Public Policy Perspectives

SPEIAC Position on Asthma and Allergies

Asthma and allergies are very real medical conditions that affect many people of all ages. These conditions can be triggered by a wide variety of environmental factors. With asthma, medical research shows that the list of irritants that can potentially trigger an attack includes more than 200 agents, such as animal and insect allergens, house dust mites, cigarette smoke, air pollution, respiratory or sinus infections, various odours, stress, etc. Allergic reactions are also caused by a large number of factors.

Determining the cause of asthmatic or allergic reactions should be done by a qualified medical specialist, such as an immunologist, allergist, dermatologist, or pulmanologist. The patient can then work with the doctor to design an individual treatment and management plan to control the condition. According to the Asthma Society of Canada, understanding asthma and controlling the symptoms can help the people who have asthma live a better and healthier life. In order to cope with asthma, it is important to identify which particular factors and irritants can cause problems for a patient, and develop a medically-based approach to controlling symptoms and avoiding future exposures.

Given the numerous substances and conditions that can contribute to aggravating asthma and allergies, public policies that focus on controlling only a single potential trigger are ineffective and do a disservice to patients. Education and common courtesy regarding the needs of others remain the best ways for society to handle these situations.

Role Of Scented Products in Asthma and Allergies

There is a strong association between sensitization to allergens and asthma. Children with allergies are at increased risk of developing asthma. Consequently, allergen exposure should be considered in the treatment of asthma. The most significant allergens appear to be those that are inhaled.

While strong odours and scented products (among many other things) may act as an irritant to trigger an asthmatic attack, they do not cause asthma – the predisposition to bronchial inflammation and swelling is a pre-existing condition.

Both allergic reactions and asthma, can be aggravated by strong smells which can act as a non-specific irritant to the inflamed airways of the sufferer. However, what is an irritant or trigger for one person may not be for another so it is essential to know which irritants and/or triggers create a problem for an individual and avoid them.

Furthermore, one must be careful not to confuse dislikes with diseases. Everyone has personal preferences but likes and dislikes should not dictate what the rest of society can or cannot do. Fragrances have been enjoyed for thousands of years and contribute to people’s individuality, self-esteem and personal hygiene. We believe people should be considerate about their fragrance use, and should follow the guidelines of remaining in their own "scent circle".

Asthma & Allergies: Questions & Answers

Q. What is asthma?

A. Asthma is a chronic lung disease that causes breathing problems.

Q. What triggers an asthma attack?

A. Asthma attacks are triggered by different irritants. Medical research shows that various things can potentially trigger an asthma attack including over 200 irritants* such as animal and insect allergens, house dust mites, air pollution, health conditions such as respiratory or sinus infections, and even everyday odours, including in some cases fragrances, and stress.

Q. What are the recommended treatments for asthma?

A. According to the Asthma Society of Canada, a treatment plan includes developing a medically-based approach to controlling symptoms, identifying triggers and avoiding future exposures to those triggers.

Q. Do fragrances cause asthma?

A. No. Medical professionals agree that fragrances do not cause asthma. However, in some situations with certain patients with a pre-existing asthma condition, various odours have been shown to trigger an asthma attack.

Q. Can fragrances trigger an asthma attack?

A. Over 200 irritants, health conditions and everyday exposures, even stress, have been identified as potential asthma triggers. Asthma experts agree that most reactions are caused by animal and insect allergens, house dust mites, air pollution, respiratory or sinus infections, stress and other substances. Determining the cause of asthmatic reactions should be done by a qualified medical specialist such as an allergist. * Staton and Ingram, 1998. Staton, G.W. and R.H. Ingram (1998). Asthma. Scientific American Medicine pp. 1-28.

Q. To manage symptoms, asthmatics need to avoid exposure to their triggers. Will banning fragrances in public places such as restaurants, places of worship, shopping malls, etc. where asthmatics have no control over their triggers be of any use?

A. The solution to this concern is courtesy and common sense, not increased restrictions on social behavior. Asthma has already been shown to be triggered by some 200 agents and conditions, susceptibility to these vary greatly from one patient to another. Restricting one factor while neglecting hundreds of others is not medically justifiable. Restricting one potential trigger would also give asthmatics a false sense of confidence.

Q. Cigarette smoke is a known asthma trigger. In Canada, tobacco is banned in many public places. Should fragrances be treated the same way?

A. It is inappropriate to compare tobacco with fragrances. Tobacco is a known health hazard and is regulated and closely scrutinized because of this. Fragrances, on the other hand, fall into the category of a wide variety of both man-made and natural scents that do not pose a health risk and are largely a matter of personal taste and preference.

Q. How should an employer handle complaints regarding fragrance use in work environments?

A. We encourage those who work near someone with asthma to extend personal courtesy in an effort to resolve any conflicts that may arise. This can include fragrance wearers being conscience of how much fragrance they use. We recommend a personal "scent circle" guide: no one should be aware of your fragrance unless he or she steps inside your circle - approximately an arms length from your body. Clearly, if someone is clinically diagnosed with asthma, and fragrances appear to cause this individual problems, then we encourage those who use fragrance and work with the individual, to voluntarily make reasonable adjustments to their behavior.

Q. Since the use of fragrance is a personal choice, should fragrances be banned in order to save an asthmatic from an attack?

A. We strongly oppose the unilateral restrictions on fragrances. Fragrances are ubiquitous and provide pleasure and a sense of well being to millions of people. They are used in a wide variety of personal hygiene and household products and are present naturally in many things such as flowers and trees. Fragrances also fall into a category of both man-made and natural odours. To restrict fragrance use would be impossible to enforce and would not alleviate discomfort. The solution is education, courtesy and common sense, not a ban.

Q. Does the fragrance industry support research into the potential adverse effects of fragrances?

A. Yes. The industry is confident that its products are safe and supports research into any potential adverse effects of fragrances.

Q. Are fragrances thoroughly tested? Can fragrances trigger asthmatic symptoms?

A. Fragrance materials are thoroughly tested. One such testing body is the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) whose research and testing program is guided by an independent expert advisory panel that evaluates scientific and medical data to assure the safety of fragrance ingredients. The safe use of fragrances by millions of consumers for hundreds of years is, of course, a common sense indication that fragrances are safe. With asthma, medical research shows that the list of irritants that can potentially trigger an asthma attack includes more than 200 agents and conditions such as animal and insect allergens, house dust mites, air pollution, respiratory or sinus infections, various odours, and even stress.

Q. What research has the industry done to demonstrate that its products do not cause health problems?

A. The research demonstrating the safety of fragrances is extensive. Fragrance and consumer product companies base their decisions on formulations and product use on several sources of scientific inquiry as well as tough legal standards. For example: the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) requires that its member companies perform all legally required trials before introducing any new fragrance ingredient. In addition to those tests required by law, IFRA also demands that its member companies conduct evaluation on factors such as irritation, sensitivity, phototoxicity and others. And, finally, the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials has been conducting research on hundreds of fragrance materials since the 1970s and their research continues today.

Q. If someone with asthma is aggravated by a fragrance, is it reasonable to request that others not wear it?

A. We encourage those who live or work near someone with asthma to extend personal courtesy in an effort to resolve any conflicts that may arise.

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