College campus without scents?

TURLOCK -- Tropical breeze, tangy citrus, sweet floral, woody musk, fresh spice -- the beauty industry offers many ways for people to smell nice.

But sometimes those who wear perfume, cologne, lotion, deodorant, after-shave and hair spray inadvertently cause headaches for others -- literally.

Because of that sensory overload, a group of about 20 students at California State University, Stanislaus, is hoping to institute a fragrance-free policy on campus. They know some people think the idea is silly, but fragrances are akin to secondhand smoke from cigarettes, said Kristin Oosterkamp, a psychology senior.

"They're both so volatile, and both you have to breathe in if you are in close range," she said.

Others need convincing. Stanislaus State student body President Andrew Janz said he hasn't encountered much support from students for a campuswide fragrance-free policy.

Dr. Wallace Carroll said sensitivity to aromas varies and that a policy would be hard to enforce.

"One person's cologne is another person's poison," said Carroll, a Modesto doctor who has specialized in allergy and immunology for 27 years.

Colleges with fragrance-free policies include Portland State University, Cecil College in Maryland and Canada's University of Calgary.

Beyond classrooms and libraries, the fragrance issue is a sensitive subject in offices, with etiquette gurus such as advice columnist Peter Post shelling out suggestions on how to deal with strong body odors or fragrances. Kaiser Permanente instituted a program in the 1990s that discourages employees from wearing scents.

People who douse themselves in products are usually smelled before they're seen, but people can suffer bad reactions even when exposed to light scents.

Scientists are paying attention to that condition, called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. Since symptoms such as nausea, dizziness and headaches are common with other ailments, MCS is hard to diagnose. It can cause asthma and severe reactions, experts say.

The close quarters of classrooms probably intensify the manifestations, with 30 or 40 students stuffed into small rooms, some with no windows to circulate air, said Emily Mall, a psychology senior. Headaches and nausea can make it hard, even impossible, to concentrate and learn, Oosterkamp and Mall said.

Oosterkamp has a classmate who gets headaches nearly every day from exposure to others' hair spray. Mall would sometimes get migraines, thinking at first that her brain was getting full from all the information she was learning in classes. After trying to avoid fragrances, Mall said she's noticed the pains dissipate.

Many health professionals deny MCS exists, contending the condition is psychosomatic. Officials with the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association say its unfair to declare a public health threat for products that are "safe and regulated."

Most anti-fragrance efforts are small and on a grass-roots level, but studies in the 1990s by the health departments in California and New Mexico suggest more people have MCS than diabetes -- 15 percent compared with 6 percent, Mall said. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission created a category to chart workplace complaints related to MCS, which is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"People have the freedom to wear perfume, but people also have the right to not be exposed to these chemicals," Oosterkamp said. "We accommodate for wheelchairs; why not accommodate for people experiencing MCS?"

But other groups, such as the American and California medical associations, do not recognize MCS as a disease.

Oosterkamp and Mall have teamed up with psychology professor Dawn Strongin to form a club, the Neurotoxicology Association. They're focusing on educating the campus about MCS, with the hope of getting a formal policy instituted. When they chat with students, Mall, Oosterkamp and Strongin said, most are receptive.

"The more people know, the more they'll be willing to accommodate others," Mall said.

Strongin prohibits students from coming to class with fragrances, stating so in her class syllabus.

"It was akin to asking people to come to school in a tarp," she said. "However, no one wishes to consciously harm others' health."

When Stanislaus State student body senators heard about the effort in September, they chuckled at the idea, but Janz urged them to have an open mind when the issue is presented to the board.

After talking to students on campus, though, Janz, a public policy master's student, encountered a strong whiff of opposition.

"Such a policy goes way beyond the scope of what a university can tell their students what they can and cannot do," he said.

For more information on the students' efforts, visit www.myspace.com/neurotoxassociation.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.