Environmental Sensitivities and Fragrance Reduction

Research indicates that six percent of the population experiences medically diagnosed chemical sensitivity, also called “environmental illness.” Another 15 percent of the population self-reports this sensitivity.

Fragrances (as defined in one hospital policy manual) include “any product which produces a scent, strong enough to be perceived by others” such as colognes, perfumes, after shave and hair care products, lotions, powders, some detergents and fabric softeners and other personal and clothing-care products.

Ninety-five percent of the fragrances in these products are synthetic petrochemicals; research indicates that many of these chemicals are toxic. (National Academy of Sciences, 1986). Results include rhinitis (runny nose) and asthma attacks. In some cases permanent respiratory damage can occur. Worshippers who are sensitive to these chemicals “get trapped” in a pew when someone wearing fragrance sits in front, in back or to the side of them.

A lack of information compounds the problem. There aren’t many surveys of how many people may have left our congregations in the past because of fragrance sensitivity. UMC clergy person, the Rev. Nancy Firestone, a national leader in this area, notes that, “Many people slip away unnoticed because they can no longer tolerate fragrances.”

Many workplaces and, increasingly, churches across various denominations have adopted fragrance-free, or fragrance-reduction policies. Some ask people not to use fragrances, others have designated areas. Has your congregation considered such steps?

—Charlotte Hawkins Shepard, Ph.D., October 2009

Additional Resources