Eau de Toluene, A Scent No River Should Wear

Environmental Commentary by Liza Field

After decades, my friend Mr. Crigger has abandoned his old foot-worn fishing spot along the river that bottoms our mountain watershed.

He quit not because the catch, even combined with his grandson’s, kept decreasing. They didn’t go there mainly for fish, but love of the river, its birds and sycamore shade and sweet old mineral vapors.

But today, the river often smells of perfume—the strong stuff used in dish soap, shampoo and laundry products.

These “fragrances” along Mr. Crigger’s old sandbar increasingly fumigate many U.S. rivers. They flow from shower drains, washing machines and sinks, via water treatment plants that remove sewage but not synthetic perfumes.

Mr. Crigger points out that he isn’t “persnickety.” His Depression era childhood entailed hog slaughters, lye soap and no plumbing but an outhouse and spring.

He relishes real smells of bottomland, silage, even the cow manure he gathers by hand for his garden—but not a river emanating the fumigants of a chemical porta-john. “Nobody wants to eat a fish coming out of a smell like that.”

Well, something is fishy about a deodorized river.. But synthetic perfume is now everywhere—we’re all steeped in it.

Powerful contrails of floral-flea-bomb and sweet-artificial-grape billow from the most unlikely sources—garbage bags, kitty litter, truck cabs, bake sale cookies and diapered babies. Even the family dog smells embalmed with fabric softener.

Where’s it all coming from?

Today’s artificial fragrance (“synthetic musk”) is mostly petroleum derived. It’s why that greasy stick of “Fresh Spring Breeze” has rank undertones of epoxy, the cloying sweetness of nail-polish remover, benzene, acetones, nose-buzzing solvent.

Petrochemical VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are widely regulated in the discharge of other industries, but not the fragrance industry. It remains exempt even from ingredient disclosure, despite the accumulating presence of these products coming out in the wash of our environment.

But researchers analyzing these fragrances have found numerous toxic components.

These include hormone-disrupting phthalates, ethyl and butyl acetates (linked to liver and kidney damage), the carcinogens acetaldehyde and benzene, benzyl acetate (linked to pancreatic cancer and absorbed through skin), and central nervous system damagers like A-Terpineol, ethanol, toluene, pentane and linalool.

Perhaps that’s why 13 percent of the population is now diagnosed with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, their freedom literally lost to our common saturation in chemical fragrances.

Thirty percent of the population also considers these powerful VOCs irritating, and 20 percent report physical reactions to air fresheners, according to research surveys by Anne Steinmann at University of Washington, whose team has extensively analyzed these products.

Toxic fragrance VOCs are now found in human breast milk and adipose tissue—even the umbilical cord blood of newborns.

How’d this poison become so ubiquitous?

“Synthetic musks can be easily produced and are very cheap,” said Stanford researcher Till Luckenbach.

He’s one of many biologists concerned about the effects of these perfumes on waterways and marine ecosystems, where they end up.

Not only are petrochemicals cheap, they potentiate that odor-masking, nose-numbing power the industry esteems in its products—“persistence.”

And persistent they are—not least in the environment, where they do more than smell bizarre.

In water bodies from the Great Lakes to China to Germany, studies document the bioaccumulation of galaxolide and tonalide—both endocrine-disrupting fragrance components.

In aquatic systems, these compounds bind to sediment, harming the organisms that feed off it.

Stanford researchers Luckenbach and biologist David Epel studied the effects of six common perfume compounds on California mussels, and found that the fragrance chemicals compromised the mussels’ cellular defense equipment—the xenobiotic defense system—which eliminates toxins.

Mussels impaired by fragrance compounds are thus left exposed to whatever other toxins come down the pike.

So may be humans, the study implies. We have similar xenobiotic defense equipment, not least in the blood-brain barrier tasked with keeping toxins from deranging our mental function.

Perhaps we’re already deranged.

Congress has defeated past bills calling for fragrance ingredient disclosure. The smell of money is a neurotoxin of its own, and petrochemicals fund many a political career.

But why should the average consumer help fund this pollution stream?

It’s easy enough to buy only products that disclose all ingredients, and to houseclean with older effective scrubbers like baking soda, vinegar and fresh air (the real kind).

We can also go fragrance-free to respect that 13 percent afflicted with MCS. Perhaps their “sensitivity” to poison isn’t abnormal, after all, but a gift of common sense to a species that appears to be losing ours.

Liza Field writes from Virginia where she teaches, writes, and hikes ancient mountains. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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