Monday, March 25, 2013

Fragrance in the Workplace

I recently stumbled across an article entitled "Fragrance in the Workplace: What Managers Need to Knowwhich was published in the Journal of Management and Marketing Research. It isn't a perfect article. The author inadvertently reinforced one of her own points (that chemical companies fight the growing trend of fragrance-free policies) by mentioning the Environmental Sensitivities Research Institute (ESRI). ESRI is a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing industry-funded group. For more about the group and its activities, see the article Multiple Chemical Sensitivities under SiegeOther than that understandable but unfortunate mention, however, I find the article to be very encouraging. It makes the following points:

  • The topic of fragrance exposure hasn't received the attention it deserves in the management field.

  • Fragrance exposure in the workplace is following the same trajectory as smoking exposure once did: It took decades to acknowledge the dangers of cigarette smoke and then a few more years before the workplace became free of it. In 1965, 42% of Americans smoked and people who complained about second-hand smoke and its health effects were considered part of a fringe movement. The tide turned, however, and by 2007, at least 30 states had passed comprehensive smoke-free laws.

  • Today, the average consumer is as unaware of the dangers of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances as people once were of the harms caused by cigarette smoke. The author notes that "when ignorance is replaced with knowledge, a large segment of the population will respond with a demand for clean and safe air in the workplace.”

  • A rising number of public places have declared their institutions to be fragrance free and it appears that a paradigm shift is beginning.

  • Unlike cigarette smoke, synthetic fragrance is not visible and is almost unlimited in where it is found. The author notes that "because of these differences, businesses may underestimate the potential likelihood of a fragrance free movement reaching the same level of public awareness as passive smoke and having as far reaching and broad results as the nonsmoking movement."  She notes that this attitude may prove costly.

  • Tobacco companies fought the anti-smoking movement and fragrance companies are fighting efforts to make workplaces and public spaces fragrance free.

  • There are reasons to believe that the fragrance-free movement will make quicker progress than the anti-smoking movement did. Hundreds of studies are being conducted and reported annually and the issue is being addressed by governmental agencies, public and private health care organizations, consumer advocates, insurers, lawyers, economists, and risk analysts.

  • One in five people in the U.S. experience recognized adverse effects from fragrance exposure. These may involve the skin, eyes, respiratory or neurological systems.

  • The great majority (80-90%) of fragrances are synthesized from petroleum and include chemicals like acetone, phenol, and toluene. Fragrance companies use over 4000 chemicals and hundreds can be used in any given product. Over 80% of the chemicals have never been tested for their toxicity. Despite this, almost one-third of the chemical additives used are known toxins.

  • Adverse fragrance-related health effects cost employers billions of dollars annually.

  • Fragrance-related workplace complaints are rising. There are a variety of applicable laws that may require employers to change the work environment. The author notes that "the general duty clause of the Occupations Health and Safety Act requires employers to 'take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of the worker.' Enough research demonstrates negative effects of synthetic fragrance, that employers can no longer deny knowledge of what constitutes basic precautions."

  • Developing an effective fragrance-free policy involves the following steps:

    1. Conduct a needs assessment identifying sources of exposure and who may be affected by them. This includes not only employees, but members of the public and others who share the environment.

    1. Perform an organizational chemical assessment which reviews all chemical products used in the business and those used by employees.

    1. Conduct a literature and legal search. Managers need an awareness of the health effects of synthetic fragrances and familiarity with applicable legislation.

    1. Develop and implement a fragrance-free policy. Include employee representation in all phases of policy development, implementation, and evaluation.

    1. Ensure support from top executives and occupational health and safety committee members. Make sure all departments understand their role in the policy's success.

    1. Develop a discipline and enforcement process. Put clear guidelines in place for confronting violations and resolving problems. A shared enforcement approach is preferable to a "watchdog" system.

    1. Develop strategies for communicating the policy to non-employees who share the environment.

    1. Evaluate the policy for effectiveness and make changes as needed. Let employees know of the success of policy implementation on health and productivity.

