta was a staple on turntables (old-fashioned, analog MP3 players) on America’s college campuses where, at least in my mind, the beat was more important than the message.

That was before I discovered that I was a canary.

For those unfamiliar with its provenance, the phrase “canary in a coal mine” alludes to the 19th and early 20th century practice of coal miners bringing caged canaries into the mines. Being sensitive to methane and carbon monoxide made canaries ideal for detecting these dangerous, potentially deadly gases before they became dangerous or deadly to the miners themselves. Male canaries, which tend to sing much of the time, provided both auditory and visual evidence of toxic gas build-up.

Once the canary stopped singing, the miners knew it was time to get the heck out of the mine. Modern coal mines have ventilation systems and detectors that render the canary in the coal mine as obsolete as the turntable on the college campus. This is great news for canaries!

These days, the phrase “canary in a coal mine” refers to people who serve as a warning to others. Chances are, you know a canary—and chances are, you think that he/she is weird and a pain in the butt.

Modern day canaries are the friends who routinely gag at certain scents and are unable to read fashion magazines without getting dizzy or nauseated. They avoid particular restaurants or stores because of “the smell” and (gasp!) ask that you refrain from lighting scented candles if they will be visiting. Canaries are scent-free themselves and simply cannot tolerate being around heavy scents. They may suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), a chronic condition characterized by a broad spectrum of symptoms including migraine headaches, nausea, dizziness, joint pain and breathing problems, or they may be afflicted with hyperosmia or olfactory hyperesthesia, an abnormally acute sense of smell, which may be triggered by MCS.

“We’re bombarded by chemicals all day long,” explains Aileen Gagney, a program manager at the American Lung Association. This relentless barrage of chemicals comes from a variety of products: cosmetics, toiletries, household cleaners, candles, air fresheners, dryer sheets, and the routinely—if comically—overused teen body sprays. “Sensory marketing has made it nearly impossible to open a bill, read a magazine or stay in a nice hotel without encountering some form of scented sticker, perfumed envelope or blackberry-infused newspaper.” Gagney continues, “Is it any wonder that scent-sensitive individuals feel as if they are being suffocated by an increasingly large and smelly enemy?”

Dr. Anne Steinemann, a professor at the University of Washington, has long warned about the effects of secondhand scents. “Everyone knows about the dangers associated with exposure to secondhand smoke,” she says, “but few people are aware that exposure to secondhand scents is equally dangerous.” 

While the medical community is straddling the fence about whether MCS is a legitimate medical condition, scent-free policies are routinely being implemented at workplaces, celebrations, colleges and conferences. (Having attended a scent-free conference last summer, I can assure you that scent-free does not equal odor-free!)

Sensitivity develops over time through sensory overload, affecting some individuals more than others. Even if you are not consciously bothered by fragrances now, scents could adversely affect your central nervous system, and may potentially cause you problems down the road.

Why not make it your New Year’s Resolution to reduce the number of scented products in your life, or better yet, to embrace a scent-free lifestyle now, before the canary stops singing? The canaries in your life with be forever grateful!

Wishing all of you a happy, safe, productive and scent-free 2011!

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