The perfume police want to put a stopper on public scent offenses

November 27, 1991|By Bill Marvel | Bill Marvel,Dallas Morning News

You're sitting there in your easy chair, favorite magazine in your lap. You're reading about the latest massacre in Yugoslavia or the Israeli bomb or the coming crisis in health care. And all this time, waves of "Obsession" and "Tresor" and Giorgio's "Red" are wafting up from the page, bathing the sensory receptors of your nasal passages until you don't know whether to go out and picket an embassy, write your congressman or put on your dancing shoes.

We're all getting mixed signals these days. Department store clerks ambush customers with spritzes of Armani. Cabs reek of coconut oil. We wash our dishes in lemon-scented suds. Department store bills bathe us in a half-dozen different scents.

Meanwhile, every 24 hours the average consumer makes use of no fewer than seven scented products, from minty mouthwash to flowery foot powder. Perfumes, colognes, after-shaves: Do elevators have to smell like a bordello?

Call it odor overload, but some say they are literally sick of it and they are not (sniff, sniff) going to (wheeze) take it (gasp) any more.

In California wouldn't you know groups are clamoring for scent-free zones in public buildings. Others want to go even further. People should be discouraged from wearing fragrances outside the privacy of their homes, they say. Artificial fragrances not only are noxious, they complain, but toxic. Perfumes can cause headaches, lethargy and asthma attacks, and possibly modify brain waves.

Is this something we really have to worry about, like the vanishing ozone layer and nuclear proliferation?

Or is this just another sign of that galloping puritanism that seems to have overtaken our times? No smoke, no meat, no sugar, no salt, no perfume. No fun.

This is serious, says Louise Kosta, board member and spokeswoman for the 3,000-member, Atlanta-based Human Ecology Action League. For years, Kosta says, the league devoted its attention to the dangers of pesticides, dangers now acknowledged by all.

In the last few years, however, the league has turned its attention to scents and fragrances.

"There are some who find them unpleasant and intrusive," she says. "And there are those who are actually allergic. Then there are those who are chemically sensitive, who respond to the compounds in perfume. That's one side of it.

"The other side is becoming better-known now. You can actually induce changes in people by exposing them to certain fragrances. In Japan, they were able to get a measurable increase in productivity from workers by piping in lemon and lavender. In London, they were pumping fragrance into the subway to reduce anxiety. They said it was a promising experiment.

"There's some evidence fragrances can alter brain waves."

Nonsense, says the perfume industry.

"There is no evidence, no scientific data at all linking perfumes and fragrances to public health problems," says Annette Greer, executive director of the Fragrance Foundation, which represents the $4.8 billion fragrance industry.

"We know there are people allergic to everything carpeting, perfumes, their own perspiration."

But allergies are one thing, a public health hazard something else. "But they (perfumes) are not like cigarettes, where there is proven evidence they are harmful."

Much of the evidence of the effects of fragrances is anecdotal. But, for someone who has gone through one of them, the anecdotes are compelling.

"I had a violent reaction to a perfume sample in 'Vogue' magazine just last year," says Gloria Rodriguez, director of media relations for San Francisco General Hospital.

Rodriguez was flipping through the pages when she came upon one of those ads that invite the reader to peel back a strip of paper and sample the perfume.

A few years ago, such ads offered scratch 'n' sniff patches for perfume sampling. But the U.S. Postal Service regulations and several state laws now require that perfume samples be "encapsulated" in microscopic bubbles, and that the sample be sealed so that the reader has to physically open it, like an envelope.

Which is just what Rodriguez did. Moreover, she says, she moistened the sample and dabbed it on her neck and wrist.

"Within the next day actually, 18 hours later I started getting puffiness on my face. Within 36 hours I had red and inflamed blotches on my face, neck, chest and even on my breasts. The itching sensation went on for seven days."

"It took more than two weeks for it to go away."

Two years ago, a woman with asthma spent 11 days in a New York hospital, condition critical, after a clerk at Bloomingdale's sprayed her with an unwanted perfume sample. She sued the store and collected $75,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

Many magazines will remove perfume samples at the subscriber's request, says Michael Pashby, a senior vice president of the Magazine Publishers of America. Among them are Mirabella, Metropolitan Home, Architectural Digest, European Travel & Life and New York.

"My understanding is that a very small number of requests have been received," he adds, "perhaps in the hundreds."

Nevertheless, magazine publishers are working with the perfume and printing industries on ways to keep fragrances safely locked up in the samples until the reader releases them.

The present system pull the strip to release the scent was devised in response to proposed legislation in California and New York and was phased in last year.

"No one wants to see these samples go away entirely," Pashy says, "but the last thing we want to do is offend anybody."

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