Coughing and headaches at work - The cause may be sitting right next to you
November 3, 2011
This essay is in response to: What are the health hazards of exposure to fragrances in consumer products and cosmetics? How can our regulatory system effectively address such hazards?
chemicals in the air around you
Are you coughing at work? Do you
have a headache every day or often at school?
Do others around you mention headaches? Do you hear coughing, but no one
appears to be sick? The answer to coughing and headaches at work or in group
settings may be sitting close by or walking through your work area. It could be
a man or woman wearing personal fragrance, wearing clothing washed in a scented
laundry detergent, who has bathed or swabbed in a scented soap or body lotion,
or who has just used a cleaning chemical, air “freshener,” or hand sanitizer. These
products contain chemicals which are recognized as respiratory and/or
neurological irritants, known to cause coughing and headaches, and to trigger
Personal fragrances (perfumes),
scented body lotions, cosmetics, fragranced laundry products, hand sanitizers,
and many cleaning products contain formaldehyde, phthalates, and a multitude of
chemicals classified as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Formaldehyde is
recognized as a potent respiratory and neurological irritant, capable of
causing asthma in susceptible people who are exposed. Phthalates, found in many
cosmetics, are recognized as respiratory irritants and disrupt the endocrine system,
making the unborn fetus, with its developing reproductive system, particularly
vulnerable to exposure through maternal use. VOCs are derived from petroleum
products. Acetone, benzyl alcohol, methylene chloride, and ethyl acetate are
just a few of the VOCs found in fragrances and perfumed products. VOCs vaporize
at room temperature, are inhaled, and quickly pass through the blood-brain
barrier, causing headaches. VOCs also settle along the respiratory track and in
the lungs, causing coughing and precipitating asthma attacks. These facts
explain why when fragrances permeate the air, susceptible people experience health
While walking through a shopping
mall, watch and listen to people walking by the stores that sell scented
candles and body products. How many cough? Do they know that they are being exposed
to respiratory irritants? In the grocery store, listen for coughing in the
detergent and cleaning product aisle.
fragrance free workplace and community
A few simple steps can help you begin the process of improving air
quality and health at work or in the community.
1. When you hear coughing
around you or a headache suddenly appears, STOP,
SNIFF, AND LOOK AROUND! Try to locate a fragrance source.
2. Think about how often
you may be exposed to these respiratory or neurological irritants or notice symptoms
of coughing and headaches. Keep a written record.
3. Talk with others to
learn how extensive the problem is and begin an awareness campaign.
4. Do a “cough count.” In some facilities, nurses learned about
doing a cough count in the presence of environmental cleaning products and
other respiratory irritants, such as powdered latex gloves. They wondered who
was coughing more: the staff continuously exposed to these products, or the
patients with severe respiratory illnesses (patients often cough and have
headaches from the scented products and cleaning agents)? They learned that the
staff members were often coughing more than the patients, which initiated the
campaign to remove powdered latex gloves and other respiratory and neurological
irritants from healthcare settings. Latex gloves have gradually disappeared
from most facilities. .
These steps help you to develop awareness
for moving to fragrance free environments.
Some employers have recognized the
adverse health effects posed by personal fragrance and scented cleaning
chemicals. They have developed Fragrance Free Workplace Policies and work to
educate their employees on this issue, post signage to reinforce the policies,
and include this topic in employee orientation programs and company handbooks.
Here’s an example of such signage,
this one used by the Massachusetts Nurses Association: “Men and women are asked
to refrain from wearing scented personal products when working or visiting in
In truth, enforcement of these
policies is a difficult task, but awareness and education go a long way toward
reducing or eliminating the use of these products and in turn improve the
health of all. At work and in community and educational settings, networking
and coalition building can move the issue of a Fragrance Free Environment
forward and reduce adverse health events in those affected.
There are many useful resources in
a quest to improve air quality where you work, learn, or gather with your
Health Care Without Harm, Risks to Asthma Posed by IndoorHealth Care Environments, Autumn 2006, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, MA, accessed 10/08/2011
Houlihan, Jane, Brody,
Charlotte, Schwan, Bryony, Environmental
Working Group, Not Too Pretty, Beauty Products and the FDA Copyright,
July 2002 by. All rights reserved. Accessed 10/08/2011
New York State,
Department of Health. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOD’s) in Commonly Used Products, Revised, February, 2011, accessed 10/07/2011
Environmental Working Group, Girl, Disrupted: HormoneDisruptors and Women’s Reproductive Health, accessed 10/08/2011
Association, Work Related Asthma in Nurses and Their Co-Workers:
available at www.massnurses.org,
click on On-Line CE, accessed 10/07/2011
Massachusetts Nurses Association, Model Language for aFragrance Free Policy, accessed 10/08/2011