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Sufferers want to clear the air on scents at meetings

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Tuesday August 28, 2001

Proponents of strengthening a warning against wearing chemical fragrances at public meetings say the city’s current admonition, printed on public meeting agendas, is vague and arbitrary. The council will consider stronger wording when it meets Sept. 11. 

The warning now reads: “Attendees at public meetings are reminded that other attendees may be sensitive to various odors, whether natural or manufactured, in products and materials. Please help the city respect these needs.” 

In 1996 the council adopted the current language after much discussion among city staff, fragrance industry representatives and those who suffer from multiple chemical sensitivities, an allergic condition that can be aggravated by chemical scents often found in perfume, cologne and aftershave. 

A recommendation asking the council to strengthen the fragrance warning was unanimously approved by the Commission on Disability in February. 

Proponents want language that states clearly that fragrance products such as cologne and perfume may cause “serious harm” to some meeting attendees.  

Fragrance industry representatives, however, say strengthening the language would unfairly single out manufactured scents while ignoring other triggers for allergies. They also contend MCS is a controversial medical condition that is not accepted by most doctors.  

Arguing that the current language is clear, the city manager recommended in a July 24 report that the council not change the admonition. The manager also pointed out that prior to the adoption of the present language, there was “extensive discussion” and that the council considered more than over 265 pages of material.  

“Today there is no pressing need to reopen the same discussion,” the report says. 

Councilmember Dona Spring, who suffers from MCS, said she supports making the language more explicit. “We get sick when we’re exposed to strong perfume,” Spring said. “This has been an issue for years and has never been resolved.” 

People who suffer from MCS can have a variety of reactions to chemicals commonly found in fragrance products. Reactions include dizziness, severe headaches and breathing problems.  

Some of the chemicals most often found in fragrance products include acetone, camphor and ethanol, all of which were described as toxic in a 1996 report by the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety.  

Berkeley resident Carol David, who also suffers from MCS, said the current language is unclear. She added that some who read the warning might misinterpret “odors” to mean body odor and could splash on more of the same body scents that the warning is meant to reduce.  

“That language says nothing,” she said. “It’s basically been watered down so it won’t offend the fragrance industry.” 

David proposes the following language, which she said is clear and understandable. 

“Please refrain from wearing scented products (perfume, cologne, aftershave, etc.) to these meetings, as there may be people in attendance who are allergic and can be seriously harmed by exposure to these products.” 

Jon Kaufman, executive vice president of corporate affairs for Solem and Associates, a public relations firm that represents the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, said the language is too specific and unfairly singles out a particular industry. He said if public meeting notices mentioned perfume and cologne, they should also mention other allergy sources like flowers and peanuts. 

He added that there is also little evidence that MCS is a real health condition. 

“(MCS) is a very controversial concept,” he said. “There is no conclusive medical evidence it does exist.” 

David, who said she experiences a sore throat and breathing difficulties when exposed to some fragrance products, conceded that the subject of MCS is controversial, but said those who suffer from MCS have little doubt that it exists.  

Councilmember Miriam Hawley said she is concerned about changing the fragrance warning language. “If we start enumerating fragrances will it end there? It seems to me we have to make sure it’s not an exclusive list.”