The Rev. Kara Markell, pastor of Lake Washington Christian Church, recalled how “unbreathable” it often became inside her previous church in Texas.
Sunday best, for some people, includes ample amounts of smell-nice. The idea that perfumes may pose health risks may never cross the mind.
But nestled in the woods of a Seattle suburb, Markell’s new parish offers a sanctuary from scents. A fragrance-free campaign asks members and visitors to forego perfumes, after-shave and scented lotions on Sundays. Meanwhile, the church is swapping out perfumed products throughout the building, including cleaners, candles, air fresheners and bathroom soaps.
“I love it,” said Markell. Cleaner air that gives a reprieve to chemical-sensitive churchgoers ties in with her congregation’s “green church” designation as well as its position on “inclusion.”
Centuries of men and women have sought out sweet scents for the pleasure of themselves and others. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than a church sanctuary filled with fragrant candles and a cocktail of colognes. As a verse in the Bible’s book of Proverbs reads, “Ointment and perfume delight the heart.”
But at the time the Bible was written, scents were basic, like pure frankincense and myrrh. Today, they’re likely an undisclosed mixture of petrochemicals. Modern chemical fragrances are also incorporated into a long list of products, from detergents and deodorants to dryer sheets and hair sprays.
The pervasiveness of synthetic scents, according to experts, threatens the health of many people — whether they realize it or not. While a small fraction of Americans are hypersensitive to scents, many may be subtly affected and at increased risk of future health problems from living in an invisible fog of chemicals. Fragrance is just one piece of the problem, they say, with chemical ingredients that can include carcinogens, neurotoxins and hormone disruptors.
“Almost everything we use has chemical scent added,” said Joseph Heimlich, an expert in environmental education and community involvement at The Ohio State University.
“What does clean smell like? It doesn’t,” Heimlich added. “But we’ve been conditioned through media and society that it should smell like lemons or mountain fresh.”
The fragrance industry asserts the benefits of scents, whether natural, man-made, or designed to smell like nature.
“These products contribute to our overall quality of life and well-being,” Elena Solovyov, a spokeswoman for the International Fragrance Association, an industry trade group, told The Huffington Post.
“Consumers can be assured that the fragrance used in their favorite products is safe,” Solovyov said, noting that individual ingredients are “evaluated for consumer and environmental safety” and that products are “tested according to all government and company-specific requirements.” The fragrance industry sets its own standards and facilitates its own safety reviews, with help from outside experts.
That’s little comfort for people who find it unbearable to venture inside churches, workplaces, schools, or even the grocery store.
“There are people out there who would like to go to church, but they can’t,” said Gina Blum, an elder at Lake Washington Christian Church, who spent weeks compiling a list of products and their disclosed ingredients to help identify the safest alternatives for the church and its members.
Blum said she is mildly sensitive to scents. Linda Moreno, another member with mild sensitivity, said her daughter, Kelsey, 22, can’t even walk past someone wearing perfume on the street without getting sick.
Moreno called Kelsey’s hypersensitivity multiple chemical sensitivity — a controversial condition. The American Medical Association studied it in 1991, but “found no scientific evidence that supports the contention that multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome is a significant cause of disease,” R.J. Mills, an AMA spokesperson, told HuffPost.
Until “accurate, reproducible, and well-controlled studies are available,” Mills said, the AMA believes that “multiple chemical sensitivity should not be considered a recognized syndrome.”
Dr. Philip Ranheim, an environmental medicine doctor based in Lake Stevens, Wash., who has dealt with chemical sensitivity issues himself, said the controversy will likely continue.
“There’s not a lot of money and time and effort going into defining it more fully,” said Ranheim, who attends a church unable to address his condition.
“Other countries such as England and Japan have had government-associated environmental centers for studying chemical sensitivity. But there’s bias against it in this country,” Ranheim added. “I think we’re addicted to chemicals and some people don’t want to admit there’s a downside to it.”
A review of research published in May concluded that one significant exposure, or the accrual of repeated low-level exposures, seems to overload and impair the body’s ability to tolerate chemicals. At that point, “minute amounts of diverse everyday chemicals” can trigger symptoms. The larger the total body burden of toxins, suggests the review, the greater the degree of hypersensitivity.
Studies in the early 2000s estimated that 12 percent to 16 percent of Americans are hypersensitive to chemicals.
“I think the numbers are increasing. It’s becoming an epidemic,” said Anne Steinemann, a co-author on one of those studies and a visiting researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.
Her response when she first heard of Lake Washington Christian Church’s campaign to address chemical sensitivity: “Hallelujah.”
“To some extent, we’re all affected by chemicals,” Steinemann added.
In fact, those with acute symptoms, such as migraine headaches, asthma attacks, heart palpitations or skin rashes after exposures, may act as proverbial canaries in the coal mine when it comes to toxic chemicals and their subtle or future effects on others, according to some experts interviewed by HuffPost.
But avoiding chemical fragrances, they added, is made difficult by their pervasiveness and by scant regulation.
Solovyov, the fragrance industry spokeswoman, confirmed there is “no official definition” for the industry terms “unscented” or “fragrance-free.” The former can include fragrance ingredients that actually mask odors. She also said fragrance formulas are protected as “trade secrets.” Ingredients are rarely disclosed.
Even full disclosure of chemicals “offers little information on their ultimate toxicity,” according to Steinemann.
“The solution is to use truly natural or simple products — like our grandparents used — vinegar, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, lemon juice (from a real lemon),” she said.
“People with fragrance sensitivities usually don’t react to aromatic flowers, fruits, or other truly natural smells,” added Steinemann. “It’s often claimed that fragrance chemicals, such as limonene, are ‘natural.’ But there is a difference between the limonene as found in an orange and limonene made in a lab.”
Janine Ridings of Bellevue, Wash., became housebound after an extreme exposure to jet fuel fumes in 1998. A short while later, she began an online prayer group, Aroma of Christ, to provide fellowship and encouragement for others dealing with multiple chemical sensitivity. Ridings said she has been fortunate that a couple local churches accommodated her needs with everything from fragrance-free, windowed rooms outside the sanctuary to air freshener-free restrooms.
“If churches could just get air fresheners out of restrooms, that would help a lot,” she said.
Lake Washington Christian Church made that step. And the church’s fragrance-free efforts continue. This month, the church held a screening of the environmental documentary, “Chemerical,” which explores the dangers of chemicals to clean our bodies and homes, and offers recipes for toxic-free alternatives.
The film’s producer, Andrew Nisker, recommended first targeting laundry and dishwashing detergents, which he suggested have some of the worst health and environmental impacts.
Nisker has produced a cookbook of make-your-own cleaning products. The Environmental Working Group, meanwhile, offers a free database and guides to help identify the least toxic and fragrance-free personal care and cleaning products on the market.
“Policy is not going to change unless people change, and stop buying products full of toxins,” Nisker told HuffPost.
Consumer pressure may be responsible for announcements this fall from Target and Walmart. Both big box stores said they will begin rating products based on suspect chemicals. This week, Reckitt Benckiser, maker of Lysol, Woolite and Airwick, reported plans to disclose chemicals in its fragrances.
Raising awareness in the religious community may be a powerful avenue for further change, said Nisker. “A lot of politics, whether we like it or not, has influenced policy for good or for bad. And there’s a lot of religion in politics,” he said.
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