Sue's Blog

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. 

(1a) When others abhor the scent you adore ABC news 29/8/2017,

(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. 

(3) Effects of fragranced products on the general population in Sweden: 33.1% report adverse health effects.
(4) Effects of fragranced products on the general population in the UK: 27.8% report adverse health effects. 

(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.

(6) Air fresheners and indoor air quality: why air fresheners impair rather than improve air quality. 

(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. 

More information

Who regulates air fresheners in public toilets and taxis? ABC radio 24/08/2018

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 YouTube
Brain retraining for fragrance sensitivity and MCS – failsafers report blog