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Frequently Asked Questions - Scent Reduction at Southlake
If you are unfamiliar with scent-free programs, you probably have a number of questions. The following are some commonly asked questions we have tried to answer about scents and scent-free campaigns.

What can I do to prevent harming people affected by scents?

You can adopt scent-free practices by avoiding perfumes, aftershaves, colognes, and scented lotions, and opting for 'fragrance-free', 'scent-free', or 'unscented' versions of personal care products such as hand and body lotions, soaps, hair products, and deodorants. Many scent-free personal care products can be found at your local supermarket and pharmacy as well as specialty stores throughout the area.

Is this a real problem? Perfumes and scents have been used by people since the dawn of time.

While there is much that we do not understand about scented products, there is no doubt that some people do have adverse reaction to scented products when exposed to them. 
What is the difference between an allergy and a sensitivity?

Physicians and the general public often use these words differently. An allergy is a condition in which exposure to material prompts the body's immune system to respond inappropriately. One can have a skin or a respiratory system allergy. For many people, the workings of the human immune system are a mystery and they sometimes report that they are "allergic" to something when they are adversely affected by something in their environment.

The situation regarding sensitivities is even more complicated. Some people have been coming forward to report that they are adversely affected by chemical exposures in their environment. There is much we do not understand about the problems that these people experience. Because they report a wide range of adverse impacts - often following exposures that most people tolerate without difficulty - many of the suggested names have included the terms "sensitivity" or "hypersensitivity".

I know a few people who have allergies to certain foods or suffer from hay fever, but I don't know anyone who has a reaction from coming into contact with scented products. How real is this concern?

It is very real. It's well documented that the incidence of asthma is on the increase, especially in young people. In fact, there are many environmental illnesses (illnesses that are triggered by things in our environment). Among the best known are spring and late summer allergies to the pollen from flowers, grasses, or trees.

Asthma and migraine headaches have multiple triggers including chemical exposure. Asthma attacks can be set off by pollen, moulds, extreme cold, dust, and exposure to chemicals including paint and perfume. Bright light, loud noise, foods such as chocolate, a change in barometric pressure, exposure to paint, and fragranced cleaning and personal care products can all trigger migraine attacks. So it is well known that exposure to materials in the environment can cause illness.

There are also people who suffer from sensitivity to multiple chemical triggers. This condition is now called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS).

What is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)?

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity is an acquired illness characterized by severe reaction to exposures easily tolerated by most individuals. Common triggers include volatile organic compounds of the sort often found in paints, cleaning products, perfumes and fragranced personal care products, gasoline and similar products, as well as such naturally-occurring substances as citrus oils and turpenes in softwood. Reactions range from sinus congestion and watery eyes through more serious reactions such as temporary rashes, flu-like symptoms with headache, nausea, and muscle or joint pain, to debilitating reactions including migraine and asthma attack.

There is much that we do not understand about the condition. However, there are many theories about the cause of this illness.   While the research continues, the only reliable way for MCS sufferers to avoid painful and dangerous reactions is to avoid as many triggers as possible. While people with MCS are responsible for ensuring that their home environments are as free as possible from chemical triggers, they require the cooperation of others to make their classrooms, workplaces and recreational sites safe.

Asthma, migraines and allergies are fairly common health problems, but I've never heard of MCS. If the origin is unknown, then is it a real medical illness?

MCS is recognized as an Environmental Sensitivity by the Canadian Human Rights Commission. A great deal of work regarding this class of disability was conducted in Nova Scotia during the 1990s.

The Nova Scotia Government's Advisory Committee on Environmental Hypersensitivity concluded that MCS is an illness. In the Committee's 1997 report, members concluded that some people are severely symptomatic to the point of incapacity and there are many instances where this condition has been catastrophic both economically and in the personal lives of people with MCS and their families. A copy of the Advisory Committee's Report is available online.

Some people with MCS cannot work or  take part in the daily routines that most of us take for granted such as shopping or visiting any place where people will be wearing scented products such as restaurants, bars, movie theatres or concert venues.
To date the diagnosis of MCS is not universally recognized by governmental agencies, but the environmental sensitivities are.

Dealing with scents is a good idea, but what about smoking?

Southlake has made great strides to reduce exposure to cigarette smoke over the 20 years since the no-smoking policy was first adopted. The current policy prohibits smoking anywhere on hospital property. Smoking is a serious public health issue,  but Southlake and other Ontario hospitals are making significant efforts to create a safe and healthful environment by acting on both the smoking and scent issues.

