Fragrance, Flying, and “Sensitivities”

Progress is being made!

Even if you can’t actually get a fragrance-free flight, you can now get to the plane along a fragrance-free route if you are in Vancouver, BC!

from Vancouver Airport's twitter account

Maybe it needs some work to make the English language portion clear?

Right now, it could be taken to mean that they have a free route to fragrance!

So, once they get the English fixed for those who don’t understand French (where it’s clear they mean without perfume, but then again, how many people actually read their box or bottle of laundry detergent to see that there’s parfum in there? and in their deodorant? and in their shampoo?)  we can (maybe) get to the plane without being assaulted by fragrance chemicals (but, oh, it’s only “free” from the duty free shops with fragrance).  Still, I guess it IS progress… kind of…   Right?

Assuming we can actually get there without a life threatening (or merely disabling) reaction,  what happens once we are in the actual plane?

So far, the best some airlines will do is offer a seat change.  As we all know,  smoking sections didn’t prevent second hand smoke from reaching non-smoking sections, and fragrance chemicals are the same. They are volatile and they travel throughout any space they are used in (including from the air “fresheners” found in airplane washrooms). Not only that, but fragrance chemicals stick to seats (often due to the inclusion of phthalates, a harmful class of endocrine disrupting chemicals used to make a fragrance last longer and be more absorbent), making third hand fragrance contamination a serious issue for many of us.

If you were allergic or “sensitive” to peanuts, and sat in a seat that had peanut dust rubbed into it, how well would you fare?

Here’s the article that brought Vancouver Airport’s fragrance free route around the fragrance filled duty free shops sign to my attention. It mentions some of the issues:

Scents and Sensitivity: Considering Passenger Allergies to Fragrance

This quote from Dr. Karin Pacheco in the article is priceless:

“For some, fragrances may trigger “protective throat closure, burning eyes and nose, or headaches,”

“protective throat closure


The article has some numerical omissions in the statistics. It is written that:

5 percent found scented products on others irritating
19 percent reported adverse health effects from air fresheners
9 percent reported irritation from scented laundry products that were vented outside

But the study abstract, where “Respondents were asked if they find being next to someone wearing a scented product irritating or appealing; if they have headaches, breathing difficulties, or other problems when exposed to air fresheners or deodorizers; and if they are irritated by the scent from laundry products, fabric softeners, or dryer sheets that are vented outside.” actually states:

30.5% of the general population reported scented products on others irritating,
19% reported adverse health effects from air fresheners, and
10.9% reported irritation by scented laundry products vented outside.

It seems like someone accidentally edited out some numbers, hopefully they will be corrected soon, as there’s a significant difference between 5 and 30%.

At least some people are starting to pay attention. It took decades and many lost lives before smoking was banned from (most) indoor spaces, hopefully we don’t have to wait decades (and so many more lives lost) for toxic fragrance chemicals to go the way of the dodo.

Ultimately, we need fragrance-free flights (and supply chains). But that still won’t make flying safe for all of us. There is also the matter of engine fuel being sucked in from the vents (aerotoxic syndrome), and pesticides are another problematic issue on some flights.

Extra tidbit: Did you know that fragrance chemicals used in pesticides are regulated, but fragrance chemicals used in other products are not?

More needs to be done to make sure our air does not contain health harming substances. No-one should be forced to breathe in toxic chemicals, especially in closed environments.

Offering less fragrance to someone with disabling MCS/ES is like offering someone a broken wrist instead of a broken arm and/or broken leg, or a concussion instead of a brain tumour, but yeah, at least there’s a choice and more awareness now (jaded and cynical, who me?)

The Canadian Human Rights Code and the Ontario Human Rights Code both recognize environmental sensitivities as a disability that needs to be accommodated.

Ontario Human Rights Code: Section 2.3 on Non-evident disabilities:
“Similarly, environmental sensitivities can flare up from one day to the next, resulting in significant impairment to a person’s health and capacity to function, while at other times, this disability may be entirely non-evident”

The Canadian Human Rights Commission ‘Policy’ on Environmental Sensitivities and 2 papers can be found on the CHRC website  here.

