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Chemical sensitivity increasing: study


Chemical sensitivity is increasing worldwide

"Some fragrances give me an instant headache and make me feel sick to my stomach, I feel as if I am going to vomit and just want to get away from it as quickly as possible" - failsafer, from 2012 Roadshow

In Australia, nearly 20% of the population report chemical sensitivity and 6.5% have medically-diagnosed multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) according to recent research from Professor Anne Steinemann at Melbourne University (1). 

In other words, MCS affects an estimated 1 million adult Australians, with chemical sensitivity affecting another 2 million.

Allergy and food intolerance specialist Dr Robert Loblay from Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Allergy Unit says roughly 30 to 40 per cent of his food-intolerant patients are also intolerant to chemicals (1a).

Professor Steinemann’s study found that of people with MCS:

  • 74.6% also have diagnosed asthma or an asthma-like condition
  • 91.5% have fragrance sensitivity, reporting health problems (such as migraine headaches) when exposed to fragranced consumer products (such as air fresheners and cleaning supplies)
  • 77.5% are prevented from access to places because of fragranced products
  • 52.1% lost workdays or a job in the past year due to fragranced product exposure in the workplace
  • 55.4% report health effects considered potentially disabling

The effects of MCS

The study found that, when exposed to problematic sources, people with MCS experience a range of adverse health effects, from migraines and dizziness to breathing difficulties and heart problems. For 76% of people, the severity of effects can be disabling.

“People with MCS are like human canaries. They react earlier and more severely to chemical pollutants, even at low levels,” said Professor Steinemann.

The study also found that 71% of people with MCS are asthmatic, and 86% with MCS report health problems from fragranced consumer products, such as air fresheners, scented laundry products, cleaning supplies, fragranced candles, perfume and personal care products.

Effects on asthmatics

A separate study of asthmatics found that over half (56%) of asthmatic Australians report adverse health effects from exposure to fragranced products and cleaning supplies and that most asthmatics would prefer workplaces, healthcare facilities, and environments that are fragrance-free, which could help reduce adverse effects (2).

In other countries

Similar adverse reactions to fragranced products are also reported from Sweden (33%), the UK (28%) (3,4) and the USA (26%) where the rate of diagnosed MCS (12.8%) has tripled in the last decade (5).

Do air fresheners make air fresh?

Popular belief is that air fresheners are ‘good’ – however, such products actually make air quality worse (6). In Western cities, emissions from perfumes and other scented consumer products are now causing MORE air pollution than from cars, other vehicles and oil refineries (7).

According to Professor Steinemann, even products marketed as 'green' and 'organic', which infer their safety, have components which are dangerous.

"Air fresheners do not serve a hygienic function — they do not clean or purify the air, but they add this mixture of potentially hazardous chemicals to the air we breathe" – Professor Anne Steinemann

What can you do?

  • Professor Steinemann’s suggestion:  anyone who wants to know more about the air fresheners in their workplace or local shopping centre should contact the building manager and complain.
  • Failsafe suggestions: vote with your dollars - buy only unfragranced products in supermarkets (there are more of them all the time)
  • Tell your supermarket that you appreciate them stocking unfragranced products
  • Avoid the cleaning aisle if you are asthmatic
  • Read fumes and perfumes factsheet for more tips


(1) Prevalence of chemical sensitivities in Australia: 18.9% of the general population report chemical sensitivity, and 6.5% report medically diagnosed MCS. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211335518300457 

(1a) When others abhor the scent you adore ABC news 29/8/2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2017-08-29/when-others-abhor-the-scent-you-adore/8849658?pfmredir=ms

(2) Effects of fragranced products on asthmatics in Australia: 55.6% of asthmatics report adverse health effects from exposure to fragranced products such as air fresheners and cleaning supplies. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11869-018-0560-x 

(3) Effects of fragranced products on the general population in Sweden: 33.1% report adverse health effects. http://nebula.wsimg.com/f4de57def5daaf561c3a66a20d5e44ba?AccessKeyId=5D08F679D61730E5CF3A&disposition=0&alloworigin=1
(4) Effects of fragranced products on the general population in the UK: 27.8% report adverse health effects. http://nebula.wsimg.com/73ef312ca761063c6777ff99926997d6?AccessKeyId=5D08F679D61730E5CF3A&disposition=0&alloworigin=1 

