Chemical Stew by Barbara Hinsz

11167909_10206291586516111_4096209216770984982_oThey were tucked behind the pictures hanging on the walls. They were pushed deep into the pockets of clothing, even in the little coin pockets of the jeans. They were scented Bounce dryer sheets….. and there were a lot of them. The smell could be considered a dream by those not affected by the chemicals in fragrances; but for Carl, they were a horrible nightmare and just one more cruel ploy of revenge in a very dirty divorce after twenty-five years of marriage.

The policeman initially laughed upon arriving at Carl’s house; the house he continued to live in every other week during his court appointed time with his daughter. It wasn’t long before he started coughing and asked if they could step outside, though. “It’s not so funny, is it?” Carl asked.

The dirty deeds did not stop there.  She also filled his tackle boxes with Avon’s Skin So Soft and Febreze until the liquid was level with the top of the trays and much of the tackle floated in the chemical stench. His hunting clothes and carbon duck blinds were not spared the same treatment. She was a very angry and bitter woman and she knew exactly how to make Carl miserable.

As a person with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), I cringed as Carl relayed his story to me. At first, I thought the reason he was so upset about the situation was because he was a hunting guide, and the scents would be detected by the animals, therefore interfering with his livelihood.  But it was so much more. I soon learned that he too, becomes ill from fragrances. He experienced excruciating migraines that caused him to be nauseated almost to the point of vomiting. They also caused him to experience mood changes; as they do for many people.

Larry, a retired man from Virginia, has been bothered by fragrances for as long as he can remember. Laundromats, the soap, detergent and cleaner aisles in stores, trendy candle stores, scented laundry soap, scented toilet paper, and people with excessive perfume,  all cause him despair. He finds the scented scratch samples in magazines disgusting. While he experiences skin irritation from clothes washed in scented soaps and scented toilet paper, he often ends up with migraines from even brief exposures to strong chemicals and scents. These headaches last six to eight hours, and the bad ones interfere with his entire day, followed by a headache “hangover” for a couple of days. He feels that people have no idea what it is like for those that suffer from chemical sensitivities and wishes that the unnaturally created scents would disappear.

Some people roll their eyes and sigh, when he explains how fragrances affect him.  I too, have experienced this many times.  Some people take it personally when I tell them that their fragrance is making me ill or when I have tried to explain to people what MCS is like.

There are several things I would like to ask people to know about my illness. The first would be, please do not look at me like I am crazy. Those of us that suffer, have already gone through the “crazy” thing ourselves while trying to figure out why we were sick all the time.

Please don’t take it personally. It is not necessarily your smell, but the chemicals that make up your smell. The ingredients in fragrances are considered a trade secret so there can be hundreds of chemicals, including synthetic ones, in a single fragrance. Do you really think companies that include fragrances in their products have the consumer’s health in mind or are they more concerned with making a profit off of the non-suspecting public?

Do not decide what will make me ill. Just as I cannot determine what food a person with Chron’s disease should be able to eat or what triggers a person with allergies should be able to handle, please don’t think you can decide for me. Yes, your lightly-scented coconut lotion is all it takes and it is mostly likely a chemical concoction that gives it the scent. Yes, one whiff of your clothing washed in strongly scented detergent is all it takes. Even the smell of dryer sheets or detergent coming from a dryer vent can ruin an outdoor walk. You do know that dispersants are added to fragrances so the smell travels and other additives added so that the fragrances stay on your body, in your home, on your laundry, etc., right?

Once I have had an exposure, I do not feel better just because the chemicals are no longer in my environment. Like Carl and Larry, I can feel sick for hours, a day or days and with every exposure throughout the day it gets worse and worse. Shopping trips or attending events where there are a lot of people can end up being pure torture and just because I am smiling and trying to be a positive person does not mean that inside I feel like I am dragging my ass across the parking lot.

Until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission is allowed to regulate the safety of fragrances rather than the International Fragrance Association regulating itself, I will not feel confident that fragranced products are good for me or anyone else, even if they did not make me ill.

Although fragrances are the most bothersome for me, especially air fresheners and perfumes, there are other items that cause me to react as well. These can be strange items such as a new computer mouse, clothing, the smell of flavored coffee, the rubber handle of a putty knife, the off-gassing of new copy machines, or a new Ipad cover just to name a few.

Please remember that not all disabilities can be seen. An article that I wrote about a co-worker and my experiences with MCS last year can be found here: and a link to Julie Asbach’s column where she writes about her own sensitivities can be found here: