Bring your guns, but leave your perfume at home

After paying out thousands of dollars in compensation to allergic workers, US authorities are banning artificial scents

New York

In some parts of the US no one will blink if you take a handgun to the office or even a civic building like a library, but increasingly you had better beware of darkening their doors with Hermes, Chanel or even Old Spice about your person.

As studies show an ever greater number of Americans suffer adverse medical reactions, sometimes severe, upon involuntary exposure to artificially scented substances, bans are being imposed across the country on the wearing of smelly aromas, whether pricey perfumes or bottom-shelf colognes.

Freedom of expression is a fiercely guarded right in the US, but it is slowly being trumped by something more modern than the Constitution – allergies. As many as 50 million Americans suffer from some form of allergic condition that can be triggered by things ranging from foods – gluten, peanuts, dairy and chocolates are popular culprits – to animals and chemical substances, including perfume.

"It's got no formal action behind it but it is working," says City manager Tim Young, referring to the sign that has been hanging near the front entrance of City Hall in Tuttle, Oklahoma, for the past four years. It merely says, "Allergy Alert! No Fragrances Please!" Anyone who spritzed before leaving home is asked to wait in the public area and meet the official they wanted to see there.

The policy was adopted for a simple reason. "We had a former employee who had some extreme medical issues with this," Mr Young said. "She kept working as long as she could, but when other people came in with certain fragrances, she would turn red and swell up and we had to take her to the hospital."

Though hard to enforce – no one has deployed any pong-patrols yet, nor is it easy to determine how much fragrance is too much – edicts elsewhere in the country are stricter. On a federal level, the US Census Bureau enacted a ban on scent-wearing for employees in all of its offices in 2009 and the US Health and Human Services Department followed with a similar policy a year later.

The city fathers in Portland, Oregon, a place with a history of progressive social initiatives, instituted a fragrance ban for all city employees last year. It also told custodians of public buildings to use scent-free cleaning products.

The science of perfume allergies is not simple. The most vulnerable are sufferers of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), who can react to an array of substances that go into perfumes but also into paints and cleaning fluids. By some estimates just over one in 10 Americans has MCS. But experts say asthma patients are also at risk because perfumes can set off their symptoms.

"The chemicals in some of these products can trigger nasal congestion, sneezing and the runny nose," said Stanley Fineman of the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic. "With the asthmatics, there's really good data showing their lung function changes when they're exposed to these compounds."

National attention to the problem can be traced back to 2006, when a Detroit public worker, Susan McBride, sued the city, saying that perfume worn by co-workers had prevented her from doing her job because of allergies. The city paid $100,000 in compensation and issued a city ordinance against scented bath products for public employees. For two years now, public servants in Motown have been told not to wear perfumes, colognes, body lotion, scented deodorant or use scented candles.

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