(5) Prevalence of chemical sensitivities in the United States: 25.9% of the general population report chemical sensitivity, and 12.8% report medically diagnosed MCS, representing an increase of more than 200% and 300%, respectively, in the past decade. https://journals.lww.com/joem/Fulltext/2018/03000/National_Prevalence_and_Effects_of_Multiple.17.aspx

(6) Air fresheners and indoor air quality: why air fresheners impair rather than improve air quality. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360132316304334 

(7) Emissions from volatile chemical products like perfumes, paints and other scented consumer items now rival vehicles as a pollution source in greater Los Angeles, according to a surprising new NOAA-led study.  http://www.noaa.gov/news/those-scented-products-you-love-noaa-study-finds-they-can-cause-air-pollution 

More information

Who regulates air fresheners in public toilets and taxis? ABC radio 24/08/2018 http://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-24/who-regulates-air-fresheners/10156426

Fumes and perfumes factsheet

Inhaled salicylates factsheet

Perfumes and fragrances factsheet

7 hints for fragrance sensitivity blog

Wearable air purifiers for fragrance sensitivity - do they really work? blog 

The MCS and fragrance research was recently feature in an SBS Documentary: Facebook https://www.facebook.com/thefeedsbsviceland/videos/2161508557509236/ YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bVdjIt72F0
Brain retraining for fragrance sensitivity and MCS – failsafers report blog

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Food intolerance

Some of the many symptoms of food intolerance that can be helped by diet:

Airways: Asthma, Stuffy blocked or runny nose/ nasal polyps, Frequent nose bleeds, Catarrh, chronic throat-clearing, Sinusitis, Frequent ear infections, Frequent tonsillitis, Frequent colds and flu, symptoms of Samter's Triad, hayfever, allergic rhinitis Skin: Eczema, Urticaria (hives), Cradlecap, Other skin rashes, Angioedema (swollen lips, eyes, tongue), Geographic tongue, Pruritis (itching), Rosaceae, Allergic shiners (dark circles under eyes), Pallor (pale skin), Flushing, Excessive sweating, Body odour, Sore vagina in children, Alopecia (patchy baldness) Digestive system: Irritable bowel symptoms (IBS), Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), Recurrent mouth ulcers, Indigestion, Nausea, Bad breath, Vomiting, Diarrhea, Stomach ache, Bloating, Reflux in babies, adults, Constipation, Colic in babies, adults, Sluggish bowel syndrome (feeling of "more to come"), Encopresis, Soiling (sneaky poos), Dairy intolerance, Gluten and wheat intolerance, Eating disorders (ed), anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder (BED)  Bladder: Bedwetting, Daytime incontinence, Urinary urgency, Recurrent inflammation (cystitis) Skeletal: Growing pains, Gout, Arthritis, joint pain, arthralgia Eyes: Nystagmus (involuntary movement), Blurred vision Muscles: Low muscle tone, Myalgia (muscle pain), Tics (involuntary movement), Tremor, Leg 'jiggling', Heart: Rapid heart beat, Heart palpitations, Cardiac arrhythmias, Pseudo heart attack (feeling of impending doom, chest pressure, pain down arm), Tachycardia (fast heart beat), Angina-type pain, HHT Central nervous system: Headaches or migraines, unexplained tiredness, Chronic fatigue, Feeling 'hung-over', Confusion, Dizziness, Agitation, Tinnitus (noises in ear), HyperacusisAuditory sensory processing disorder (ASPD), Paraesthesia (pins and needles), Dysaesthesia (numbness), Hypoglycemia, Salicylate-induced hypoglycemia, Epileptic seizures, Fits, Sensory symptoms of multiple sclerosis, Scents and perfume sensitivity, Symptoms of lupus Anxiety: Panic attacks, Depression, Obsessive ruminations (repetitively focusing on bad feelings and experiences from the past), Self harm, Suicidal thoughts, actions, teeth grinding (bruxism) Impaired memory: Vague or forgetful, Unable to concentrate, Won't persevere, Unmotivated, Disorganised, Easily distracted, Difficulty reading and writing Speech: Loud voice (no volume control), Speech hard to understand, Speech delay, Selective mutism, Stuttering, Repetitive noises, Talks too much (empty chatter) Coordination: Poor handwriting, Poor coordination, Frequent accidents, Vertigo Sleep: Difficulty falling asleep, Restless legs syndrome (RLS), Persistent night waking, Insomnia, Nightmares/night terrors/sleepwalking, Sleepless babies, Sleep apnoea Mood: Brain snaps, Mood swings, Premenstrual tension, Grizzly or unhappy, Cries easily or often, Irritable, Uncooperative Oppositional defiance: ODD, Loses temper, Argumentative, Refuses requests, Defies rules, Deliberately annoys others, Blames others for own mistakes, Touchy, easily annoyed, Angry, resentful Other behaviour: ADHD, ADD, Autism, Aspergers, Inattentive, easily bored, unmotivated, 'Unable to entertain himself', Restless, fidgety or overactive, Head banging, Hyperactivity, Fights with siblings, Difficulty making friends, Destructive, aggressive, Unreasonable, Tantrums, Demanding, never satisfied, Disruptive, Discipline is ineffective, Pervasive Development Disorder

