Guest Commentary: A Moral Dilemma: “Scentual” Pleasure at the Expense of the Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of Others

By Carol Lewis
March 8, 2010

Hundreds of Canadians have contacted the Canadian Human Rights Commission to find out whether their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are being violated because they are unable to access basic services, social and cultural events in their community without becoming ill from fragrance exposure.

Legal rights under the Canadian Charter include equality of person, freedom of association, the right to pursue a livelihood, the “right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.” It can be argued that Canadians have the right to clean air and an environment that is conducive to their health since the Charter includes the right to life and security of person.

Under the UN’s, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone “is entitled to realization … of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality,” “the right of equal access to public service” and “the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community.”

Yet, many Canadians with health conditions aggravated by respiratory irritants, asthma triggers and neurological toxins in scented products do not experience the same freedoms enjoyed by other Canadians. What about their rights? The degradation of the quality of life for these Canadians can range from mild to severe.

Those suffering from environmental sensitivity – a poorly understood disability recognized by both the Canadian and Ontario Human Rights Commissions – experience varying degrees of adverse reactions to chemicals and other environmental factors that many people are able to tolerate. The Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) reports that scents in perfumes, personal care products and air fresheners are “typical agents that trigger reactions in susceptible individuals.”

The choices made by others can impact the quality of life for those afflicted by environmental sensitivities enormously. The CHRC points out that “the health and ability to work for those with environmental sensitivities rests with the choices and actions of others, such as building managers, co-workers and clients.”

Environmental illness is often misdiagnosed and ranges in severity, so reliable statistics on the number of affected Canadians is unavailable. According to the CHRC, while 1 million Canadians have been diagnosed by doctors with environmental sensitivities, evidence suggests that “up to a third of the population may be experiencing discomfort.” Environmental sensitivities worsen with age and women are twice as likely as men to be affected by them.

But those suffering from environmental sensitivities are not the only ones whose fundamental right to be part of community is degraded by exposure to scented products. The Asthma Society of Canada urges asthmatics to “avoid … triggers in order to keep airway inflammation to a minimum and reduce the symptoms.” Perfume is listed as a symptom trigger for asthma. Yet how can asthmatics, adult or child, realistically avoid exposure to perfume if they wish to be involved in community? They cannot.
Significant numbers of Canadians with chronic respiratory problems and other medical conditions aggravated by scented products are in the same position.

The Canadian Lung Association notes that reactions to scent range from mild to severe and lists common symptoms such as “headaches, feeling dizzy, feeling tired or weak, shortness of breath, nausea, cold-like symptoms and worsening asthma symptoms.” Additional symptoms reported to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health include lightheadedness, fatigue, insomnia, malaise, confusion, loss of appetite, depression, anxiety, numbness, upper respiratory symptoms, shortness of breath, difficulty with concentration and skin irritation.

The Centre notes that “the severity of these symptoms can vary. Some people report mild irritation while others are incapacitated and/or must give up many ‘normal’ activities in order to avoid exposure (such as going to public places).”

Why do we continue to passively tolerate or contribute to the constant bombardment of fragrance in offices, stores, churches, restaurants, theatres, malls and virtually every indoor environment when so many of us experience reduced quality of life because of it? Do preferences for the intense fragrances manufactured today really outweigh health needs? Is it morally acceptable for heavy scent users to enjoy their “scentual” pleasure at the expense of the rights and freedoms of others?