Barb Wilkie's EHN Website
Last updated 2008

EHN Board President Barb Wilkie was very ill from chemically-induced kidney disease for several years. She passed away May 31, 2011. EHN presents this site both as a tribute and as valuable information. Many links and references will be out of date but Barb's research holds up over time. We will be transferring the site page by page, with updated details, to EHN's main site. If you would like to reach an EHN staff person, please contact us directly.

Making Sense of Scents


Permission to post granted by
Julia Kendall (1935 - 1997)

For more information about synthetic scents, take a tour of EHN's website and the FDA Petition requesting the FDA require the their warning labels on fragrances released to market without adequate testing.

"Perfumes are increasingly used in an ever wider variety of fields, including perfumes proper, cosmetic products, hygenic products, drugs, detergents and other household products, plastics, industrial greases, oils and solvents, foods, etc. Their composition is usually complex - it involves numerous natural and synthetic sweet-smelling constituents, more than 5,000 of which are known. Perfumes may produce toxic, and more often allergic respiratory disorders (asthma), as well as neurological and cutaneous disorders." From the French Toxicology Journal, Ann Dermatol Vernereol, Vol 113, ISS 1, 1986, P.31-41

Of these ingredients, 84 percent have never been tested for human toxicity, or have been tested only minimally. Chemcial Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes, N. Ashford, PhD and C. Miller, MD, MS, 1991, p. 61

In 1986, the National Academy of Sciences targeted fragrances as one of the six categories of chemicals that should be given high priority for neurotoxicity testing. The other groups include insecticides, heavy metals, solvents, food additives and certain air pollutants. The report states that 95 percent of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum. They include benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and many other known toxics and sensitizers, which are capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions. Neurotoxins: At Home and the Workplace (Report by the Committee on Science and Technology. U.S. House of Representatives, Sept. 16, 1986) [Report 99-827]

A FEW CHEMICALS KNOWN TO BE NEUROTOXIC FOUND IN FRAGRANCES: hexachlorophene; acetyl-ethyl-tetramethyl-tetralin; zinc-pyridinethione; 2,4,dinitro-3-methyl-6-tert-butylanisole; 1-Butanol; 2-butanol; tert-Butanol; Isobutanol; t-Butyl Toluene. Neurotoxic properties of chemicals found in fragrances have caused testicular atrophy in lab animals as well as myelin disease. The myelin sheath protects the nerves and does not regenerate. (Compiled from TOXLINE database of fragrances industry and medical journals.)

Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's, Lupus, and Alzheimer's are all neurological disorders. Dyslexia is a neurological dysfunction. Could any of these neurological dysfunctions be caused by exposure to neurotoxic chemicals? Symptoms are often identical to chemical hypersensitivity. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is also a neurological dysfunction. Could fragrant fabric softeners or detergents emitting neurotoxic chemicals cause the neurological breakdown?

A FEW CHEMICALS CLASSIFIED AS AIRBORNE CONTAMINANTS FOUND IN FRAGRANCES: methylene chloride; toluene; methyl ethyl ketone; methyl isobutyl ketone, tert Butyl; sec Butyl. Compiled by comparing a list of only 120 fragrance chemicals from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and "Airborne Contaminants" June 1991, California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

Benzyl chloride, used in manufacturing perfumes, is a central nervous system depressant intensely irritating to eyes, and mucous membranes. The Merck Index, An Encyclopedia of Chemicals, Drugs and Biologicals. Benzyl chloride was added in January 1990 to California's Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 list of chemicals known to cause cancer. California EPA, Office of Environmental Helath Hazard Assessment.

A FEW CHEMICALS FOUND IN FRAGRANCES DESIGNATED AS HAZARDOUS WASTE DISPOSAL CHEMICALS: methylene chloride; toluene; meythl ethyl ketone; methyl isobutyl ketone; ethanol; benzal chloride. Compiled comparing a list of only 120 fragrance chemicals from a 1991 EPA study, "Identification of Polar Volatile Organic Compounds in Consumer Products and Common Microenvironments," presented at the 84th Annual Meeting of the Air & Waste Management Association in Vancouver, British Columbia, June 1991, and the EPA's Code 40 of the Federal Regulations, Ch 1, Section 261.33, listing hazardous waste site chemicals. It is increasingly expensive to dispose of these chemicals properly. Why are hazardous waste chemicals being dispersed at great profit in sonsumer products to an unsuspecting public?

MORE FRAGRANCE PRODUCTS' CHEMICALS KNOWN TO CAUSE CANCER: methylene chloride, a known carcinogen that also causes autoimmune disease, is listed as one of the 20 most common chemicals found in fragrance products in the 1991 EPA study even though the FDA banned the chemical in all cosmetic and fragrance products in 1989. John Bailey, FDA, states there is no way to police the fragrance industry since it is unregulated and exempt from listing ingredients. Limonene, also listed as one of the 20 most common chemicals, is a known carcinogen. The Merck Index cautions that Limonene is a sensitizer. Sensitizers have the capacity to cause Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS).

