Last week, my wife was out with my sister, browsing in stores, doing a bit of shopping. Some stores had odours that were strong enough to make her eyes burn and she walked out right away. My sister didn’t feel a thing. My wife has a mild case of multiple chemical sensitivities and her symptoms range from burning eyes, nausea, and migraine depending on the offending chemicals. At one of the stores that she went into, the smell was so strong that she asked if they were burning incense. The saleswoman told her that the scents are in the air conditioning system.
Everywhere you go there are people wearing perfumed products on their skin and on their clothes. Air fresheners are used in many public bathrooms and often in cabs. Scented cleaning products are used to wash floors in public areas, and the grocery store aisles with detergents and fabric softeners have the strong scents of those products. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid chemical scents. Contact with fragrances can cause symptoms like sneezing, coughing, irritated eyes, nose and throat, and headache. But, it can also cause changes in brain function, like difficulty concentrating, changes in memory, and mood changes in those with multiple chemical sensitivities. While some people have these reactions to scents, many others, including some physicians, are skeptical that low doses of these fragrances can cause changes in brain function.
The scent industry repeatedly assures us that these chemicals are safe. Scent manufacturers are actively and successfully pursuing the retail market by showing how scents can be used to increase sales, improve customer satisfaction and perception, boost branding, and create a strong, lasting emotional connection with customers. They can do so by blending combinations of chemicals to create new products which directly impact brain function, via the sense of smell.
The sense of smell was the first sense to evolve, and it is directly connected to the limbic system, a part of the brain that is responsible for memory and basic emotions. Scents stimulate the limbic system first, even before we are aware of the odour. If it does so in a positive way, it can provoke memories of pleasant past experiences, helping to create an environment in which we feel comfortable, or at home. Many businesses are now using scents to enhance sales. Studies show that the infusion of a certain fragrance into the environment of a store subconsciously impacts shoppers’ decisions to stay longer and buy more. As a result, scented chemicals are now being placed in the ventilation systems of some retail stores.
A drug is defined as any substance that is intended to affect the structure or function of the body. These chemicals induce functional changes in the limbic system of our brain, making us feel relaxed and more open to suggestion. The aim of the exposure to specific scents is to achieve immediate behavioural responses – stay, browse, and buy. Our brains are being manipulated to make decisions that we might not otherwise make because we are being exposed to these chemicals. The scent industry has studies showing that using their products increases sales and profits. Are we actually being drugged?
The chemical ingredients used in scented products are proprietary, meaning that we do not have the legal right to know the contents. The scent industry might proclaim that their products are safe but the safety of these chemicals, both individually and in combination, is not well known. In particular, they have potential for neurotoxicity. If they can affect human function, they could also cause side effects, just like any other drug. Many people with chemical sensitivities, asthma, allergies, and migraines react strongly to these scents. Shouldn’t we at least be warned before entering the store that it could be hazardous to our health?
And what about the effects of long term exposures on the employees working in these stores? While many hospitals, government buildings, the Lung Association, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, and the US Environmental Protection Agency are promoting scent free policies, why is it acceptable for the retail industry to constantly expose their employees to scents?
In the last few years, a substantial number of research studies have shown that even though most of us do not consciously feel ill from fragrances, many of us do experience biological changes on a cellular level that we can’t feel. We now know that the accumulation of chemical exposures, including those found in scented products, contributes to the increasing likelihood of developing chronic illness.
Retailers should not have the right to expose us unwittingly to chemicals in order to persuade us to buy their products. If they do, they have the duty to warn us first.