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Halifax ban on fragrances has critics sniffing

Published May 27, 2000|Updated Sept. 27, 2005

Perfume is meant to provoke passion, but not the sort stirring this historic seaport.

To the horror of perfume makers worldwide, Halifax has become the first major center in North America to prohibit the wearing of all cosmetic fragrances _ from Giorgio to grandmother's lavender soap _ in most indoor public places, including municipal offices, libraries, hospitals, classrooms, courts and mass transit buses.

With little fanfare, and less public debate, a city renowned for its sea breezes and friendly folk has declared underarm deodorant, herbal shampoos, colognes and other scented products to be hazardous to public health _ or at least too politically incorrect to be countenanced. The ban, backed by ardent scent opponents, reflects not only concern for people discomforted by fragrances but a grim new environmental view that sees a morning slap of aftershave as a blow against Mother Earth.

"Aromatic chemicals are poisoning people and the planet as much as tobacco or pesticides," said Karen Robinson, an anti-scent campaigner who compares the fight against fragrances to writer Rachel Carson's celebrated early warnings about the effects of DDT, a powerful insecticide now restricted by law. "We don't want a "Silent Spring' brought by cosmetics in Halifax. We've even got scent-free doughnut shops."

Meanwhile, students have been suspended from class for wearing hair gel and other scented goo (one nearly landed in jail for "assaulting" his teacher's olfactory senses); an 84-year-old woman was booted out of City Hall for wafting her customary cologne while making a civic inquiry; and another woman was ordered off a city bus for smelling too sweet.

Private enterprise is joining the crusade with surprising alacrity. The Chronicle-Herald, dominant newspaper in the city of 350,000, has ordered its employees to refrain from even "strong mouthwash." Other companies send perfumed or deodorant-wearing workers home to take a shower, deducting the lost time from their paychecks.

Critics are calling it the Halifax Hysteria.

"We're abandoning common sense in order to placate a small handful of individuals bothered by scents," said City Councilor Steve Streatch, one of the few local politicians willing to speak for the record on what has become a highly emotional issue, with campaigners wearing gas masks turning out to jeer anyone opposing their view.

"People have been wearing fragrances since biblical times," Streatch said. "If someone wears too much, if they become obnoxious to people around them, then a friend should speak to them. Or a work supervisor. But bringing government into what people dab on their face or rub into their underarms is just too much like Big Brother."

But anti-fragrance advocates hail Halifax as standard-bearer for a burgeoning New Age movement. In the United States, only Marin County, Calif., has displayed similar zeal in combating perfumes and other fragrances. But its "ban" on scents in public remains voluntary.

"Almost alone, this good city up in Nova Scotia is showing the courage to take a stand against neurologically toxic chemicals guised as fragrance," said Fred Nelson of the Michigan-based National Foundation for the Chemically Hypersensitive. "Canadians are showing an empathy for victims of the cosmetic chemical industry that seems to be lacking among Americans."

At the heart of the hullabaloo is a syndrome called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, also known as environmental illness. Sufferers claim that the ubiquitous presence of chemicals in modern life has a cumulative effect that causes some individuals to become violently ill at the slightest whiff of any scent, whether Chanel No. 5 or Irish Spring.

The trouble is, most U.S. and Canadian physicians and researchers refuse to recognize Multiple Chemical Sensitivity as a true disease. Specialists say some people do suffer severely from exposure to perfumes and scented cosmetics, but the reasons are poorly understood and the reactions _ including headaches, vomiting and seizures _ do not appear to be caused by genuine physical allergies, much less poisoning.

By and large, mainstream epidemiologists and occupational health doctors believe Multiple Chemical Sensitivity is a complex psychological, or "psychosocial," malady.

"What's taking place in Halifax appears to be collective hysteria over an illness that does not exist," said Dr. Ron House, an epidemiologist at the Occupational Health Center at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital.

"The uproar is fascinating from a cultural view. But (the ban on fragrances) isn't good medicine, it's folly _ political pandering to a few rather strident activists," he said. "Sadly, the whole business leaves Halifax looking more crackpot than compassionate."

In a case that made world headlines, a 17-year-old student named Gary Falkenham last month was handed over to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police by officials at a Halifax area high school after showing up in class wearing Dippity Do hair gel and Aqua Velva deodorant. His scent-sensitive teacher, Tanya MacDonald, demanded that he be charged with criminal assault for supposedly jeopardizing her health.

"This is insanity," said Charles Low, president of the Canadian Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association. "This teenager was threatened not only with expulsion but a criminal record for wearing deodorant."

The RCMP dutifully investigated but finally declined to bring charges.

The school backed away from demands that Falkenham be prosecuted, and instead suspended him for two days.

Nancy Radcliffe, columnist for the Halifax Daily News and one of the few Haligonians to raise a public voice against the fragrance ban, said Canada's famously civil society has lately become far too credulous when confronted by anyone claiming to be a victim.

"Our problem is, we're too darn polite," she wrote recently. "We don't want to inconvenience anyone, so we're constantly giving up our rights because somebody claims it's offending them."

Manufacturers of scented products are stunned by events unfurling in Halifax, where sales of scented products have plunged 25 percent, according to retailers.

The cosmetics makers and perfumers may be in for a long battle. The anti-scent movement appears to enjoy some support beyond the hard-core activists.

"The rest of the country may think we are a bunch of crackpots, but I believe some people are canaries in a coal mine," Stephanie Domet, an editor at The Coast, a Nova Scotia weekly, told the Toronto-based Globe and Mail newspaper.