Benzaldehyde, one of the 20 most common chemicals in the EPA's fragrance study, is a sensitizer. It is also a narcotic according to the Merck Index.

884 toxic substances were identified in a list (partial) of 2,983 chemicals used in the fragrance industry: "Many of these substances are capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders, breathing and allergic reactions and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities." 1988 study by U.S. House Subcommittee on Business Opportunities, chaired by Ron Wyden (D.OR) and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The study found 314 fragrance industry chemicals known to cause biological mutation; 218 caused reproduction problems; 778 caused acute toxicity; 146 cause tumors; and 376 caused skin and eye irritations.

In a NIOSH study conducted by Syracuse Research Corporation, Report No. SRC TR 81-521, 1981, benzoin is named as a chemical used in fragrances found to cause enlarged lymph nodes in both male and female mice and enlarged spleens in males. Liver damage is also cited.

AMICUS Journal, Winter '89, Board of Environmental Studies and Toxicology of the National Research Counsel, the research branch of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that "15 percent of the population experiences hypersensitivity to chemicals found in common household products."

National Institutes of Health, Issues and Challenges in Environmental Health, NIH Pub. #87-861"... allergic reactions and hypersensitivity diseases, for instance, are among the most costly of U.S. health problems afflicting at least 35,000,000 Amercians,"

[Side two of Julia's flyer, which I received from her in March 1992. It was through Julia and her contacts that I learned a name for the Many Chronic Symptoms I was then living with: Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. -- barb]

ASTHMA AND FRAGRANCE CHEMICALS: 72 percent of asthma patients in a study had adverse reactions to perfume, i.e., pulmonary function tests dropping anywhere between 18 percent and 58 percent below baseline from "Affect of Odors in Asthma," Chang Shim, MD and M. Henry Williams, MD, American Journal of Medicine, January 1986, Vol 80.

Toluene was detected in every fragrance sample collected by the Environmental Protection Agency for a report in 1991: "Toluene was most abundant in the auto parts store, as well as the fragrance sections of the department store."

Toluene not only triggers asthma attacks -- it is known to cause asthma in previously healthy people. According to Air Currents, publication of Allen and Handsbury's Respiratory Institute, division of Glaxo, Inc., asthma has increased in the past decade by 31 percent, and in the same period asthma deaths have increased by 31percent. Women, and those over 65, suffer the highest death rate from asthma.

Toluene-laced fragrance industry chemical products have become increasingly pervasive in the last ten years -- used not only in perfumes, but also in furniture wax, tires, plastic garbage bags, inks, hairgel, hairspray, and kitty litter. A Danish toxicological journal, Ugeskr Laegar, Vol 153, ISS 13, 1991, p. 939-40, found perfume in kitty litter to be the cause of asthma in humans. Toluene is also listed on California's Prop. 65 as a birth defect causing chemical, pg. 11.

SYMPTOMS PROVOKED BY FRAGRANCES INCLUDE: watery or dry eyes, double vision, sneezing, nasal congestion, sinusitis, tinnitus, ear pain, dizziness, vertigo, coughing, bronchitis, difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, laryngitis, asthma, anaphylaxis, headaches, seizures, fatigue, confusion, disorientation, incoherence, short-term memory loss, inability to concentrate, nausea, lethargy, anxiety, irritability, depression, mood swings, restlessness, rashes, hives, eczema, flushing, muscle and joint pain, muscle weakness, irregular heart beat, hypertension, swollen lymph glands, and more. (Candida Research and Information Foundation, Perfume Survey, Winter 1989-90.)

NO REGULATION OF FRAGRANCE INDUSTRY TO PROTECT PUBLIC HEALTH: No agency regulates the fragrance industry. According to John Baily, PhD, Director, Colors and Cosmetics, FDA, "The fragrance and cosmetic industry is the least-regulated industry. There is no pre-clearing of chemicals with any agency." The FDA has suggested the best method "to protect sufferers from odor sensitivities might be to curtail odor exposures under specific circumstances through local or state regulatory action." Bailey stated in a February 28, 1992 telephone conversation with Julia Kendall, Co-chair, Citizens for a Toxic Free Marin, that under current law, consumers would have to prove through expensive tests (he estimates $1,000,000) that the chemicals in a fragrance are causing specific symptoms before the FDA could require fragrance industry removal of a product. He states that fragrance industry lawyers would sue the FDA if it attempted to remove any fragrance from the marketplace even with thousands of "anecdotal" complaints.


