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Think Twice About Wearing a Fragrance to Work
By Maire Farrington
Strolling and shopping in Noe Valley are a breeze for most people. But for Grand View Avenue resident Amy Marsh -- and for those who share multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), often called environmental illness -- running errands on 24th Street can pose a real challenge.
"My daughter would love to go into Just for Fun every time we walk down 24th Street, but I can't handle it -- they've got so many scented candles," laments Marsh. Dashing into Real Food Company to buy her unscented shampoo also can be risky, when it means standing in line behind people wearing perfume.
Even the playground at Noe Courts is off limits. "It's a real haven for scented babysitters," she says. "There are lots of times when I'll go walking down there with Paul [her 1-year-old son], but I won't stop because of the fragrance."
Marsh makes special arrangements to have her hair cut early on a Sunday morning, before clients arrive for chemical treatments such as perms and haircoloring.
For over eight years, she's also worked out of her home. She knows that in most office settings, a few whiffs of Obsession worn by a co-worker are all it would take to trigger symptoms of "dizziness, disorientation, being unable to breathe," says Marsh. "It can even become an asthma attack if it's strong enough."
This summer, after completing a nonprofit management program at the University of San Francisco, Marsh, 42, founded Working Fragrance Free (WFF), an organization whose goal is "to promote fragrance-free workplaces as healthy, desirable options for everybody, including those with chemical sensitivities."
Multiple chemical sensitivity is defined as the inability to tolerate "common" chemicals and fragrances without becoming ill. Symptoms range from severe headaches, nausea, and dizziness to extreme fatigue and neurological damage. For many with MCS, trying to work in an environment free of chemicals is a losing battle, Marsh says. Far too often, the employer's attitude is, "Put up or shut up."
Her group Working Fragrance Free plans to confront the situation head on. "We're going to be working with both employers and employees to develop programs, materials, and events, and try to get the point across that there are many otherwise able-bodied people who just cannot work or go where they'd choose to go, because of fragrances."
Marsh points out that most colognes and aftershaves are "optional, cosmetic things that you can use or not use," and they can still be worn in private settings.
Of course, wearing perfume is out of the question for Marsh. She first began experiencing adverse reactions to chemicals in 1989.
"Perfume started to give me terrible headaches, and that was the first inkling," Marsh recalls. At the same time, she was working in the furniture refinishing business she co-founded with her husband, Steve, 44. "A nice toxic business," she jokes. Aware of the hazards of oil-based paints and solvents, Marsh wore a respirator (protective face mask) most of the time, and stopped working on site when she became pregnant with her daughter Cecily, now 71/2.
But her chemical sensitivities continued. "There was a period of time when I was just sick all the time and I didn't know why. Depression was part of it too," Marsh says. Unable to return to the hands-on aspect of the refinishing business, she began working from home in an administrative capacity. Homeopathic treatment eventually alleviated the depression and helped Marsh regain some of her former stamina, but she must still keep her life as chemical-free as possible.
Marsh's interest in forming Working Fragrance Free was sparked, she says, by "knowing that I can't go out and get a job any place I want to. But the thing that pushed me over the edge was the fact that my mother is now out on disability because she had to leave a job, simply because of fragrance."
Her mother, Chloe Milne, 61, had been working for 41/2 months at a business collection agency when she became ill from breathing in the fragrances worn by co-workers. Despite a letter from her doctor and a formal request that cited the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), "she couldn't get them to accommodate her or work with her," Marsh says. "Finally she just had to leave.
"I think that a lot of people have simply left their jobs, rather than fight for a safe environment," Marsh asserts. One woman, she notes, went so far as to pursue a lawsuit, citing the ADA, but dropped it when her lawyer informed her that she would be responsible for the employer's legal fees if she lost the case. Those who stick it out, she says, often end up "having to carry an oxygen tank and face mask to the office each day."
Marsh admits it can be difficult for the average person to understand why some people are so much more dramatically affected by fragrances and common chemicals than others.
"Some people have a history of asthma or allergies -- they've already got a weakened immune system," Marsh explains. "Other people are more resilient. Maybe these people just haven't been exposed as much. Maybe these people are going to be affected five years from now, but they're not right now."
Marsh points out that MCS seems to run in families. "It's actually not just my mother and me. I have at least one sister who's sensitive, and I think my other sister has got to be, but she hasn't admitted it yet. She's described experiences that tell me she has sensitivities to a number of things, but she doesn't want to deal with them. And I have an uncle who has started to have problems with perfumes.
"I don't know the relationship between inherited tendencies toward allergies and asthma, but it would seem to me that there is that link, because they're always asking about this in family histories when you go to see a doctor. It just stands to reason that if you have a predisposition to allergies or asthma, you could go over whatever that thin line is, into the realm of the chemically sensitive."
Just what are people with MCS reacting to when they get sick from fragrances? "I would say you've basically got a nice container of paint without the pigment, and you're slapping it on your skin," Marsh says, noting that some of the chemicals used in perfumes are the same as those used in oil-based paints and solvents.
"And if it were a can of paint, you'd be getting information about how toxic it is and how to treat it very, very carefully. But the mixing of fragrance is classified as an art, so the fragrance industry is not regulated by the FDA. They're free to put anything they want -- and they do -- into this stuff, and you'd better believe that it's absorbed through your skin, as well as through your respiratory system."
Marsh finds that fear and misunderstanding of chemical sensitivities extend beyond the workplace. "Some people just kind of back away and don't want to talk to me anymore once the issue comes up," she says. "If I've worn a respirator, of course I look really different and weird, and people don't know why that is. So you tend to be treated like a modern-day leper. And people tend to think you're nutty or neurotic, or you have nothing better to do with your life. They just kind of hope you'll go away and quit talking about it."
Fortunately for those who are struggling for the right to work in a fragrance-free environment, Amy Marsh has only just begun to talk about it.
Information on Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
If you would like to find out more about dealing with chemical sensitivities in the workplace, you can write to Noe Valley resident Amy Marsh at the address below. Marsh suggests that you may also want to check out a couple of other related organizations, as well as a book that addresses how to handle your child's allergies and sensitivities at school and at home.
Working Fragrance Free
P.O. Box 460461
San Francisco, CA 94146-0461
This group, founded by Amy Marsh, helps the fragrance-sensitive worker achieve effective accommodation through workplace education, information, events, and a newletter.
Environmental Health Network
P.O. Box 1155
Larkspur, CA 94977
Provides information/referrals, newsletter, peer support, and monthly meetings.
Independent Living Resource Center
70 10th St. #409
San Francisco, CA 94103
Offers legal advocacy for employment, housing, and access to public service for the disabled. Also provides information, referrals, and a newsletter.
1307 Castro St.
San Francisco, CA 94114
Carries the book Is This Your Child's World? How You Can Fix the Schools and Homes That Are Making Your Child Sick, by Doris J. Rapp, M.D. (Bantam, 1996, $24.95).