Chemically sensitive raise a stink over odors, innuendoes Something in the Air

June 03, 1995|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Staff Writer

When David Pugh's mother-in-law used to visit, he got sick. His stomach churned, eyes watered and head pounded seconds after this stylish Italian woman clutched him in her arms. It wasn't her display of affection that sent him racing to the medicine chest; it was her Liz Taylor perfume.

After years of sniffing and saying nothing, Mr. Pugh, an allergy sufferer, has become an activist for his respiratory rights -- even if it means confronting relatives about their grooming habits.

"I feel like a bloodhound sometimes -- picking up scents that aren't offensive to most people," says Mr. Pugh, 37, a graphic designer who lives in Hamilton. "But I have every right to breathe fragrance-free air."

Empowered by the victory of nonsmokers in reclaiming their airspace, sneezers and chemically sensitive alike are lobbying to limit secondhand scents. Although there's no surgeon general supporting their cause and no mystique (yet) to giving up the perfume bottle, this contingent holds steadfast to its desire to make schools, churches and workplaces devoid of everything from L'Air du Temps to Pine-Sol.

Impaired by even a whiff of aromatic underarm deodorant, ridiculed by their healthier friends, they have grown tired of dodging a minefield of smells. But their opposition in this battle is formidable: Doctors continue to debate whether the most serious condition associated with perfume intolerance -- multiple chemical sensitivity/environmental illness (MCS) -- even exists and research expands on how scents can do everything from promote relaxation to reduce migraines.

In some quarters, concerns about cologne are being taken seriously. The EEOC has started a separate category to chart workplace complaints related to multiple chemical sensitivity, a condition triggered by chemical exposure that can bring on headaches, fevers and other symptoms. Since late 1993, the group has received more than 100 complaints a year.

Two years ago, the University of Minnesota's School of Social Work began asking students, faculty and staff to refrain from wearing any scented products in the building. And closer to home, Stony Run Friends Meeting House now offers a scent-free service on Sunday mornings to accommodate worshipers who can't tolerate cologne.

On some level, it's a clash of personal freedoms: Does one person's right to douse himself with Old Spice exceed another's right to breathe scentless air?

"It's like this," says Carol S. Petzold, a Montgomery County legislator and allergy sufferer: "I have every right to swing my arms, but I don't have the right to hit you in the face with them."

During the most recent General Assembly session, she wrote to other House members after leaving a committee meeting because of an overly cologned colleague. In her letter, she explained her allergy problem and asked for their cooperation.

Although she says reaction was positive, she endured plenty of jokes. Her request -- along with the smoking ban -- earned the session the nickname "The Year That Smelled."

The poster for the Legislative Follies, a parody by legislators, featured a perfume bottle with a line through it. And during the show, Ms. Petzold made a cameo appearance: She jumped from her seat and walked toward the stage with a 5-foot-long sign that read "Fragrance Free Zone."

Louise Kosta, spokeswoman for the Human Action Ecology League, an environmental group in Atlanta, encourages people to confront their oppressors but acknowledges the news isn't always well received.

"We don't believe fragrance is something that people are entitled to use as much as they want, whenever they want, as often as they want," she says. "If a friend of yours had a great blob of tar on her nose, you'd tell her. But when you go up and say, 'I'm sorry, but I can't stand the way you smell,' people take it personally."

Many of the scent-conscious are opting for a more tactful approach.

Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator Theatre, has responded to stronger fumes with barbed humor. "I have been known to get up before the show and say, "OK, who dumped the patchouli on their head?" he says. "The art scene types -- they bring in the strongest scents. With them, it's become a form of personal statement: Love me, love my scent."

He believes the same bad manners that allow people to blare their car radios lets them lavish on the cologne. "Fundamentally, it's a form of rudeness," he says. "People have lost a sense of what it's like to go out in public."

No escape

Public places don't pose the only roadblocks. For Mr. Pugh, getting the mail used to be an exercise in misery, since bills and magazines were filled with fragrance strips. He recently gave up his subscription to Rolling Stone after the magazine ignored his written requests for a fragrance-free issue.

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