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The case against fragrance by Kate Grenville

BOOKS: This is the kind of book that will potentially make you want to run screaming out of the cleaning products and personal care aisles next time you go to a supermarket. It might make you have a major clear out of your bathroom cabinet and also bin the majority of “air freshening” products scattered around the place.

For anyone interested in healthy indoor environments it will certainly make you think, because according to author Kate Grenville’s research, despite all the volatile organic compounds avoided in the delivery of buildings they are still coming in the doors every day in the fabrics and personal products worn by building occupants.

Almost all those scents that get added to everything from dishwashing liquid and laundry powder to perfume, deodorant and toilet paper are based on chemicals that can have dire health effects, up to and including common cancers such as prostate cancer and breast cancer.

Grenville’s starting point was her own sensitivity to artificial scents that saw her experiencing blinding headaches, breathing difficulties and other debilitating symptoms.  This is not uncommon: some workplaces in the US have “scent-free” or “fragrance-free” policies.

As she researched why this might be happening, she discovered there was a whole story that needed to be told about the fragrance industry and how it works and what these largely untested chemicals might be doing to everyone.

It is a self-regulating industry, where intellectual property protections cover the exact formulation of that stuff listed on an ingredients label as “fragrance” or “parfum”.

For some products, there are unenforceable rules about the amount of some of the most potent toxins that can be in certain categories of products such as face creams or hair conditioner. For other types of products, there are no limits.

Some of the most common chemicals used in fragrances such as limonene belong to the same class of chemicals as benzene, the turpenes. On exposure to air, they emit formaldehyde. So when you are standing in the lift next to someone that smells like they used a lemon-scented anything, you are potentially also getting direct exposure to molecules of formaldehyde.

And if you can smell a thing, Grenville explains those molecules are actually entering your body through the nasal cavity and straight into the brain’s scent receptors. It’s just a short hop, skip and a jump to the bloodstream after that.

The US Centre for Disease Control has looked into the evidence of harm around some of the chemicals, and has itself imposed a scent-free policy across all its workplaces.

But some of the chemicals have never been tested for safety, and there has been no testing of what happens when they all combine together.

Grenville gives an example of the number of fragranced products an average person is exposing themselves to while getting ready for work and points out that the assumptions the industry makes around “safe” limits are in all likelihood arbitrary and unproven to be effective.

Being a novelist rather than a science writer means Grenville’s book is extremely engaging, and has a real sense of narrative about it. There’s also many a wry turn of phrase and some brilliant personal anecdotes that help lighten what is at its roots a deeply disturbing and thought-provoking work of research.

Potentially, The case against fragrance is the kind of wake-up call for the commercial world that Silent Spring was for the agricultural sector.

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