What happens if I don't adopt scent-free practices?

You are taking the risk of possibly causing harm, perhaps even severe pain and discomfort, to someone around you; this harm could easily be avoided. Second, when employees or students are absent from work or learning because of illness - asthma, allergies, migraine, MCS - there is a cost. Illness means lost productivity and lost opportunities for learning. Finally, you undermine Southlake's efforts to meet its moral and legal obligations to provide an environment which supports all members of the hospital community.

I would resent being told, or feel uncomfortable telling others, what kind of personal care product to use. Isn't the request to adopt scent-free practices intrusive on the individual's right to wear whatever he or she wants?

It may initially seem that asking people to use scent-free personal care products touches on a personal and private matter. When the scents from these products affect the health and well-being of other people, it is no longer simply a a matter of private concern. The goal of this awareness campaign is not to target people personally or to criticize people's preferences. This campaign is designed to prevent real harm to real people.

Why should I adopt scent-free practices when there isn't anyone in my unit or the area I work who suffers from an allergy or sensitivity? The perfume I wear and the scented products I use aren't bothering anyone.

Chemical-sensitive individuals often suffer in silence.   You might come in contact with such an individual during the day - in the cafeteria, on the unit, in a meeting, at a concert, in the classroom, or in the library.   This individual has to approach the person wearing a scent which triggers their reaction in order to tell them to refrain from wearing the scent.  The adoption of scent-free practices reduces the chances of  a chemical-sensitive individual of having a reaction.

If we ask people to avoid using scented products, perhaps they will stop using personal care products altogether. Poor hygiene and strong body odour might be the result. Surely we want to avoid this?

This is not the likely consequence of adopting scent-free practices. There are websites that offer more than 100 alternatives to scented personal care products, from the most essential (soap, shampoo, deodorant), to the additional products we use to make us look good and feel good (body wash, hand cream, body lotion, hairspray, gel, and more).

A good list of scent-free and unscented products is available from Dalhousie University here.

Don't I have to spend a lot of time and money running around looking for scent-free products?

Going scent-free may not be as difficult as you  think. While specialty store items may be more expensive, many of these items are of high quality and are effective in smaller quantities than the scented products. As a result, while the price may be higher, the cost-per-use can be comparable.

In addition to the specialty store products, many brand name personal care items come in 'scent-free', 'fragrance-free' or 'unscented' versions. These are available at your local supermarket and pharmacies on the shelf next to their scented versions. As well, some of the large chains have bulk or natural products sections which sell many specialty store items at a lower price.

The products section provides alternatives to scented personal care products that will appeal to all tastes, budgets and schedules.

Of course, it is easy and cost-free to simply not wear unnecessary perfume or cologne at work.

What's the difference between products labelled 'fragrance-free', 'scent-free', or 'unscented'?

These terms are used virtually without restrictions. They may only mean that the product has less scent than the scented version of the same product from the manufacturer. Therefore, these labels can offer no guarantee that a product will not trigger a reaction in someone who is chemically sensitive. Nonetheless, choosing products with these labels is still safer than choosing the scented versions. While it is possible that someone could have a reaction to your personal care product even if you've taken all precautions to avoid this outcome, it is important to be prepared to react in a positive way, should this situation ever arise.

Another source of indoor air pollution is from exhaust fumes from idling truck and car engines near ventilation systems. What is Southlake doing about that problem?

To protect air quality, notices are posted asking motorists to shut off their engines. The hospital also works with firms that provide services to the hospital, York Region Transit, and drivers of hospital and EMS vehicles, to try to prevent exhaust of large vehicles from entering Southalke buildings.

What about the use of dangerous cleaning and maintenance chemicals in Southlake buildings?

Southlake has dramatically altered its use of custodial and maintenance chemicals. On the custodial side, the hospital has systematically replaced problematic chemicals with less scented and generally safer products as long as they have met our Infection Prevention and Control requirements. The use of cold-water chemicals for cleaning means less vapours are released into the air, thus decreasing the amount of exposure.

If you have concerns about any particular product, contact Facilities Operations or the Occupational Health and Safety Department.

This FAQ and the materials for the "We Share the Air" initiative have been provided through the kind permission of Dalhousie University.

Southlake Regional Health Centre
596 Davis Drive, Newmarket, Ontario   L3Y 2P9
Tel: 905-895-4521   |   TTY: 905-952-3062
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