Dalhousie

What’s the sense in no scents?

Scent policy at Dalhousie has scientific and historical backing

What’s the sense in no scents?photo by : rawpixel on Unsplash
written by Jess Moinz
March 10, 2019 7:04 pm

Look under Dalhousie University’s safety policy, and you’ll find all you need to know about biohazards, chemicals, radiation and lasers. Where are you hiding the lasers from us, Dalhousie?  

Scents may not be as lethal as lasers, but they too are an occupational hazard.  

The scent page  has information on tobacco smoke and Dal’s use of scent-free cleaning solutions. It also mentions that The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission is considering treating scent sensitivity as a disability.  

The point is, scents are serious stuff. But you may not know why these policies exist other than to be polite. Who is it for? Is there a real medical reason? Why is my need to slather myself in pine musk denied?  

What is an allergy 

Scent allergy isn’t really a thing. The term allergy describes the biological reaction of your immune system. Although allergies may feel awful, it’s not because your body hates you. When something small — a protein — enters your body, it’s passed around by immune system cells. A specific immune cell, B cells, make tiny traps called antibodies.  

Antibodies are like Lego blocks; they stick to different blocks depending on their shape. If you inhale pollen, your body makes a pollen antibody. The next time you inhale pollen, the antibodies created earlier are primed to pollen. They stick together like two matching Lego blocks, making the pollen larger and easier to identify for the rest of your immune system. 

Antibodies are like security. If you’re caught for shoplifting, they keep a photo of you in the back. The next time you go in, they can more easily recognize you. Similarly, antibodies “remember” particles that enter our bodies.  

Next, the body releases histamine, which makes you cough and itch and tear up. That’s the part where security pepper sprays you, the message is clear; stay away! But in the case of allergies, it’s not shoplifting we need to stay away from, but a grassy field or maybe some flowers.  

This normal process to keep out sickness becomes an unhelpful allergy when your immune system goes full ham to protect you from the deadly – even if it’s just peanuts. Your body overreacts in response to a certain protein.  

This process doesn’t apply to scents because smelling happens when particles are small –– small enough to come off a substance and waft through the air. These are tiny chemical compounds –– not proteins –– too tiny to cause an issue, too tiny to build tiny antibodies.  

Scent sensitivity still real 

Biologically, the processes for allergies and smelling are different, so technically there are no scent allergies.  

But don’t reach for the sweet, powerful scent of hot patchouli and rose petals yet, because scent sensitivity is still a thing. 

One medical condition that might make you sensitive to the air around you: asthma.  

In 2017, an online survey of 1137 American adults aged 18 to 65 was published in the journal of Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health. Around 27 per cent of people reported medically diagnosed asthma, or an asthma-like condition. Sixty-four per cent of asthmatics reported adverse responses to scented products, including breathing problems, asthma attacks and headaches. Sixty-six per cent of asthmatics interviewed said they would support scent-free policy.  

Those with asthma might not appreciate you smelling like sandalwood making sweet love to leather in the ocean’s spray. An innocent spritz for you, might mean migraines for them.   

Another condition causing sensitivity to scents is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). 

This occurs when someone is exposed to something that causes them to fall ill. After that incident, they experience immune response reactions when exposed to certain substances linked to the initial exposure. The condition is still being researched and there are many possible causes and symptoms attributed to the condition.  

A specific incident causing MCS symptoms plays a large part in why Dal has a scent policy in the first place.  In the late 80s, staff at the Camp Hill Hospital experienced symptoms of headaches, itching, and stomach problems. The problem seemed to be with the air quality, and the staff complained about the smell and disorienting effects of entering the hospital.  

The hospital was recirculating air around the building, rather than fresh air from outside. Some reported that some of the compounds used around the hospital were getting into air ducts.  Beyond the nasty smells, the air was circulating indoor pollutants. This included formaldehyde, phenol, sodium hydroxide and smoke.  

Staff were breathing it in day after day. When they finally changed the air circulation, people were still experiencing adverse reactions after contact with synthetic items or polluted air outside of the hospital. Rather than the temporary problem of people breathing bad air, people were suffering from a long-term health condition.   

“We share the air” 

Plans for a clinic at the Dalhousie medical school to help patients with MCS was established in 1995 after roughly 1000 hospital staff members had been affected. At that point, some people were unable able to leave their homes due to MCS. Even years afterwards some were still avoiding contact with certain artificial compounds in their clothing and in the air.  

The same year the clinic was established, Dal’s scent policy was put into motion. As the policy notes, “there are very close professional and personal contacts between the university community and the hospitals, the university was profoundly impacted by the situation.”  The scent policy has since been updated to cover a broad range of sensitivities. 

You’ve likely seen the emails, signs and posters that discouraging scented products, for example “We share the air” posters. Most of the time, scents are outright banned. 

Banning all scents everywhere isn’t realistic.  No one smells of nothing. I’m normally wearing what they call, “Eau de siracha spill with subtle hints of stress.” You’re always going to smell like something. Sometimes it’s maple mixed with the irresistible allure of vanilla. Sometimes it’s gym sweat. I’m not going to shame the natural state of the human body.  

Regardless, fragrance policy needs to consider the effect of scents has on others. If scent free is the only option for some people, then there’s no scent worth causing a ruckus over. By looking at exactly what types of sensitivity we’re accommodating and why it occurs, we can make better guidelines.  

What environmental regulations do sufferers of MCS need? Would an arm’s length distance from a scent be okay for people with asthma?  Information on the science of sensitivity can inform students on the importance of the issue. But it can also help us have a clearer understanding of what’s effective and helpful, rather than a broad ban.  

Maybe we can find a way to make a scent management policy rather than a scent free one. Either way, I support it; unlike the policy denying me access to lasers. 

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