In closing, thanks to whoever it was who got the sign(s) installed at the Vancouver Airport, and to those who are pushing to have all the toxic fragrance emitting devices removed from public spaces (and elsewhere). Thanks to everyone who has the energy and money to hire lawyers to make access possible for those of us who are disabled by toxic chemicals. Some day it might actually be safe for people with more than mild MCS/ES to go out in public and even fly again! Here’s hoping it happens soon!


15 responses to “Fragrance, Flying, and “Sensitivities”

  1. People certainly do not understand what fragrance free means. In the last month, I have had 5 service people needing to come to my house: one came on short notice had on an extreme amount, the second knew ahead of time and still had fragrance on — both of these men of the cologne/after shave fragrance category. By the time the fifth needed to come to my house, I made it clear, if he has fragrance on don’t come. What I didn’t do was run through all of the things that have fragrance. He was not wearing cologne but the fragrance in his laundry products immediately made my tongue itch.

    The signs are a start but without education they mean nothing. Just before I was too sick to work anymore, they put up one sign at my school prohibiting fragrances. Teachers and students alike walked right on by without giving it any notice.

    • It’s pretty clear that whoever worked on this, although well intentioned, doesn’t understand what we’re dealing with.

      Maybe there was a time in some of our lives when just avoiding the fragrance shops would have been helpful, just like avoiding the laundry product aisle in the supermarket was enough. Sadly, that time can come to an abrupt end, as once you have a fragrance “sensitivity”, all it takes is one more toxic exposure (mold, renovation, bad piece of furniture or carpeting, pesticide application, etc) and you will find yourself among the people with chemical injuries who have to avoid ALL the toxic chemicals found in fragrances and other products they are used in, or suffer allergic or disabling consequences that last from hours to weeks…

      I don’t know how many times people have said they are fragrance-free while reeking of fragrance from their laundry, deodorant, shampoo, hand creme, soap, etc… I ask them if they ever read a product label to see if it contains fragrance or parfum, and they never have.

      I also see a lot of decorative fragrance-free area signs… and no understanding or enforcement…

      I guess it’s easier to see when people are smoking in no smoking areas, maybe we need (wi-fi free) VOC scanners to check the chemicals emanating off people (and products)… and from fragrance zones to fragrance-free zones…

      I wish the non-smoking associations would get behind the f-f issue, but the ones I’ve spoken with seem in complete denial that there’s a problem, kind of as if they were fragrance addicts themselves… I sometimes ask them if they have this much resistance to going f-f, maybe they can understand the smoker’s point of view a bit better? Smokes and fragrances are full of toxic and addictive chemicals, and the marketing is a manipulative billion dollar business.

      So, I’m still trying to see the value in these signs… lol… Here you go, this is the peanut and gluten reduced section…

  2. Mary S MacDonald

    Linda Sepp,

    Thank you for your incredible work. It is hugely important and helpful.

    I came across the article below and thought you might like to have a read, if / when time permits.

    All the best,

    Mary Susan MacDonald Sent from my iPad _________________________

    10 Things You Didn’t Know About New Car Smell

    • Thanks Mary Susan,
      I’m still having computer (and link) troubles, so I won’t open it now, but if it’s one from last year, I’ve seen it… I may even have a post about “new car” fumes in the drafts somewhere…

      There was a non-profit group who did some good research on the VOCs etc in car interiors several years ago, but anything could have changed now.

      I wish someone would do a new report, AND include EMF and EMR readings, as many people report all the wireless and EMF to be too much in some new cars now.

  3. RADS or Reactive Airways Dysfuncion Syndrome is when the throat and bronquials contract to prevent the inhalation of VOC’s or other toxic substances that could be life threatening to some of us sufferers. It’s like suffocating, you just can’t breathe, like asma (irritant induced asma), but unlike normal asma sufferers a person with MCS/EI is likely to ‘react’ to the chemical inhalers they use !
    I guess that this is what Dr. Pacheco refers to as ‘protective throat closure’, I completely ‘ get this’ . When it happens you find yourself running away trying to find some noncontaminated air to breathe, like what happens in a fire where the smoke and fumes can be fatal when inhaled. It’s a defensive mechanism but you are literally suffocating : (
    Thats why we need a good ‘breathing mask’ to wear when we venture out into the ‘toxic world’.
    Maybe the airport security is trying to find an alternative to having ‘masked people’ walking around in the airport? Can they forbid us to wear our ‘protective breathing aids’?
    I believe you can have oxygen supplementation on the airplanes, at an extra cost of course, this helps survive the flight but as you mentioned there are many other exposures so you can expect a long recovery time afterwards anyway. The pros and cons need to be weighed out before considering flying I think. EMF exposure is high in the airport and on the planes too : (