I agree that people will someday look on our culture’s widespread use of synthetic fragrances in much the same way that we now view the prevalence of cigarette smoke in previous decades. From a business and legal standpoint, it is wise for businesses, schools, churches, and other organizations to address the issue now. It is also simply the right thing to do in order to protect human health. Not everyone reading this will have the authority to change an organization’s fragrance policy, but every one of us can choose not to personally purchase and use synthetically-fragranced products. It’s a start. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Particles of Impatience

It seems to me that as a culture we are slowly beginning to realize the connection between certain chemical exposures and associated health problems. Most people, for example, seem to have an understanding that chemicals may contribute to the development of cancer. What is not yet widely understood is the magnitude and scope of the chemical problem, including the wide variety of possible effects. This may be especially true for effects that might be considered emotional or behavioral rather than physical.

I ran across an interesting study recently linking fine particles found in automobile exhaust, among other sources, with impatience and unwillingness to delay gratification in laboratory animals. Researchers exposed baby mice to tiny particles collected from roadway air. When the mice grew up, they were 43% more likely to repeatedly and "feverishly" push a lever to receive a free reward instead of waiting for it to fall.

A report of the study published in Environmental Health News made the following points:

  • The mice were exposed early in life, but the effects were not seen until they were grown.

  • Similar traits in humans are related to cognitive and behavioral disorders, obesity, attention deficits, rule-breaking, and addiction.

  • Tiny particles, such as those used in the study, may be released by cars, trucks, industry, incineration, wood fires, cooking, and certain office equipment.

  • Ultrafine particles can lodge in the heart, brain, and other parts of the body and can carry other pollutants with them. Exposure can affect cardiovascular and respiratory health.

  • Studies suggest that the behavioral effects may be due to the fact that the particles cause inflammation and oxidative damage to the brain.

It is difficult to completely avoid exposure to automobile exhaust, but there are ways to protect yourself to some degree. Parking a car in an attached garage allows exhaust fumes to enter the house, and is not a healthy practice. Parking elsewhere is the healthiest choice, but Installing a high-capacity ventilation fan in the garage can help mitigate the problem somewhat, as can making sure the door between the garage and house seals well and stays shut at all times. Fine particulate exposure can also be decreased by using ventilation fans near stoves and office equipment and by choosing not to smoke, use combustion appliancesor burn yard waste.

I’ve often heard it said that when you’re feeling angry or impatient you should take a deep breath and count to ten. Maybe we should re-think that “take a deep breath” part.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Sticky Chemicals

Last month, the journal Environmental Health Perspectives reported on a study of common household chemicals called PFCs. The lead study author, quoted in a WebMD articlenoted that the study found "a clear and strong association between exposure to [these] compounds and osteoarthritis, which is a very painful chronic disease.“ Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and involves irreversible deterioration of joint cartilage.

PFCs are often used to make products slicker and more repellent.  Some of the many places they may be found include:

  • Nonstick cookware

  • Grease-resistant food packaging, such as microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and fast food sandwich wrappers

  • Paper plates

  • Carpeting

  • Stain-resistant upholstered furniture

  • Some clothing items, including those made of Gore-Tex and other fabrics treated for water or stain resistance

  • Shoes

  • Luggage

  • Camping and sporting equipment

  • Certain cosmetic and personal care products, including shampoo, dental floss, denture cleaners, nail polish, eye make-up, pressed powder, shaving cream, and lotion

PFCs have been previously linked to other negative health effects. These include higher levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol, skewed thyroid hormone levels, premature onset of menopause in women, liver inflammation, reduced vaccine effectiveness in children, smaller birth size of babies, and weakening of the immune system. They cause cancer in laboratory animals and are likely human carcinogens.

It seems ironic that PFCs are generally used for their anti-stick properties given the fact that they are very “sticky” and persistent in the environment and in our bodies. It takes a human body 4 years to expel half of a dose of one of the two most common PFCs and more than 8 years to process half a dose of the other. Some varieties of the chemicals have been removed from the market, but others have taken their place. The Environmental Working Group notes that "companies that manufacture PFCs have agreed to phase out one variety, called PFOA, by 2015. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that the chemicals being used to replace it are any safer."

