San Francisco, in removing the reek from government, raises a stink

March 26, 1993|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Contributing Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- To John Cailleau, this sophisticated city by the bay is not a panoply of all that's chic but instead a dreary landscape clouded by perfume, some expensive, some tawdry, all harmful, he believes, to his health.

Navigating around town with a dust mask over his mouth or hanging at the ready around his neck, he has heard the comments that imply he is in the grip of "real or imagined hysteria," he said. But he stands by his experience. His health began to fail dramatically, he said, on the day in 1990 that he sat beside a woman drenched in perfume.

In other parts of the country, being the butt of jokes might have been all Mr. Cailleau could expect. In California, though, where every cause has its constituents, he has found a group of like-minded individuals who hope to publicize nationally what they consider the health dangers caused by the chemicals found in perfumes.

This month Mr. Cailleau and others like him scored a victory when the mayor's office here agreed to uphold a policy, believed by its proponents to be the first in the nation, that requests that all government public meetings be fragrance-free.

"I'd call it a beginning," said Mr. Cailleau, 54, who says that years of working with solvents as an artist, exposure to new carpet fumes and his violent reaction to perfume led in 1990 to a diagnosis of multiple chemical sensitivity.

He may have been particularly susceptible to chemical scents because his immune system has been weakened by the AIDS virus, he said. Burning sinuses and eyes and clouded thinking have rendered him functionally disabled, he said.

Hailing the rights of the disabled as outlined in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, he said: "If government entities are required to provide access to everyone, it should apply to people with multiple chemical sensitivities."

"In five years we're going to find out this is like the second-hand smoke issue," said Paul Imperiale, the mayor's disability coordinator. While the fragrance-free meeting policy was quietly adopted here Nov. 30, 1992, it has reeked of controversy in city hall ever since the perfume industry sought to have it overturned beginning in January.

The Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association in Washington, which represents the major perfume companies, made its presence known by hiring a public relations firm to do political intelligence and by retaining counsel at the prestigious law firm of McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen.

More than 100 Avon representatives were rallied into action and wrote to express their outrage at the policy. The powerful national disability rights community promptly mailed and faxed 200 letters in support of the policy.

The fragrance industry argues that contrary to the spirit of

inclusion intended by the disability act, fragrance-free public meetings would become less accessible to the general public. The right of individuals to wear perfume is being impinged upon, they said.

And the industry has mocked the policy as unenforceable. "Do we have a sniff patrol?" asked Irene L. Malbin, vice president of public affairs for the fragrance association.

But Mr. Imperiale argues that the policy is only a request that people not wear scented products, not a law or an ordinance, and is not being actively enforced. "We don't sniff people at the door," he said. Since the policy has been in effect, said Mr. Imperiale, there have been no complaints from the general public. And there appears to be room for defiance. Angela Alioto, president of the Board of Supervisors, has stated that she will continue to wear her signature fragrance, Anais Anais, unless someone complains to her personally.

While those with multiple chemical sensitivity say that the San Francisco policy is only a beginning to their bid for access under the Americans with Disabilities Act, David M. Balabanian, the fragrance industry's lawyer, stated that the disability act legislation specifically does not include them.

And singling out perfume as an irritant is absurd, he said, given the wide range of substances that affect people with chemical sensitivities including exhaust, smog, carpets, dry cleaning and plastics.

"This whole conversation is a little unreal because we're living in the midst of a chemical soup," he said.

Some cities, struggling to draw up compliance plans to meet the often vague disability act requirements, seem to be taking the tack that a voluntary fragrance-free policy is easier than risking a lawsuit. Santa Clara and Santa Cruz, south of San Francisco, are now considering fragrance-free meeting policies. And last month, Oakland, across the bay, adopted in principle a fragrance-free meeting policy similar to San Francisco's.

Julia Kendall of the Environmental Health Network of Larkspur, Calif., claims there are "several hundred" environmentally ill members in the San Francisco Bay Area,

Ms. Kendall, who said she became ill after being exposed to malathion sprayed in 1990 to kill the Mediterranean fruit fly in Los Angeles, said that the reactions of the most sensitive individuals to the chemicals in perfume should be a warning to all.

"I'd like to see a boycott of all fragrance products until the fragrance industry can produce products that are safe for us to breathe," she said.

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