In the beginning it’s like a science fiction movie. I’ve always likened it to it. You know, “Is this real? Can this be actually happening? Chemical sensitivity is a very real, physical disease. I could possibly liken it to being allergic to a cat. And having a cat rubbed in your face every time you go somewhere. Patients get dismissed time and again and again. That they’re simply told it’s in their head. When you first start asking the questions, “What is in this bottle that is making me sick?” It opens up this incredible Pandora’s Box. It’s very similar to tobacco smoke. The fragrance problem is really one of what I call, ‘second hand scent’. The feeling is as if the eyeballs have suddenly got a bit too big for their sockets. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s how it feels. Best selling author, Kate Grenville experienced years of mysterious symptoms which she always put down to stress. It did take me a very long time to put two and two together and I can remember the day it happened. Somebody came back from overseas with a bottle of, duty free, something or other. Put it on and immediately I got this ripper of a headache. And it was the moment which I thought, “OK, there is a cause and effect thing happening here.” My life is now completely shaped by this notion of fragrance. When I meet friends, I no longer embrace them. Public transport is a nightmare. I can no longer shop. I can’t even go to the hairdresser and get a hair cut. In a million tiny ways, I can no longer live a normal life and I’m someone with actually quite a mild version of this. This problem of adverse health effects from exposure to common chemical products like fragrance products is an epidemic. Professor Anne Steinemann has been researching chemical sensitivity for 25 years. Her latest research found that one in three Australians report health products from fragranced products. For some, the symptoms can be severe. An estimated one million Australians have a condition known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivities or MCS. For someone with MCS, an exposure to an air freshener can cause them to have a seizure and lose consciousness And yet the grotesque thing is they’re called ‘air fresheners’, when in fact they are kind of ‘air toxifiers’. At Air Wick, we know the power of that first wiff of your favourite scent. If I’m exposed to air fresheners, I get headaches that feel like my brain is stinging. As soon as the chemical hits her, you can see her face just start to go red straight away. I am housebound on the orders of my doctor because the only way to avoid getting sick is to avoid these chemicals which is to stay home. And that’s very, very lonely and frustrating. A friend of mine with chemical sensitivities took his own life due to isolation and the frustration involved in trying to create a safe living space. Michellina and Dan are building this house to be a safe haven from fragrances and other chemicals. People will come through this door. They will then change into safe clothes, so that they can enter our house without being a risk to me. On the rare occasions that Michellina does leave the house, it’s with this – an oxygen tank. Sorry I have a medical condition and I need something that has no fragrance or perfume in it. It’s a moisturiser, yeah I can’t go in because they sell fragrances. Like even here, my eyes are stinging and I’m wearing a mask and oxygen. It’s not what we understand as a normal life. MCS can be extremely debilitating. Dr Christabelle Yeoh is a GP, who sees dozens of patients with MCS. But most doctors don’t recognise it. And attempts to have MCS officially classified as a disease in Australia have been rejected by medical authorities. Patients are told they just have to see a psychologist or psychiatrist because of their strange symptoms that don’t match up. A medical diagnosis don’t match up to one in the system. In 2010, a federal government report recommended standardised criteria be developed to diagnose MCS. But in the years since, it seems that little has changed. In a statement to The Feed, a spokeperson for the Federal Department of Health said, “The symptoms of MCS are heterogeneous and non-specific and there are no validated diagnostic tests for the condition and so the Department of Health does not collect data on its prevalence. Nobody expects a miracle cure, but we would like to be believed and understood. There’s plenty in the literature now to show that these chemicals are really adversely affecting our bodies from our immune systems to our mitochondria to our nervous system. When you first start asking questions, “What is in this bottle is making me sick? it opens up this incredible Pandora’s Box. That one word fragrance could cover anything up to a couple of hundred different chemicals. There is no law anywhere in the world that requires a fragrance to disclose any or all of its chemicals. But for the most part, they all contain some sort of petrochemicals. Johnson’s Baby Cologne is now in three familiar fragrances. Heaven, Powder Mist and Morning Dew. Neda Nematollahi is a PHD student, working with Professor Steinemann. I found hazardous air pollutants such as formaldehyde coming out of these everyday fragrance products. If these chemicals like formaldehyde and acetaldehyde are coming out of the smoke stack or tail pipe they’d be regulated, but if they’re coming out of an air freshener they’re not. The fragrance industry is self regulating. Talk about putting the wolf in charge of the sheep. I was absolutely shocked when I realised that the very people who make fragrance are well aware that it could have bad health effects. When you look on the website of the International Fragrance Association, they actually have a list of substances which they are using in fragrances which they know either create allergies, give people headaches like me, neurological problems or very commonly respiratory problems – coughing and sneezing. The Feed contacted the International Fragrance Association for comment but did not receive a response. And the Australian industry peak body, Accord declined to provide an interview or statement for this story. The sources of these problems, the products, are major industries. In 2016, the global fragrance market was worth than 50 billion dollars. The power of the fragrance industry is overwhelming. All those terrible ads particularly directed at men saying you won’t get a girl unless you spray your underarms with this stuff. Frankly, give me BO any day rather than a headache. Ultimately it’s government that has to push the chemical industry that it needs to be in line with long term health and safety and it’s not. In the absence of tighter regulation of these products, some are calling for work places and public spaces to go fragrance free. Just like cigarette smoke, I really see that increasingly there is the adoption of fragrance-free policies just like smoke-free policies. There have been a few test cases in Australia. Where workers have taken their employers to court saying “I have the right to work in an office that doesn’t make me sick.” You want to recover, you want to find a way out of this way of living, cause it can be hell sometimes. If that doesn’t happen I’d like to find a way to accept the limitations of my life. And find joy anyway. People with multiple chemical sensitivities can be thought of as canaries in a coal mine. I see them as a warning sign for the whole population. We’re human beings, we’re all chemically sensitive to some extent. The rest of you may not be immediately affected by this but the fact is, there’s methane in this mine. Let’s get out.