Guest Post by Leah Spitzer
I have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) – a “multi-system illnesses as a result of contact with, or proximity to, a variety of airborne agents and other substances. (Environmental Protection Agency).” In other words, I react to fragrances, building products and more. It is not a histamine reaction, but rather, a systemic reaction to the chemicals in fragrance and other products.
As someone with MCS, I’m also known as a “canary” with deference to the Canaries in the Coal Mine. As a canary, I often encounter looks of disbelief when I mention I can smell someone’s laundry detergent, or fragrance. I can smell it on them, their dog, their cat, their clothes, or even the package they are bringing me. I smell it in their home and in their car.
Often times, if it’s just a passing moment, I try to step back, or just tough it out, but sometimes I have to speak out. When I do, the most common response, after the surprised look, are:
“I didn’t put any perfume on this morning”
“I don’t smell anything”
Why the disparity in perception? There are several reasons that I have observed:
Canaries have been sensitized to fragrance of any kind
Our sense of smell is heightened out of necessity. It’s the fragrance that warns us of the chemicals in the air. Our well being, and, for many, our very survival, depends on us identifying smells and chemical toxins quickly so that we can remove ourselves from the situation, hopefully before symptoms set in.
Most people are DE-sensitized to fragrance
When you first put on that dab of perfume in the morning, you smell it. But as the day goes on, you don’t. It’s not because the fragrance faded, but rather, because your nose adjusted to it. The same applies to your laundry detergent, your hair product and even your deodorant! You may not think your “spring fresh” laundry detergent has a fragrance after days in your closet, but the manufacturers work very hard to add in chemical ingredients that keep it not only smelling “fresh” for months, but also to spread in the air and attach to other items (like your dog, your cat, or your car). It’s still there – your nose has just acclimated to it.
The world we live in is a virtual smorgasbord of fragrance
At any given moment, we could be inhaling as many as 10-20 fragrances: shampoo, conditioner, hair product, deodorant, laundry detergent, perfume, and aftershave. And then there’s the environment itself: floor cleaners, carpet shampoo, candles, plug-ins, air freshener sprays, and more. It’s no wonder that most noses work hard to block out the overload. Ever turn on a flashlight during the day? You can’t see the beam with all that daylight. Now imagine that your home, or even your body, is “daylight” and that one more fragrance is the flashlight beam. You would never notice it. But sadly, for canaries, it’s another matter.
Canaries work hard to live in a basically inert environment
We work very hard to remove all fragrance, odors and chemical toxins from our environment, so even a small drop of fragrance will stand out for us.
It is precisely because we are not constantly bombarded with fragrance, that we are going to be more likely to smell that small drop of fragrance – just as though it were a flashlight at night.
And for us, that flashlight – that drop of fragrance- can bring on very serious side effects. So while you may not be able to notice the fragrance, please trust that we can. And when we ask you to step away, it’s not personal… it’s survival.
For more information about our symptoms, go to
Leah Spitzer has been disabled with MCS for 10 years and retired from dog training after 30 wonderful years due to this isolating disability. Leah is an active member of her local MCS support group Atlanta HEAL, and the moderator for the Facebook Group MCS Support for Family and Friends.
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