RIGHT TO BREATHE FRESH AIR: James Cone, MD, MPH, a Berkeley-based indoor air quality consultant and former Chief of Occupational Health Clinic, San Francisco General Hospital, in Indoor Air Odorants, identifies physiological pathways of entry of synthetic fragrance molecules, naming them as one of five major contributors to indoor air pollution and then recommends a regulation be adopted to govern indoor air quality where specific point sources can be identified. "No person shall discharge from any source whatsoever such quantities of air contaminants or other material which cause injury, detriment, nuisance or annoyance to a considerable number of persons or to the public, or which endanger the comfort, repose, health or safety of any such persons or the public, or which cause, or have a natural tendency to cause, injury or damage to business or property."

Article: "One Woman's Perfume -- Another Woman's Poison", in Let's Live: "The chief reactions we see are those that affect the nervous system -- headaches, anxiety, depression. But anything can be affected, even diet and a personal intolerance for different foods. There are two major ways in which cosmetics and their chemical constituents can affect the body. One is through direct contact. Inhalation is the other major route for molecules of an active substance to enter the blood stream. "There is a route from the nasal passage into the nervous system," says Mandell... "It is the way, for instance, that inhaled cocaine has an effect on the brain."

THE LAW: The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 guarantees access to people with disabilities to institutions, such as government agencies, libraries, doctor's offices, retail stores, and many others. Environmental Illness/Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (EI/MCS) is recognized as a disability by The Social Security Administration and HUD. Fragrances are a "barrier to access" to EI/MCS disabled, since breathing is affected. Breathing is a "major life activity" as defined by the ADA. Fragrance bans meet the "reasonable accommodation" clause of the ADA, since elimination and substitution are not expensive. Workplace accommodation for disabled employees should be legally required.

Postal Regulations, Domestic Mail Manual, 124.395 -- Fragrance Advertising Samples (39 USC 3001 (g) April 1990), states that fragrance strips for mailing "cannot be activated except by opening a glued flap or binder or by removing an overlying ply of paper."

California AB 2709 (as of January 1, 1992) states that "fragrances contained in any newspaper, magazine, or other periodically-printed material, published or offered for sale, or contained in any advertisement -- mailed or otherwise distributed -- shall be enclosed in a sealant sufficient to protect a consumer from inadvertent exposure to the cosmetic -- including, but not limited to, the inadvertent inhalation thereof."

    Updated by barb, Dec. 18, 2001
    SECTION 110390-110420;
    Go to California Law
    Click on "Health and Safety Code" in the left hand column, key in the word
    "fragrance" and click the search button. Scroll to the bottom of the page.

    110420. (a) Any fragrance advertising insert contained in a newspaper,
    magazine, mailing, or other periodically printed material shall contain
    only microencapsulated oils. Glue tabs or binders shall be used to
    prevent premature activation of the fragrance advertising insert.

    "Fragrance advertising insert" means a printed piece with
    encapsulated fragrance applied to it that is activated by opening a
    flap or removing an overlying ply of paper.

    Paperstocks employed in the manufacture of fragrance advertising
    inserts shall have a maximum porosity of 20 Sheffield units or 172
    Gurley-Hill units.

    (b) Any person who distributes fragrance advertising inserts in
    violation of this section, is guilty of an infraction and shall, if
    convicted, be subject to a fine of one hundred dollars ($100) for
    each distribution. The fine shall apply to each mass mailing or
    distribution, and to each mass publication of a magazine or newspaper
    in violation of this section. The fine shall not apply, however, to
    each individual letter, magazine, newspaper, or fragrance
    advertising insert so distributed.
    [Emphasis added.]
    Section 111825 is not applicable to violations of this section.

    (c) This section shall become operative on January 1, 1992.

  • Write letters to the editors of newspapers

  • Call the U.S. Postal Service; file a formal complaint against compaines mailing items out of compliance with postal law.

  • Call the 800 number of magazines with fragrance strips that are out of compliance with the law. Threaten lawsuits.

  • Call the FDA 1.800.858.3760 to report reactions to fragrance products

  • Use the Small Claims Courts

  • Ask your doctor to demand the ingredients of any chemical fragrance product to which you react. Cite the following: 29 CFR 1910.1200 and 1910.20, the OSHA Hazard Communication and Access to Medical Records standards allowing health professionals access to trade secret information.

NOTE: "Making Sense of Scents" was compiled by Julia Kendall, borrowing from Irene Wilkenfeld's "Fragrance Facts" and from research contributed by Karen Stevens, Carol Kuczora, Milan Param, Richard Conrad PhD, Susan Nordmark, Susan Springer, Mary Ann Handrus, Susan Molloy, Sandy Ross PhD.

Distributed by the Environmental Health Network, with permission of Julia Kendall.



Feel free to copy and post, just please credit Julia Kendall.

Return to The Work of Julia Kendall

Other flyers by Julia Kendall:
Fabric Softeners = Health Risks From Dryer Exhaust and Treated Fabrics

Twenty Most Common Chemicals Found in Thirty-One Fragrance Products


Also visit the work of Betty Bridges, RN


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