Wake Up and Smell the Formaldehyde

There’s a school that suspends kids for wearing deodorant,” said my 12-year-old son on the way to school one morning. “It was on a YouTube video about the top 10 stupid reasons kids get kicked out of school.”

After I told him my top 10 reasons he shouldn’t believe everything he hears on YouTube, I told him the story, the real story, about Brandon Silk, who can’t go to school because Axe body spray can kill him. Even after Brandon’s school asked students not to wear Axe, someone wore it anyway, and the school nurse had to administer a life-saving dose of epinephrine to Brandon. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Before they could help Brandon, his doctors had to sign a medical gag order to review the list of ingredients from Axe body spray’s manufacturer.

He’s not the only child who’s had a near-death reaction to Axe either. A school in Brooklyn was shut down after somebody sprayed Axe and eight students went to the emergency room.

Stink is a documentary about the fragrance industry. Actually, it’s about toxic chemicals and how the chemical industry gets away with exposing us to substances that can make us sick. We’re exposed to over 80,000 chemicals on the market that have never been tested for safety. The FDA depends on companies like Unilever, which makes Axe, to test products for safety. A conflict of interest, don’t you think?

Profits over people.

It’s not just Axe though. It’s any product that uses synthetic chemicals to create a “fragrance.” There’s a loophole in the law that allows companies to hide toxic chemicals behind the word “fragrance” by claiming it’s a secret recipe. If people knew the chemicals that made up the fragrance, they probably wouldn’t buy the product. A company that has nothing to hide isn’t afraid to list the chemicals that make up the ingredients of a product — even the ingredients that make up the product’s fragrance.

If I could force you to watch the documentary Stink, I would. It’s that important to me. These chemicals affect people’s health, especially children simply because they’re smaller than adults. And cumulative effects matter.

“But people like the way I smell,” my son’s friend said to me after I told him not wear cologne to my house. “People like you more when you smell good.”

What I want to tell preteen boys is that nothing covers up the smell of body odor quite like a shower will. They’re not fooling anyone with cologne.

Sometimes I fantasize about taking the documentary on a middle school tour to wake parents up to the dangers of not just Axe body spray but all the unnecessary products containing fragrance that kids wear every day. I fantasize about crashing a PTA meeting with a film projector (not that anyone uses film projectors anymore). Of course, in these fantasies I also knock all the Axe off the shelves at my local store.

I want to let the world know that maybe some kids don’t actually have attention deficit disorder. Maybe their focus and concentration are bad because the chemicals that make up “fragrance” in body products and air fresheners and scented cleaners affect their brains. When people are exposed to certain chemicals, their brains change.

According to a 1986 report from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science & Technology: “Approximately 95% of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum.” And research shows how dangerous these specific chemicals can be:

SPECT scans have shown noticeable dark spots in the brain of a person with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) who has come in contact with these chemicals.

That feeling that you can’t think may not be due to fatigue but to someone’s perfume or candle or dryer sheets they used. “You’re not getting old,” I want to tell my friends when they become forgetful and make jokes. You’ve been exposed to too much toxicity — I mean ‘fragrance.’”

Producer of the documentary Stink, Jon Whelan

This toxicity has affected me personally. About two years ago, American Airlines rolled out a new uniform that made over 5,000 employees sick. I’m one of those employees. That’s when I started studying toxic chemicals to understand what was happening to me and thousands of others who were made sick by a uniform — or, more precisely, the toxic chemicals used to treat the uniform to keep it wrinkle-free and more durable. Think formaldehyde, stain repellent, water repellent, etc.

Early on in the uniform crisis, I took to Twitter to share my story and to educate others. I learned so much in such a short period of time. It’s hard to believe it’s happening until you’re personally affected, and by then, it’s too late. Once you get sick, you can’t go back to your old self. But nobody believes it can happen to them until it does.

My first chemical reaction to the toxic chemicals in the uniform affected my thyroid. Then I began to cough and experience respiratory and heart issues. Sometimes I felt pin pricks all over my body. Eventually, I began to react to fragrance. My guess is the fragrance contained some of the same ingredients my uniform did. Formaldehyde? Benzene? Cadmium? I don’t know. That’s the problem. You can’t avoid chemicals if you don’t know where they’re hiding.

I’ve been sensitized to fragrance due to an overexposure to known sensitizers in my uniform. As a flight attendant, it’s impossible to avoid fragrance at work. Now that hotels are pumping fragrance into their lobbies, and some airlines are planning to use “signature scents” in flight, I predict frequent fliers will end up just like me — forced to make a career change after 20 years of service.