    Good to know that there is some awareness at least and attempt to accomodate : )

    God bless you all ♡♡♡

    • The sad thing here is, that if someone is experiencing ‘protective throat closure’, they just can’t breathe… and breathing is not optional if we want to remain alive. The way he tossed it in there seemed like he was dismissive and trivializing the effects, and he didn’t mention the long term disabling effects either.

      There have been people fly with masks and respirators on, but they don’t protect our skin, which also absorbs the pollutants… I personally don’t have a mask that is effective for long term use, just short runs to take out the garbage or something if the air is bad, as I don’t tolerate synthetics on my skin.

      A few have worn tyvek suits, but that really makes you stand out in the crowd, it gets hot, and makes going to the washroom nearly impossible in a plane, (2 piece tyvek suits could possibly be helpful here – as the washrooms are sometimes the most fragrance polluted places in a plane)… and regarding on-board oxygen, people have had mixed results. It’s not easy apparently.

      The barriers are extensive now, and this has prevented people from traveling to receive medical care too, as there aren’t many doctors who know anything about environmental health.

      More needs to be done!

  4. Toxic cabin air campaigners call for detectors in planes

    Mystery plane illness at Heathrow prompts calls for air quality warning
    systems in cabins

  5. Pingback: Signs Aren’t Enough– A MCS Request | Life in the City with a Future

  6. In case you haven’t heard, there have been some serious problems with American Airline’s uniforms, affecting thousands of pilots, flight attendants, and others:

    “As of early June, 3,453 flight attendants had reported uniform-related health problems to the union, according to APFA spokesman Shane Staples. Of Charlotte-based flight attendants, 416 –15 percent – have filed complaints. Pilots, gate agents and customer service employees have also reported problems. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents a broader group of flight attendants, has also demanded the uniforms be recalled.”

    American Airlines’ pilots’ union has also asked the airline not to use the Twin Hill uniforms after wear-testing caused health problems more than two years ago, according to a memo sent to union members.

    Testers reported experiencing hives, rashes, shortness of breath, vomiting and flu-like symptoms, all of which subsided when they stopped wearing the uniforms. The Allied Pilots Association, which represents American’s 15,000 pilots, recommended a different manufacturer, but management ignored the request, according to the memo.

    Six hundred pilots have filed complaints with the union since last fall, spokesman Dennis Tajer said. Their symptoms have been similar to flight attendants’, and several have been unable to fly or have had to leave trips.”

  7. “‘There are hundreds of sick crew’: is toxic air on planes making frequent flyers ill?”

    “In the meantime, for sufferers, getting recognition can be a time-consuming and frustrating process. Marta Bodi, 44, who flew as cabin crew for BA for 11 years, cries as she talks about her experience. “I first became ill in 2003, experiencing aches and severe migraines that continue today. After visiting numerous doctors, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and then, in 2006, still feeling ill, I was told I had chronic fatigue syndrome.” Then, she says, “In 2008, I felt faint on a trip to Nairobi and had to be put on oxygen. I couldn’t operate the flight home so I returned as a passenger. I was signed off long-term sick and spent the next two years pretty much bedridden. I had no energy, I couldn’t sleep, I felt achy and I couldn’t walk without help. If I breathed chemicals, I would vomit straight away. I was then diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivity and instructed to wear a carbon-activated mask. I was like a 90-year-old in a thirtysomething’s body.”

  8. EasyJet to filter toxic air in cabins

    “The budget carrier is the first to take action over links to an illness long denied by airlines

    EasyJet is to fit filters to stop toxic fumes entering its passenger cabins and cockpits in a move seen as the industry’s first acknowledgment of “aerotoxic syndrome”.

    The condition, long denied by airlines, is feared to be responsible for several deaths of pilots and crew and hundreds of incidents where pilots have fallen ill, sometimes at the controls. Frequent flyers and young children could also be affected, it is claimed.”

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