Tips for avoiding PFCs include the following:

  • Avoid use of Teflon-type non-stick cookware. Safer alternatives are stainless steel, cast iron, ceramic, or enamel. Remember that it isn't just pans that may be coated with PFCs, but muffin tins, cookie sheets, and other bakeware.

  • Decline optional stain-protection treatment when buying furniture. Some health experts recommend covering any treated furniture already owned with a heavy slipcover to impede migration of the chemicals from the furniture into your body.

  • Carpeting should be avoided for many reasons. (See this previous post.) Adding treatment for stain resistance makes a bad product worse.

  • Avoid clothing treated for water or stain repellency. In most situations, the benefits are not worth the risk. Tightly-woven non-treated fabrics are often an acceptable alternative.

  • Minimize consumption of food packaged in PFC-coated containers. Pop popcorn on the stove, in an air-popper, or in a plain brown bag in the microwave. Use glass or ceramic for microwave cooking and for storing leftovers,  Avoid paper plates.

  • When buying cosmetics and personal care products, read the labels and look for PTFE and for ingredients that start with "fluoro" or "perfluoro." These are PFCs and should be avoided.

I know it’s discouraging to constantly read of the extent of the chemical problem and the ramifications of using the products that surround us. I find it discouraging, too. We simply must educate ourselves, though, and do what we can to protect ourselves and our fellow human beings. Seemingly small decisions can matter more than we imagine.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Lessons from Algernon

I often find myself thinking about a book that I first read many years ago. Flowers for Algernon is the story of a mentally disabled man named Charlie who undergoes surgery to improve his IQ. Algernon is the laboratory mouse who served as the first experimental subject of the procedure. The story is written from Charlie's point of view, and the grammar, spelling, and word choices change as his intelligence does.

I think about the book frequently, because a lot of my communication with fellow toxic illness sufferers is done through e-mail, and the grammar, spelling, and word choices of my friends tells me a lot about how they are doing and whether they have recently had any significant chemical exposures. People who are normally articulate and even eloquent lose their ability to spell and form coherent sentences. I often find myself reading sections of written communication over and over, trying to glean their meaning. Undoubtedly, others have similar experiences with passages I write when my brain isn't at its best.

Chemicals can affect the brain in many ways. The National Institutes of Health states that encephalopathy is a term for brain disease or malfunction and that it may be caused by a number of things, including toxins like solvents, paints, drugs, radiation, industrial chemicals and certain metals. The list of possible symptoms includes progressive loss of memory, inability to concentrate, and decline in cognitive ability.

The cognitive effects of chemical exposures are very real. Even those of us who have been managing our illness for many years find that we forget to go through our "first-aid" routines after we have been exposed. People often talk about going into a store or other toxic environment and wandering about in a daze, forgetting why they are there and failing to realize that they should leave. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that the same dynamic may be happening on a societal level. I'm afraid that we may get to a point where we are too far gone to realize the trouble that common chemicals are causing us and to make the effort to save ourselves.

Some legislators in Kansas are trying to save themselves, at least from one possible toxin. An article in the Huffington Post reports that the Kansas Republican Assembly would like city officials in Topeka to cease adding fluoride to the city's drinking water, at least during the legislative session, "to protect our legislators from potential loss of IQ.and other negative side effects of fluoride."  Fluoride is only one of many chemicals linked to a lowering of IQ levels. Just within the past few weeks I've read articles linking lower IQ levels to leadflame retardantsand chemicals related to natural gas production.

The fictional Charlie learned from the experience of Algernon that his cognitive abilities were likely to decline again after they had risen. Unfortunately, he was unable to find a way to prevent that from happening. We can prevent further cognitive decline from happening to us, though. Medicine Net states that early treatment of many types of encephalopathy can halt or reduce the symptoms and that "often, cases of encephalopathy can be prevented by avoiding the many primary causes."  We can save ourselves, but if we are going to protect ourselves from the effects of environmental toxins, we need to do it before our collective cognitive functioning is so diminished that we fail to fully understand the problem. Let's save ourselves, friends. Seriously, let's save ourselves while we still can.