“What you’re describing is multiple chemical sensitivity,” one of my readers wrote to me in a private message after I mentioned a fragrance making me feel nauseous and dizzy. Another reader told me to watch the movie Stink to learn more about fragrance and why it makes me sick. Now I’m the movie’s biggest cheerleader. Nobody is more thankful for the film than I am because it’s not just enjoyable to watch, it teaches something too.

To understand the extent of the problem, you have to understand how powerful the American Chemistry Council is. Most people don’t know how dangerous these chemicals are simply because they assume if you can buy a product at the grocery store, it’s safe.

The assumption of safety that most of us live under is false.

Some important facts I learned from Stink:

    1. The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 grandfathered in most of the 80,000 chemicals used in products today, exempting them from ever being tested for safety.
    1. More than 1,300 ingredients are prohibited in personal care products in the European Union, whereas 11 are restricted in the United States.Europe uses a precautionary approach to chemicals management where manufacturers are obligated to demonstrate safety before selling chemicals. The U.S. approach is the opposite: Chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proving a chemical is unsafe is on the government.
    1. Unlike prescription drugs (that undergo extensive safety testing), no premarket approval is required for personal care products (including fragrance). Companies are on the honor system, and it’s illegal for the FDA to demand a list of ingredients from a company it “regulates.” The FDA can’t tell you exactly what’s in a personal care product.
  1. Clothing is regulated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, not the FDA. The CPSC has no list of prohibited chemicals

The film Stink begins on a Christmas morning. Jon Whelan, the documentary’s producer, gives his two young daughters a gift: pajamas from a popular store for teens. The pajamas are scented. Jon is a widower who lost his wife to breast cancer, so he’s careful about what he exposes his children to. He wonders what chemicals make up the scent in the pj’s. As a concerned father, he calls the company, Justice, to find out. He asks simple questions, but the company refuses to answer. That call leads to more phone calls and even more ridiculous responses. “If it’s safe,” he asks, “what are you hiding?”

When their back is against the wall, the company’s answer is always the same: “We’re not doing anything illegal.”

This is true. In the United States, consumers don’t have a right to know the ingredients in everyday products. In the United States, people are being exposed to all kinds of dangerous chemicals at home and elsewhere. This is especially true in schools that aren’t well ventilated and might explain why so many teachers are beginning to develop MCS. If this is affecting them, you better believe it’s affecting children as well.

Cadmium, asbestos, and mercury are just some of the chemicals found in products sold at stores like Justice. In the documentary, Jon confronts the CEO of Justice at a meeting for shareholders. Jon bought one share of the company just to be able to attend the meeting and ask a few questions. The scene is eye-opening.

There’s a lot of bullshit surrounding the chemical industry — and the uniform crisis, too.

“‘Safe levels of known carcinogens’ is an oxymoron, my optometrist said when I showed him the list of chemicals found in my airline uniform, which I believe affected my vision. “There’s no such thing as a safe level of a toxic chemical.But good luck proving that,” he said, handing the list back to me.

At the time, my doctor’s comment made me mad. But then I watched Stink and learned why I’d have such a hard time proving a chemical could make me and 5,000 others sick. The chemical industry is more powerful than the NRA.Don’t believe me? Watch Stink and see Cal Dooley, CEO and President of the American Chemistry Council, dance around simple yes-or-no questions. Meet the lobbyists and congressmen and congresswomen who have no problem putting profits over people. And meet the people who stand up to the nonsense — only to be shot down for reasons that will blow your mind.

“How do I get people to understand how bad these chemicals are?” I asked Jon. With the uniform crisis, so many people won’t believe clothes can make them sick.

You can’t make anyone believe something they don’t want to believe. It doesn’t matter how many studies you show people that prove something is dangerous. All they need is one study to prove it’s safe. Nobody wants to give up something they like.”

This is true. While more and more people are getting sick at my airline, those who have yet to feel the effects refuse to stop wearing the uniform, even though they know it affects others. Chemical inhalation is happening. Proximity reactions are real. But some of my coworkers believe they have “a safe batch” of uniforms simply because they’re fine — for now. Also, they like the way they look. Proof that poison can be pretty. Vanity is ugly.

What you can do is show people that information is being hidden from them,” Jon said.

And that’s when I began to ask more questions — questions that rarely get answered.

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