Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The smell of the righteous

It's becoming an unfortunate necessity here to have to assure readers that the articles I link to aren't spoofs or wind-ups. But with Poe's Law in mind, I invite you to enjoy this op-ed from the New York Daily News:

Recently, I was seated on a crowded bus to Manhattan from the New Paltz area, where I live. At one of the stops, as the procession of new riders snaked up the aisle, I tried to predict which of them would take the seat next to mine. I silently prayed: "Please don't let it be a stinker," a strategy that sometimes works. Other times, not so much.

After craning his neck to see if there was another empty seat further back, a thirtyish man dressed in business attire parked himself next to me. In an instant, I was gasping for air.

Ah, the joys of public transport. From time to time you will find yourself trapped with the hygienically challenged. But there is more to this case than that, for the writer has convinced herself that she is allergic to smells she doesn't like, therefore she is a victim, therefore something must be done.

It was a multifarious assault, a combination of body odor and antibacterial soap, with top notes of cologne. Apparently this man was a sweater; soap alone was no match for his stench. He thus found it necessary to douse himself in a musky fragrance, as if two olfactory wrongs made a right.

As my eyes started to tear and the back of my throat began to close, I stood up to assess whether there was a different seat I could relocate to. But all the seats were taken. I was stuck.

This being New York in 2011, I'm sure you can guess where this is heading:

If it were up to me, no one would ever wear perfume, cologne or flowery powders - the scourge of allergic people like me who just about go into anaphylactic shock within two blocks of a Sephora. I would never emerge from hugs with friends smelling like (and choking on) their favorite fragrance; my couch wouldn't stink for days after they visited me.

Ok. First off, this sounds more like a body odour issue than a "perfume, cologne or flowery powders" issue. For that you have my sympathies, but, on the other hand, try growing up. Secondly, why don't you tell your friends about your delicate little nose rather than whining about it in a newspaper column? Thirdly—and most importantly—you do not have a perfume allergy because there's no such thing. Or, more precisely, there is such a thing but it's not what you've described. Perfumes can cause allergic contact eczema but only by applying them to the skin.

And what does the National Allergy Research Center recommend for people who suffer from this particular allergy?

For people with perfume allergy:

If you have severe perfume allergy or wish to fully guard against it, avoid using perfumed products. The easiest way to find out if a product is perfumed is to smell it.

If the mere smell of perfume was likely to cause anaphylactic shock, it seems unlikely that the NARC would tell sufferers to do just that. What you've experienced, insofar as it deserves a description, is distaste followed by psychosomatic symptoms induced by wrong self-diagnosis, a sense of entitlement and hypochondria.

Readers of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist may recognise this phenomenon from the final chapter which discussed the voodoo world of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. I won't repeat that discussion here, suffice it to say it's not a recognised medical condition and is instead a neurotic disorder largely confined to middle-class women in North America. The take home message is that some things irritate the irritable but that doesn't make them allergies, as this chap says:

"It's not a bad idea not to subject your co-workers to any more [scent] than they need to be," says Dr. Robert Schellenberg, an allergist at St. Paul's Hospital.

However, for the record, fragrance intolerance is not actually an allergy.

"It's not a true allergy, it doesn't involve allergic antibodies," he says.

And while we're on the subject, allergy to tobacco smoke is a myth as well.

Most all allergens (particles that trigger allergic reactions) are proteins produced by plants, fungi, animals and insects. It is the protein in an allergen that actually causes the allergic reaction – and truth be told, there is no protein left in cigarette smoke. All of the heat caused by the cigarette burning has reduced the paper, tobacco and additives inside a cigarette to carbon (not that inhaling carbon is good for you either).

Because smoke isn’t a true allergen, it does not create the same immune response (i.e. allergy attack) that a grain of pollen would. Or course there is no denying that smoke can aggravate and irritate underlying allergies, but it really cannot be considered the cause of them.

