The air belongs to everyone. But fragrances in today’s world are invading our air space more than ever before. They are as formidable a barrier as tobacco smoke, and are especially injurious to those with disabilities. Scented products contain many of the same toxic chemicals that are in tobacco smoke. These include carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting compounds that are also respiratory irritants. Even essential oils, though “natural” to begin with, generate hazardous solvents in the distilling process.
Fragranced products are implicated in asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature deaths. But long and short-term exposures can actually cause asthma, Chronic obstructionary pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, birth defects and other disabilities. It is no surprise that the rampant use of scented products coincides with skyrocketing asthma rates in children and the alarming rise in all disabilities, including autism.
Fragrance chemicals in the air prevent many people from accessing public spaces and participating in public events. Outdoors, scented laundry products routinely contaminate neighborhood air through laundry vents, interfering with the ability to be outdoors. Where is the justice when asthmatics and others are forced to retreat indoors due to fragrances, when they have a right to be walking on city streets or gardening on their own property?
Indoors, children with asthma and other disabilities are required to spend their entire week days in school, breathing noxious fumes from scented laundry products and other fragranced products on many others. It is extremely challenging to breathe and perform at their best under these conditions. Shouldn’t true clean air should be the rule for all students and for all teachers? The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that students are entitled to a “safe learning environment” in the schools. Yet little or nothing has been done to accommodate those with fragrance sensitivities or breathing disabilities. The Minneapolis Teachers Contract states the need to reduce fragrance use, due to growing numbers of students with sensitivities. But teachers are often afraid to complain about their own need for clean air, for fear they could lose their jobs. It is urgent that these blatant examples of discrimination be remedied.
Two recent ADA settlements offer hopeful precedents. The City of Detroit agreed to pay a city planner $100,000 and post notices in city workplaces regarding chemical sensitivity, as an accommodation. And a chemically sensitive Detroit disc jockey received $815,000 in settlement from her production company for allowing another employee to harm her health and making it difficult to work, by wearing perfume.
We must do everything possible to restore environment justice for students and others with disabilities.
We must demand that our schools, work places and hospitals restore the basic civil right to breathe clean air as an accommodation for all people. We must press for fragrance free policies and fragrance free spaces where people can breathe freer. This should not be difficult, because fragrance-free alternatives are now readily available at grocery stores, Walgreens drugstores and Target stores. See www.takebacktheair.com for more information, and to connect with others working on these issues.
Organizer, Take Back the Air Minneapolis