The moral argument against fragranced products

Use fragranced consumer products in public? You may be causing other people pain and suffering

by Christopher Lindsay

In the TV series, The X Files, Dana Scully says to Fox Mulder: “I have identified the effect. I am still looking for the cause.” When something happens (an effect) it can often be a mystery to determine why it happened (the cause). One cause and effect relationship many people are unaware of is how fragranced consumer products can trigger health problems – including migraine headaches and asthma attacks – in a significant percentage of the population. If products containing fragrance are proven to cause harm, then it can be argued consumers have a moral responsibility not to use these products in public.

Countless products have fragrance added to them. This includes perfumes, colognes, aftershaves, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, air fresheners, deodorants and soaps. In 2010, the Environmental Working Group did laboratory tests and found that the average fragrance product tested contained 14 secret chemicals. Fragrance companies do not have to list the chemicals on the product label due to trade secret protections. The combined ingredients are labelled as “fragrance” or “parfum.” According to the International Fragrance Association, there are 3,999 different ingredients (both natural and synthetic) used in making fragrance.

Fragranced consumer products can negatively impact a person’s health. A 2016 Australian study of more than 1,000 people found that 33 per cent of respondents reported health problems after exposure to such products. Negative effects included migraine headaches, asthma attacks, contact dermatitis, respiratory difficulties, and mucosal symptoms. Nearly eight per cent of respondents had lost work days in the past year because they were exposed to fragrance. Exactly why fragrance can trigger health problems is not fully understood by scientists, but the effects are real.

If an individual uses fragranced consumer products at work (or in other public places), other people may experience negative health symptoms. Even though it is legal to use these products in public, just because something is legal does not make it moral. It is a universal moral principle that no one should intentionally harm an innocent person. If this principle is true, then it is morally wrong to use fragranced products in public because doing so will cause other people pain and suffering.

A lot of suffering in this world is unavoidable, but the harm caused by fragrance is 100 per cent preventable. Instead of buying products with fragrance, consumers can buy brands that are labelled fragrance-free. (Fragrance-free means the product has no fragrance, while unscented means it contains a fragrance that will mask the odor caused by the chemical ingredients.) Fragrance-free products are often higher in price, but the more people who buy them, the more corporations (and small businesses) will produce them, and the more alternatives there will be for consumers.

Christopher Lindsay is a TRU staff member concerned with fragrance use on campus.

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