There are some cases of true tobacco allergy, these are very rare and are caused by direct contact with live tobacco plants or leaves. So, unless you are a tobacco harvester on a tobacco plantation, it is highly unlikely that you will ever develop tobacco allergies.

'kay? So, back to the article...

I am not alone in this revulsion to strong personal smells

No one's alone on the internet, dear. Every crackpot is catered for.

There is a burgeoning fragrance-free movement. According to a paper by Christy De Vader of Loyola College and Paxon Barker of the University of Maryland titled "Fragrance in the Workplace is the New Second-Hand Smoke,"...

Ooh, a paper! So that will have been peer-reviewed, published and available on PubMed, right?

Er, no. It was actually a speech given at a Las Vegas Conference earlier this year organised by these guys. Still, let's see what they said:

...the fragrance-free movement stands to "gain a quicker hold and garner more attention than did passive smoking," and laws pertaining to safety regulations can be applied to limit fragrance exposure in the workplace.

"Men and women... contribute their own personal 'chemical soup' to the general 'chemical soup' that the general public breathes," they write. "This use of personal care products containing synthetic fragrance creates a 'bubble' of toxins for the wearer that continues to emit toxins hours after the product was initially used."

I doubt this is a "paper" that's going to be troubling the Nobel Committee this year. Chemical soups and bubbles of toxins indeed.

I was trapped in just such a bubble that day on the bus. I tried turning my head sharply to suck in the air from the row behind me through the small space between the chair back and the glass. But the man's various smells followed my nose, enveloping me whole. Ultimately, I had no choice but to breathe through my mouth.

Um, okay. That sounds like a fairly minor imposition. Not exactly Rosa Parks are you?

An hour-and-a-half later, I emerged from the bus into the Port Authority terminal lightheaded from mouth-breathing and in the throes of an allergy attack. To add insult to injury, my hair and clothes held on to his scents all night.

How seriously we can you take someone who gets light-headed from breathing through her mouth?

It's hard to think of anything more selfish and rude.

Then you should try a bit harder because it it really isn't.

Allergies aside, what makes a person think anyone else would want to smell his or her perfume any more than we'd want to hear the music blaring in his or her headphones? Or breathe in cigarette smoke?

Can you hear the 'next logical step' argument approaching? You should.

If we can prohibit people from stinking up public parks with second-hand smoke, as Mayor Bloomberg would like to do, why not also prohibit them from also filling our lungs with the chemical toxins found in synthetic fragrances?

And do you know what? She's absolutely right. If the government can ban smoking outdoors without any scientific justification and for no better reason than that "smoking doesn't belong there", it is perfectly reasonable to ban anything on a whim. When the state begins to legislate on the basis of personal preference, the law is in the hands of whoever can shout the loudest. And, my word, the Multiple Chemical Sensitivity people can shout. Just wait until these clowns hear about thirdhand smoke then you'll see what serious hypochondria looks like. And that, of course, why some much effort is being put into creating the thirdhand smoke scare in the first place.


JJ said...

Gross insanity in the human population seems to be increasing then.
How do we treat it though?

Anonymous said...

Americans are typically obsessed with smells, showering, changes of clothes etc. You can't rent a house without a power shower to an American. I once worked there and I've often considered why it is. Like a blue sky every day, the all pervading smell of soap and no smell of human gets a little tedious. I think it's simply that people will always find something to bother about, and so the worries of those with no material concerns start to seem crazy. There will be plenty of people as mad as this columnist in other parts of the world, but they will be wittering on about always feeling hungry.

Anonymous said...

