On the heels of a piece I'm reading about perfume in the workplace, I'd like to disambiguate and investigate the true dangers of smells.
This post got long on me, so I should outline the ideas. Perfume in the workplace is really a discussion about allergies and in the general sense of the word, so that's what we're talking about here. Allergies, the kind described herein, are psychologically reinforced by the environment and the individual, and very much in the same way as smells. At the end, we’ll take a look at how allergies, again in a broad sense of the word, are part of the chemical warfare between plants, bacteria, and insects, where we get the collateral damage.
Let's begin with the basics. If you smell secondhand smoke, all day, every day, you may develop lung cancer, but not because you smell the smoke. It’s the smoke that is making you sick, not the smell. The smoke goes into your lungs, and from there into your bloodstream. There are more things in smoke than that which we can smell. Carbon monoxide, a very deadly gas, and one which is found in cigarette smoke (and car exhaust), is odorless.
Now, in regards to the workplace scenario, the main distinction is between allergies and oversensitivity. Allergies can cause allergic reaction. We're talking peanut allergies here, for example, which can cause allergic shock, which is a well-defined medical episode. A person cannot go into allergic shock over a perfume (unless they had peanut oil in it, which I will have to assume is illegal by international fragrance laws). A person can, however, develop an oversensitivity to perfume; but this is a very complex situation, and cannot be boiled down to “your perfume is making me sick”.
People develop sensitivities to all kinds of things. I'm extremely sensitive to my ringtone, and can hear it in a running faucet or a creaky swingset. You may be sensitive to your mother's voice, or your lover’s voice, and the auditory stimulus alone can trigger a cascade of physiological operations leaving you with sweaty palms, or a guilty conscience. It is not the stimulus that causes this response directly, but the combination of the stimulus and your own associative memory network, created and reinforced by a lifetime of living.
Every person's life is different, and hence no two people get the same effect from the same stimulus. This is not true for peanut allergies – it doesn't matter who you are; if you have the allergy, you will react in the exact same way as everyone else (allowing for difference in severity).
An auditory stimulus, like someone's voice, is a bit different from a chemical stimulus like a perfume. A confluence of memory, both from the stored experience of the chemical receptors in our skin, and the episodic memory of every physiological state of the body in every moment, the chemical sensitivity that develops is a combination of objective chemical experience and subjective psychological experience.
Here's a good one – let's say you're moving out of your home or apartment. It's a big move, and a big deal. It takes days, and you haven't touched some of this stuff in years. There's dust everywhere and you're stressed. After a couple days of this, you notice that every time you enter the house, you start to get itchy, and kind of irritable in general. The dust has been communicating with your skin, and your skin with your stressed-out brain. Your brain looks for a reason for the stress, but it's all mental. You're not being chased by a predator, not literally at least. Your brain gets wind of these foreign chemicals that keeps showing up on your body-envelope. There – it must be the dust! So your brain triggers an allergic response, in the hopes of getting you to get rid of whatever it is that's causing the reaction.
Poor brain, it can't figure out that the dust is not causing the stress, but virtual things, things in your head. (Brain can't go getting rid of itself, now can it!) Poor brain gets confused.
Now you're at work. Your boss is on your ass, your TPS reports are three days behind, you forgot to pack your lunch today, and your goddamn coworker is like, “I love fruitchouli!” If this happens more often than you care to admit, and you don't share the same love for fruitchouli, then even on the days when you are not as stressed as usual, you might smell that damn fruitchouli; she did one spray too many today, and you pop a blood vessel in your eye.
The smell alone didn't do this. Any environment with loud noises, bright lights, and potent odors is going to make a bad day worse, and a bad headache a migraine. But more importantly, any employee that is being stressed to their limit will become oversensitive to anything. It could be a personal problem, or it could be work-related, but it is the inner physiology of the individual, interfaced with their environment via their psychological state.
If a workplace is considering a no fragrance policy, it might be an indicator that their employees are stressed. Perfume is not the problem, or at least not all of it. And once things have gotten this bad, forcing a policy that prohibits employees from expressing themselves – through clothing, fragrance, etc., might make things worse.
(Granted, there should be common sense limits, and in certain workplaces, it makes sense to limit fragrance altogether.)
Here, we’ll be brief. The same chemicals in our perfume, the ones that happen to smell, are the same chemicals used for communication (and warfare) between living creatures. When a plant gets eaten by an insect, it may release a chemical that says, “I'm being eaten by a tasty worm”, a broadcast to any potential tasty-worm-eaters in the vicinity. Perhaps, as a plant flowers, it releases a chemical that says, “Pollinate me!”
Usually, however, it's war. Most of the chemicals we can smell are the same ones produced by plants to fight the other living organisms that want to eat them. In a way, they have evolved as chemical weapons. We are part of the same ecosystem in that every square millimeter of our bodies are covered in microbes. As such, we experience the collateral damage of their chemical warfare in the form of allergic reactions. In a way, many of the beautiful, hypnotizing, potent smells that populate the fragrance market are attacking the chemical receptors embedded in our bodies. It is no wonder we develop allergic reactions to them; the autonomic imperative to “do something” about it is hard to ignore.
Furthermore (because it never ends) many of the smells that come from our bodies are in fact excreted from the micro-organisms that live on and inside us and colonize our bodies over the course of our lifetime. (I think this goes for all body odors, actually; our bodies produce the “food” for these organisms in the form of sweat etc., but the smelly part comes from the metabolism of that food by bacteria, and the eventual waste-products of that metabolism.)
*Folks going through chemotherapy might have their food made to taste bad on purpose, because it is likely that they will throw-up a lot, and if they throw-up that much, after every meal, they may develop an aversion to the food that made them sick, via the smell of it, although it was the treatment, not the food that made them sick. Thereafter, every time they smell their favorite foods, they might get sick at the thought of eating it. So this is a kind of odor-camouflage.
On Chemicals and Toxicity
I just think it's a good idea. I know most readers here already know this stuff, but it's just due diligence. I read something in the comments section of a forum about “the chemical conspiracy”, and it struck me that the more times this is written the better for everyone, so here goes:
Everything is made of chemicals, the good things and the bad things.
The toxicity is in the amount. Too much nitrogen? Dead. Not enough nitrogen? Dead. Water? Same thing. The poison is in the dose. That's it.
Some chemicals smell. Smells can't hurt us, but chemicals can. Smell is the effect of a perception, but a chemical is the source of the perception, via sensation. Smells can indicate that something is toxic, and it may be, but chemicals are not toxic because they smell.
Next. In fragrance, there is an international organization that enforces the use of chemicals where the dosage is not enough to be toxic. Granted, if the base is alcohol, you can drink it and get drunk. Also, some fragrance chemicals are no longer used because they proved to be unsafe for our skin, those being especially the first synthetic musks discovered, called the nitro-musks. Inhaling it as a vapor will not, however, leave you poisoned. Absorbing it through your skin (in the typical dosage) may mess with your skin, but it won't kill you over time.
I wonder, maybe someone can help me out here – If I submerge myself in a vat of fragrance oil, like the one seen in the movie Perfume, what would we have to do to make that fatal? What kind, how much, how long? Is this even possible?
Anyway, folks should also probably consider that perfumers have their heads surrounded by a fragrance-chemical cloud all day, and they don’t turn into mutants or drop dead from toxicity.