Poisoning by putrid perfume

Every transit rider who has the unfortunate experience of getting sandwiched between the guy who must have eaten a clove of garlic for breakfast and the 13-year-old who hasn’t yet discovered deodorant knows transit rides are often an olfactory adventure.

The Calgary Herald’s front page news story “Perfume gets rider booted to back of bus, Joel Kom, Sat., March 24” and the follow-up story “Perfume raises second bus stink, Joel Kom, Tues., March 27” addressed odourous transit riders by recounting the story of 26-year old Natalie Kuhn, a “victim” who was refused service not once, but twice, on her morning bus ride due to an excessive amount of perfume. What Kuhn and many other perfume-wearing perpetrators don’t realize is that the true victims in this situation are the passengers and bus driver, not the perfume-wearer.

Though several spritzes of perfume may seem to make perfume perpetrators smell delicious, for people with scent sensitivities, sitting next to a heavily-perfumed passenger can turn a regular transit ride into torture.

For scent-sensitive individuals, strong fragrances can trigger asthma attacks, nausea, panic attacks, loss of muscle control, migraines and general discomfort. Though it is debated, some doctors have even given this condition a name: multiple-chemical sensitivity. Whether given an official name or not, scent-sensitivities are real and any artificial perfumey smell is only exacerbated by the hot and crowded quarters of Calgary Transit during peak hours.

This scent sensitivity goes beyond transit in a world steeped in artificial scents. Besides the obvious perfume, there is also scented soap, lotion, make-up, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, hand sanitizer, air freshener, hairspray and laundry detergent. Consumers are hard-pressed to find unscented varieties of everyday products.

This can turn normal public activities like going to a concert, the movies or even class into a nightmare for someone who is sensitive to scents.

Some public spaces have realized the pervasiveness of scents is bothersome and have declared themselves scent-free in the interest of scent-sensitive employees and patrons. The University of Calgary even has its own Scent-Free Awareness Program, which asks individuals to choose scent-free products whenever available for the courtesy of those
around them.

Given such policies, perfume lovers will quickly claim their freedom is threatened and call upon the classic slippery slope, arguing that a ban on perfume could mean a ban on other common workplace scents like garlicy food, flowers or even coffee.

Granted, it is impossible (and silly) to ban smells altogether, but if people must wear perfume they should be aware of any potential close quarters, such as a transit ride or a classroom, and put on their perfume after they have exited such situations. Better yet, the Scented Products Education and Information Association of Canada proposes that everyone maintain an acceptable “scent-circle,” meaning that perfume wearers should keep
their scent within arm’s length.

This seems completely acceptable; the point of perfume is to provide a tantalizing whiff, not an overpowering brick wall. Perfume purveyors exercise respect when riding transit or going to any public event. Avoiding setting off a scent-sensitive person’s asthma attack or triggering a migraine is as simple as a single spray of perfume, rather than two or three.

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