I am not one to belive in second or third hand smoke harm, nor in smoking bans, nor in perfume bans - but I assure you from personal experience, there have been some subway and bus commutes and experience in the office at work where people wearing excessive amounts of overtly strong colognes and perfumes, I don't know of the expensive or of the cheapest varieties, but they almost always have and still do immediately hit the upper insides of my nose and into my sinus cavities, resulting in almost instant extreme pain that is nearly impossible to medicate or massage away, and almost always ends up settling down into my sinus cavities and eventually down my spine, as if the internal fluids are infected and results in extreme pain the rest of the day after I have whiffed some of it in. I do not know if these is technically an allergy, but I do know, from personal experience, the reaction is very strong and not imaginary on my part. Usually I will begin telling people in the workplace that I have a reaction to strong colognes/perfumes and generally people who wear strong amounts of them become aware enough not to linger too long around me in close proximity. But on public transit, it's a different issue and the strong smell of only certain fragrances can and do permeate an entire sealed vehicle, especially if it is a subway train with no windows to open and the ventilator simply recycling the air over and over, making it worse. I am not whining and complaining. But I am saying, from personal experience, I would twenty times over much rather be next to "a smoker" with that "smell" of tobacco, which has NO effect on me - at all - than anywhere in the vicinity of someone who has doused up to the point of ridiculous on certain perfumes and colognes. I will note also, that there are a few who go outside to smoke and douse up on colognes before coming back, as if to kill the tobacco smell in the office and whom I'd prefer just smelling the tobacco aroma instead of the chemical overlay applied, which can lead to my reaction. Not complaing, not whining - just saying, I can verify that there are some cologne/perfume scents that literally make me sick and within seconds of getting a whiff, then lasting all day in pain there-after.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone noticed the elephant?

If this lady is so at risk, why does she not carry with her one of these little nose and mouth masks? During the bird flu scare, the Chinese were wearing them it the streets and almost everyone on aircraft was wearing one.

I am sure the chap sitting next her would not have been offended had she simply donned the mask with the words, "I hope you don't mind me waring this mask. I am allergic to scents, you see."
He might have replied, "Oh, sorry" Whereupon she might have said, "Oh, don't be sorry. It is my allergy which is the problem"
The same, of course, applies to anyone who suffers from airborne allergies.


nisakiman said...

I can't help but wonder what the thoughts of her erstwhile companion on the bus were while she was mentally retching. Perhaps he was thinking "Yuk, does this woman never shower? Doesn't she know what deoderant is?" Her arrogance is stunning.

But of course, people like that think they are the only ones that matter. Anyone who doesn't conform to their personal orthodoxy is by default selfish in the extreme. Personally, I have no great problem with perfumes if they are used as they should be - that is, sparingly. The problem occurs because many people think that because a little perfume smells nice, then a lot of the same will smell even better.

subrosa said...

As a gesture to the woman involved I will douse myself in Channel No 5 before I retire to bed.

Anonymous said...

It is not perfume that this woman objects to, it is humanity. Assaulted daily with images of people airbrushed to look like plastic dolls we are now well into the process of dehumanisation. No lumps, bulges,spots,inelegant sneezes or coughs, odours or deviations from smooth, slender, harmonious, odourless plastic perfection will be tolerated.

Anonymous said...

Anon 05.43, you've nailed it.

Angry Exile said...

... the back of my throat began to close ...

Poor woman. Sounds like she was having a near life experience.

Anonymous said...

Oh I think a few years down the road ,maybe sooner Americans will have a hell of a lot more to worry about than smells.
The self delusion going on there is astounding.
Their society is on the verge of disintegration.

LJ said...

Fantastic post. You've got to love that breed of uppity city-dweller who thinks things like public transportation and public spaces should be reserved for their eco-conscious, liberal, middle-class cohort, rather than, you know, actual people who can't afford to travel by other means (including people who can't afford soap or stronger deodorant).

Nate Whilk said...

Tobacco allergy a myth? No. Decades ago I was tested and diagnosed with it (and a number of other allergies accompanying my asthma).

However, after years of being around almost no smoke, I'm more sensitive to it than ever. But I just avoid it. Sometimes smoke goes directly into my face, and I politely ask the smoker to move the ashtray/switch hands or whatever.

But ban it? No way. This is the camel's (heh) nose in the tent. "First they came for the smokers, but because I was not a smoker, I said nothing..."