Friday, October 16, 2009

Scent Sensitive

I am currently suffering from yet another one of the sinus infections that have plagued me since moving to my current location. Did I ever have them before coming west? Yes. Yes I did. Did I have them as often or to such a bad degree? By and large, no - I did not. What appears to be the culprit? Well, as far as I can tell they are mostly due to the repeated exacerbation of my allergies, which creates an overload on my immune system and in turn results in one of these nasty little episodes. I won't bother grossing you out with the details, but suffice it to say it ain't pretty and it ain't fun.

On the surface, I suppose I could blame some of these symptoms on my exposure to the daily allergens I come in contact with...namely, "western trees and grasses (whatever that is supposed to encompass), dust, and mold." However, pollen levels vary and dust and mold are not ever-present in levels that would cause my body to go into meltdown mode. Perhaps if I was under stress at the time my immune system would be compromised that could be a contributing factor...And I have also blamed the air quality in my present locale, as it is definitely not the stuff of pristine wilderness.

But I am inside this body and have realized that it reacts rather strongly and rather quickly to a multitude of scents...specifically, the chemicals used to create those scents. I am not sure if I am becoming more sensitive as I get older or if I am just subjected to more irritants out here than I was back home and my system can't handle it anymore. Either way, it can be hellish.

It can happen anywhere, at any time. Much as I practice making decisions to protect myself in my immediate surroundings (i.e. at home or in my specific work environment to the best of my ability), I cannot control what I come into contact with during any given day. It is extremely frustrating. I have had to change seats during plays, leave movie theatres frantically searching for my inhaler (yeah I have asthma, too, which is also sometimes affected), run out of stores gasping for air, and avoid certain cashiers when I shop for groceries, among countless other inconveniences. And much of a nuisance as that is, and as embarrassing as it is for me to have to go to those measures for my own comfort and safety, I can somewhat understand. Obviously in our society I will never be free of every dangerous and allergy-inducing chemical known to man.

What I can't understand is having to deal with it in the workplace...which I do, on a continual basis. To my knowledge, quite a few work places back on The Rock have become scent free in recent years. I was under the impression that this was the case nationwide. Not so. At my last job, I questioned the scent policy and was told that it was the decision of each particular workforce to decide whether or not their building was scent free in this area and that, while my boss sympathized with my situation, he was not inclined to implement a policy for all employees as a solution (which left me feeling rather slighted in comparison to those with peanut or other allergies, which are taken more seriously - and yes, I do realize that some of those are life threatening. However, asthma can be too and while I am not afflicted with a condition that severe, who is to say there aren't others who are? And while I am on this side rant, if the airlines can stop serving peanuts then why can't they restrict passengers' use of scent? Isn't it the same premise? Prevent anaphylactic shock vs. prevent potentially life threatening asthma attack...I dunno, seems rational to me...). Alas, I had no other option but to single myself out as the lone shit disturber and start bringing it up at meetings and requesting some changes on my own (with my employer's support).

I resorted to this after being forced to take countless sick days due to my encounters with people, products, and objects of the scented variety while at work. And was it effective? No, ladies and gentlemen, it was not. While there was, eventually, some effort put into limiting workplace scents for my benefit (not to mention everyone elses, whether they realized it or not) by certain individuals, I was also promoted to the position of scratch and sniff lady, expected to test and pass judgment on their chosen scents. I'm sure they meant well, but seriously, what an awkward position to be put in and a surefire way to make myself a bigger target - and sick, to boot.

Now I am in a casual position which requires me to work in a few different buildings - and guess what? Most of them are not scent free either. Which means I am breathing in a different set of floating chemical cocktails from cleaners and personal care products all day long nearly every day, with no control over or protection from what I am exposed to. It's becoming quite annoying as well, because I can usually feel within a few minutes (sometimes less if I experience a more violent reaction) whether or not I'm going to be OK in a given place. But, like anyone else, when I am scheduled to be somewhere for the day, I have no choice but to stay there and work it, regardless of my condition (unless of course, God forbid, I am unfortunate enough one day to have to be hospitalized or something I suppose).

Some days are great. Nothing triggers me and I am fine from the time I arrive until I get home. Most days, I come into contact with something somewhere that irritates my respiratory system in some way, shape or form, makes me nauseous, gives me a headache, or any other of a host of negative reactions. If I am lucky, it will be something that I can limit my exposure to, choosing to avoid it for the majority of the day, and hopefully not feel its effects too badly. If I am not, I usually suffer in silence for fear of injuring someones feelings, causing a scene, embarrassing myself, etc, etc, etc. And after a few of those days of becoming more and more impaired, my body hits full rebel mode and I am no longer a fully functioning human being capable of living my life normally and getting through the work day.

Like I said, I get it that I am probably going to be confronted with this every day for the rest of my life, but I am hoping it will lessen with time - perhaps society will change for the better, perhaps I will eventually build up an immunity, or whatever else would improve the situation. In the meantime, I can't help comparing the whole thing to the ongoing fight between smokers and non-smokers...Individuals have the right to choose whether or not they use/wear certain products and fragrances, just like individuals have the right to choose whether or not they smoke. The difference is, non-smokers have recognized rights and are winning the battle to keep themselves free from pollutants (i.e. second-hand smoke generated from smokers).

Smokers cannot smoke in or around public buildings, workplaces, or even in their own vehicle if they have child passengers...but as a person who is sensitive to scents and chemicals, I have no recourse much of the time. For the most part, there are no widespread laws governing the use of fragrance. It is everywhere...public washrooms, laundromats, theatres, restaurants.....While I don't think it is a crime to want to smell good nor do I wish to implement a worldwide ban, I think it would be nice to promote increased awareness and consideration at the very least. It might also be nice to put some more pressure on the industry responsible for creating these monstrosities and forcing them to adhere to more strict regulations...I bet a lot of people would be surprised to know that there are ingredients used in personal care products and cleaners in North America that have been banned in Europe....

I have to insert here that I do, obviously, have close connections (friends, relatives, coworkers) that utilize their free will to employ scented products and that's fine by me as long as I am not around. And God love 'em, they do make changes to their regular routines to accommodate my extreme sensitivity, which I absolutely do sincerely appreciate. Words cannot express how grateful I am for that - truly. I guess it's different when it's someone you know well, eh? Although you would think common courtesy would dictate better treatment to anyone -stranger or no...Anyway, I digress...the point is there ARE safer/less toxic alternatives out there and -seriously -clean, fresh, and well groomed does not have to equal slathered in chemicals (although there are chemical laden scent free options on the market, too if you prefer). There are so many natural products on the market nowadays - both scented and non - and a lot of simple, tried and true solutions as close as your kitchen when it comes to cleaning. Of course, what you choose to use in your own space is completely up to you and all the power to you to do as you please. However, bear in mind that there are many people out there who suffer as I do and I think we deserve the freedom to breathe easily and free of pollutants (i.e. airborne fragrance particles)just as much as everyone else when we are out in public, wouldn't you agree?


  1. Are you familiar with the Canadian Human Rights Commission Policy on Environmental Sensitivities?

  2. Hi Linda, thanks for visiting :) No, I am not familiar with that policy. Thankfully, it has only been the last few years that I have had to deal with issues in the workplace. I tried doing a little research last year when my symptoms were really being exacerbated, but didn't really get anywhere. I will definitely check it out - Thanks!

  3. ...I meant to mention...what I DID find at the time was this: as well as some educational information that could potentially be distributed in the workplace.