When in Halifax, spare the deodorant

There's something about an Aqua Velva man, the ad used to say.

That something almost got Gary Falkenham, a student at Duncan MacMillan High School in Sheet Harbour, Nova Scotia, charged with criminal assault in April.

MacMillan, like an estimated 80 percent of the schools in the Halifax Regional School Board, is "scent-free": Scented deodorants, hairsprays, and other such grooming aids are not allowed.

So when Gary showed up for class with Dippity-Do gel spiking his hair and Aqua Velva deodorant under his arms, one of his teachers, Tanya MacDonald, filed a complaint claiming the violation of the fragrance ban had made her violently ill.

Consequently, Gary was suspended from school for two days rather than being charged with a criminal offense. But this has been one of the highest-profile cases yet in what's been referred to as "Halifax Hysteria" - a movement to eliminate scented products from public spaces in order to protect the estimated 3-to-5 percent of the Nova Scotia population that identify themselves as environmentally sensitive.

And it's not just Halifax: The scent-free movement has made enough headway across Canada for the fragrance manufacturers to start defending the public's freedom to be fragrant. But Halifax has been a focus of attention about "multiple chemical sensitivity," at least since 1991, when the Camp Hill Health Centre turned out to be a classic case study of "sick building syndrome," in which hundreds of employees became ill. The problem was traced to a dishwasher leaking toxic fumes.

But many of the staff are still feeling the effects of that odorous situation, says Audrey Barrett, a registered nurse at the Nova Scotia Environmental Health Centre in Fall River. The center is described as "the first facility in the world dedicated to the research and treatment of environmentally triggered sensitivities."

Ms. Barrett says, "It's not the smell that's the problem ... It's the chemical ingredients used to produce it. It's not made from flowers any more."

Fred Nelson of the National Foundation for the Chemically Hypersensitive, in Rhodes, Mich., explains that today's "fragrances are neurologically toxic chemicals derived from petroleum byproducts that happen to smell good.... They keep inventing these things and they don't have time to test them."

His own sensitivity, he says, was triggered by exposure to termite poison on a construction site many years ago. Now he is concerned about everything from residual pesticide fumes in office buildings to fragrant fellow parishioners at church to affectionate family members who, he says, can literally make him ill by hugging him.

Still, it remains a malady that not everyone agrees even exists.

"No medical authority accepts multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) as an authentic, organic ailment," says a statement from the Scented Products Education and Information Association of Canada - an industry group.

But the debate doesn't end here.

Dr. Mark Cullen of Yale University School of Medicine, a specialist to whom a call to the National Institutes of Health was referred, says that within the field of occupational medicine, "you can't practice without having [environmentally sensitive] patients.... You'd have to have your head in the sand."

Decisions on how to classify MCS, and whether it is psychological or biological in origin may be driven, he suggests, by chemical manufacturers' lobbying efforts on one hand and medical institutions' self-interest on the other.

But, he says, the share of the population affected by MCS is much likely to be closer to 1 percent, rather than the more than 5 percent that some advocates posit.

Fragrance-free policy advocates are following the traditional public health principle of prudence, says Dr. Gregory Taylor of Health Canada in Ottawa, while trying to push through "decisions based on inadequate information - which is how public health decisions are made all the time."

Cities in other parts of the world are also taking note of MCS. Graeme Gilday, a health and safety officer who helped turn Aurora High School near Toronto into one of North America's first scent-free secondary schools, has sent the information kit he has put together on going scent-free to places as far away as the Netherlands and South Africa.

He shrinks from the idea of legislated fragrance bans and describes his own approach as "education, advocacy, and peer pressure" But he predicts, like in smoking, "It's only a matter of time before scents are regulated."

One way out of the dilemma would be to find alternative "carriers" for fragrance, says Mr. Gilday. "The cheapest carriers are petrochemicals" that allow a manufacturer to make a profit even with exorbitant marketing budgets for scented products.

Meanwhile, word is getting out about the non-scents - or nonsense - in Halifax. The Scented Products Association was set to hold a briefing June 20 in Halifax on the safety of fragrances. Local government officials worried about their tourism industry are trying to scotch rumors that wearing Old Spice or Chanel No. 5 will land visitors in the brig.

"But nobody is going to arrest you," says Ms. Barrett. "The scent police aren't going to cart you off to jail. We're coming at this from a public awareness perspective; it's coming out of concern for others."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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