What’s That Smell?

What’s That Smell?
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sensitivity to odors

Christine Tender Points

It’s nearly as difficult to explain multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) to someone unaffected by it as it is to explain fibromyalgia. To the uninitiated, it seems impossible that an odor could cause physical symptoms, such as headache, nausea, fatigue, confusion, and dizziness — especially when the odor isn’t even a particularly unpleasant one.

I’m not talking about skunks here. I’m talking about things as innocuous as fragrances people choose to wear.

I once worked in an office where a co-worker wore Polo cologne. To my delicate nostrils, this was chemical warfare. This man’s mailbox was adjacent to my desk, so several times each day he came in to check for contents. The stench was dizzying to me. It was immediately absorbed into my mucous membranes, and I could taste that smell for the rest of the day, no matter how hard I tried to mask it with coffee, Lifesavers, or unscented air freshener. My eyes watered, my nose ran.  I often felt anxious and quite woozy.

He was a nice person, and he had worked there far longer than I had. I agonized over my decision to take action, but I finally had no choice. It was either him or me. Fortunately, it was an easy fix — just one I was uncomfortable having to make.

Similarly, whenever nearby offices were being painted, I would arrange to take vacation time — not telling anyone that the smell of paint fumes was the reason. The summer they tarred the roof, I was very thankful for air conditioning. If the windows had been opened, I never would have made it till the fall.

Today, MCS is a recognized disorder.  I’m no longer alone with my overactive nose. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that up to 15 percent of the U.S. population is affected. It is frequently found in people with fibromyalgia. Today’s workers can expect to be taken seriously should they be affected by MCS.  In fact, fragrance-free workplaces have become common.

Unfortunately, strong odors are not limited to the workplace.  I recently returned both a tufted headboard and a leather armchair I bought. Strong chemical smells were emitted by the materials used. Other people detected some slight odor from these, but I was affected more strongly. Sleep was impossible next to that headboard. I could taste the smell all night and choked back nausea until morning. I was unable to relax in that easy chair. In addition to anxiety, it caused nausea and dizziness. I could smell them in the back of the house as soon as I opened the front door.

My defense is to avoid odors in every way possible. I buy only organic or fragrance-free grooming and cleaning products. Thanks to the internet, I no longer need to troll the grocery store’s smelly soap aisle for my odor-free products. I’ve informed friends and family about my problem, and they’ve been wonderfully compliant.  I schedule challenging places, like hair and nail salons, early in the day before the odors build up.

Ironically, I often find doctors’ offices are some of the worst offenders. The disinfectants they use often leave a strong-smelling residue. I don’t hesitate to inform the staff that I would prefer to wait in the waiting room. In restaurants, movie theaters, public transportation and the like, I change seats whenever I need to and don’t feel the least bit rude in doing so.

My feeling is that the air we breathe is for all of us. I don’t pollute yours. You don’t get to pollute mine.

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