If you have asthma, allergies, or chemical sensitivities, you know all too well how perfume, lotions, candles, air fresheners, and other scented things can cause weeks of illness. I have two children with asthma and allergies, and we have run into this issue more times than I can count. Sometimes the kids escape with a runny nose or headache. Other times, these scent-bomb encounters cause aggravation within their lungs that triggers asthma attacks and inflammation that can last for days. This is especially an issue if they are already dealing with additional triggers, such as a high pollen count day.
My kids aren’t alone in their reaction to chemicals and scented products. The Invisible Disabilities Association estimates that 38 percent of Americans have had an adverse reaction to a perfumed product and 72 percent of asthmatics have had their asthma triggered by scented products. With an estimated 80 million Americans with allergies or asthma in the United States, this is a huge health issue.
Both my girls have 504 plans at school due to their medical conditions, noting that they are sensitive to scents including perfume or potpourri. Despite this, we have had several experiences with other children making them sick (pre-teen boys do love their Axe Body Spray). After the most recent incident, the teachers talked with all the students about how important it is to keep the school a “scent-free zone.”
Remember: Clean air doesn’t have a scent
But what does a “scent-free zone” mean, exactly? According to the Cleaner Indoor Air Campaign, a program developed in conjunction with the Invisible Disabilities Association, it involves more than just removing perfume. Laundry soaps, cigarette smoke, diesel exhaust, pesticides, cleaning agents, candles, potpourri, air fresheners, perfume, scented lotions, and body powders all must be addressed to avoid triggering reactions among people who are “scent-sitive.” Removing these items, adding an air purifier to enclosed spaces, and using alternative scent-free and low-chemical products is essential to having clean, healthy air.
One organization working to develop a true “scent-free zone” is the Lake Washington Christian Church in Kirkland, Washington. The church piqued my interest because my girls also tend to have issues at our church. A lot of people like to dress up for church, and for many that means using a nice lotion or perfume. Sadly, this leaves scent-sensitive people with hard choices: Risk getting sick, leave early, or don’t attend church at all.
To reach the goal of being a completely “scent sensitive community,” Lake Washington Christian Church requested that parishioners not use perfume, cologne, after-shave, scented lotion, and body powder inside their building. They added an air filter to the sanctuary, moved to all natural unscented products, and provided designated seating for people with chemical or fragrance sensitivities. They also do not have air fresheners and potpourri in the bathrooms.
Church-goers have noticed the difference: On the church’s website, a parishioner named Linda said, “It’s so nice to be able to participate in church activities without feeling sick for several days.”
It’s not easy to create these scent-free zones or recondition people not to wear perfume, but it can make all the difference to millions of Americans who can be made ill by these products. For more information on how to implement one of these programs, check out the Cleaner Indoor Air Campaign specific to your location.
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Jennifer has a bachelor's degree in dietetics as well as graduate work in public health and nutrition.She has worked with families dealing with digestive disease, asthma and food allergies for the past 12 years.Jennifer also serves the Board of Directors for Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association (PAGER).