Does your workplace pass the sniff test?

We’ve all had the experience of a scent magically transporting us to a particular time or place. Some scents evoke meaningful memories, like frolicking in a field of flowers as a child or smelling the skin of someone near and dear. Some bring on different sensations, like a blinding headache.

We’ve all had the experience of a scent magically transporting us to a particular time or place. Some scents evoke meaningful memories, like frolicking in a field of flowers as a child or smelling the skin of someone near and dear. Some bring on different sensations, like a blinding headache.

Recently, I walked through a store’s cosmetics department. The jumble of scents made me lightheaded and reminded me of an old maxim: Your nose knows. Although the phrase entered the public’s consciousness through a cartoon toucan shilling for a sugary breakfast cereal, it has some truth.

Your sense of smell can often detect when things are amiss. When I walk into the potent cloud of perfumes, colognes and fragranced body products, I get dizzy and I start to sneeze. My nose tells me that something isn’t right.

In centuries past, the lack of basic sanitation and questionable personal bathing regimes might have made for some sticky, and stinky, encounters. So having some nice lavender oil or a spritz of floral essence to mask body odours would have been kindly appreciated by your kith and kin.

Today, most scents don’t come from local fields and gardens, but rather from far-off laboratories and overseas factories. And with running water and sanitation in our homes and workplaces, keeping personal odours under control shouldn’t be much of a challenge. Yet, as a society, we continue to spend billions to bathe our bodies in artificial scents. The cosmetics industry has done a great job of casting a romantic light on its wares. These companies rarely miss an opportunity to present full-page ads and two-storey billboards with their products propped up by scantily clad supermodels to make synthetic scents seem sexy.

While my disorienting trips through the cosmetics aisle are irritating to me, I know that for many Canadians the aversion to chemicals used in body-care products is much more serious.

For some people, exposure to these scents and fragrances can trigger acute health problems, ranging from disorientation to breathing difficulties and asthma attacks.

What’s more, some of the chemicals used as fragrance ingredients have been linked to chronic health issues like reproductive problems and cancer.

I’m happy that the office where I work had the foresight years ago to implement a fragrance-free policy. Groups like the Canadian Lung Association have long argued that workplaces should adopt policies to keep staff and guests from dousing themselves in scents before heading to the office. This is done as a courtesy to colleagues who are sensitive to such chemicals or who may simply not be as enthralled with the scent of the month, even if it bears the name of a hot celebrity or the hippest fashion label.

The one thing you won’t find advertised on billboards, or even the ingredient list of your personal care products, is exactly what chemicals are used in the fragrance mix. Manufacturers aren’t required by law to disclose the ingredients used to scent, or sometimes ‘unscent,’ their products. It is considered a trade secret. Instead, the general terms “parfum” or “fragrance” appear on ingredient lists.

Groups like the David Suzuki Foundation are demanding that the fragrance loophole be closed and that consumers be told what ingredients are in their products. Author and broadcaster Gillian Deacon’s book There’s Lead in Your Lipstick and the U.S. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ website are good resources for learning about toxics in cosmetic products and about products to avoid.

Unfortunately, the list of things that fail the sniff test in our daily lives goes beyond the office and body-care products.

That new-car smell is really a host of harmful chemicals.

Some air fresheners contain heavy metals.

The smell associated with new vinyl shower curtains includes dozens of volatile chemicals that are bad for you.

And, of course, any kids’ toys that smell like a chemical refinery when you open the packaging should be avoided.

While these hazards are all too common, using the sniff test is a good start.

We can control the amount of fragranced products and chemicals that we bring into our home and work environment. Adopt fragrance-free policies. Shop wisely. Read ingredients lists. And use some common sense to avoid harmful scents.

Scientist, author and broadcaster David Suzuki writes this column with scientist Jode Roberts. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.