Some causes of food intolerance:

Food additives: Artificial colours: (food dyes, artificial colors) tartrazine 102 (E102, FD&C Yellow No.5), quinoline yellow 104 (E104), sunset yellow 110 (E110, FD&C Yellow No.6), azorubine, carmoisine 122 (E122), amaranth 123 (E123), ponceau, brilliant scarlet 124 (E124), erythrosine 127 (E127, FD&C Red No.3), allura red 129 (E129, FD&C Red No.40), indigotine, indigo carmine 132 (E132, FD&C Blue No.2), brilliant blue 133 (E133, FD&C Blue No.1), green S, food green, acid brilliant green 142 (E142), fast green FCF 143 (E143, FD&C Green No.3), brilliant black 151 (E151), brown, chocolate brown 155 (E155)  Natural colours: (colors) Annatto (annatto extracts, bixin, norbixin, 160b, E160b) Preservatives: Sorbates: (sorbic acid 200, E200, sodium sorbate 201, E201, potassium sorbate 202, E202, calcium sorbate 203, E203) Benzoates, hydroxybenzoates, parabens: (including benzoic acid 210, E210, sodium benzoate 211, E211, potassium benzoate 212, E212, calcium benzoate 213, E213, ethyl para-hydroxybenzoate 214, E214, sodium ethyl para-hydroxybenzoate 215, E215, propylparaben 216, E216, propyl 4 hydroxybenzoate 217, E217, methylparaben 218, E218) Sulfites, bisulfites, metabisulfites: (200-228, sulphites, sulphur dioxide, sulfur dioxide 220, E220, sodium sulphite 221, E221, sodium bisulphite 222, E222, sodium metabisulphite 223, E223, potassium metabisulphite 224, E224, potassium sulphite 225, E225, calcium sulphite 226, E226, calcium bisulfite 227, E227, potassium bisulphite 228, E228) Nitrates & nitrites: (249-252, potassium nitrite 249, E249, sodium nitrite 250, E250, sodium nitrate 251, E251, potassium nitrate 252, E252 Propionates: (bread preservative, mould inhibitor 280-283: propionic acid 280, E280, sodium propionate 281, E281, calcium propionate 282, E282, potassium propionate 283, E283, 'natural' preservatives in bread, cultured or fermented wheat, dextrose, sugar, flour, whey or anything) Synthetic antioxidants: Gallates 310, 311, 312 (E310, E311, E312), tBHQ 319, E319, BHA 320, E320, BHT 321, E321 Flavour enhancers: (flavor enhancers) glutamic acid and all glutamates, MSG monosodium glutamate 620-625, yeast extract, hydrolysed vegetable protein HVP, disodium guanylate 627 (E627, DSG, GMP), disodium inosinate 631 (E631, DSI, IMP), ribonucleotides 635 (E635, I&G, nucleotides)  Flavours: (flavors)  Natural food chemicals: Salicylates: salicylic acid, sodium salicylate, acetylsalicylic acid Biogenic amines: vasoactive amines (tyramine, phenylethylamine, histamine and others) Glutamates:  Natural foods: Dairy: milk, yoghurt, cheese, butter, lactose-free milks Wheat or Gluten: (wheat, rye, barley, oats) Soy: Sugar free sweeteners:Sugar free sweeteners: polyols, sorbitol, mannitol

On this website, failsafe refers to foods that are Free of Additives and Low in Salicylates, Amines and Flavour Enhancers. Note that copyright applies to the commercial use of the term "failsafe" in the food and health context so as to control inappropriate use by the food and health industries.