The Case Against Fragrance

The Case Against Fragrance
Kate Grenville and Gia Metherell
Talks / Lecture

Recording date: 
20 February 2017

Award-winning writer Kate Grenville discusses her latest book The Case Against Fragrance with Gia Metherell, Former Literary Editor, The Canberra Times.

Transcript of ‘The Case Against Fragrance with Kate Grenville’
Speakers: Kathryn Favelle (KF), Colin Steele (CS). Gia Metherell (GM), Kate Grenville (KG)
Location: National Library of Australia
Date: 20/02/2017
KF: Thank you all so much for coming to the National Library on what I’d like to describe as the first day of autumn. I know it’s probably a little bit optimistic but that’s certainly how it feels today.
For those of you who don’t know me my name’s Kathryn Favelle and I look after the Library’s Community Outreach Branch and being involved in events like tonight is certainly one of the perks of my job. As we begin this evening I’d like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of this land and I thank their elders past and present for looking after our land so we can have the pleasure of calling it home. 
Now the Library is very lucky to have a long friendship with tonight’s special guest, Kate Grenville. We’re custodian of a collection of Kate’s personal papers ranging from literary drafts and proofs to correspondence with her agent publisher and professional colleagues. We hold audio recordings and photographs and copies of Kate’s books in languages including English, French, Swedish, Slovenian and Hebrew and that’s before I actually got to the end of the list of holdings.
There was a time in the not so distant past when Kate was living in Canberra and we could spot her regularly in our reading rooms and in Bookplate too. And, Kate, we’ve missed seeing you here, we’ve missed wondering what you might be researching and writing while you’ve been sitting at our long tables in the reading rooms and it’s a great pleasure to welcome you back to us this evening.
Tonight’s event is presented in partnership with two of our other dear friends, the Australian National University and Text Publishing and it gives me great pleasure to invite the ANU’s Colin Steele to begin our evening. Colin.
CS: Thanks, Kathryn, and the ANU is also delighted to be holding a joint meet the author event with the National Library for Kate’s book, The Case Against Fragrance. And I’d like to thank Text Publishing and Jane Finemore for facilitating tonight’s event. Later on Kathryn’ll be outlining a couple of National Library events that are coming up and I’d just like to mention our next one at the ANU which is on March the 28th at University House with David Marr and Laura Tingle in conversation on David’s new quarterly essay, Politics and Prejudice, Examining the Politics of Populism in Australia and the Rest of the World.
To return to tonight’s event please ensure all mobile phones are turned off. There’ll be an opportunity for questions later on after the conversation between Kate and Gia Metherell. Gia is a former Literary Editor of The Canberra Times when it had one of the best book pages if not the best in Australia. Now its local book review content has ceased and its truncated book pages sadly come from outside Canberra.
Kathryn has mentioned a long relationship between Kate and the National Library. She is of course one of Australia’s most celebrated writers. Her bestselling novel, The Secret River, received the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award. The Idea of Perfection won the Orange Prize.
In the context of tonight Coco Chanel once said a woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future. Kate Grenville in her youth, she always associated perfume with elegance and beauty but she now asks what do we know about the power of perfume to make us sick? She was on a book tour promoting One Life, an acclaimed account of her mother which is on sale with her other books tonight at the bookshop. On this tour she was dogged by ill health and started wondering what’s fragrance? What’s in it? Who tests it for safety? What does it do to people and who regulates the industry? The more Kate investigated the more her novelist instinct to explore and question was piqued and as she said her inner scientist was unleashed. The Case Against Fragrance is a result of her investigation, a work of nonfiction combining memoir with rigorous research. Jane Austin fans could almost subtitle Kate’s book Scent and Sensitivity. 
CS: Interesting, William Dalrymple, the well-known British author on India had an article in the December-January issue of The Monthly entitled Sense and Sensuality in which he highlighted the loss of India’s historical mastery of the science of perfume and bemoaned the fact that Indian distillers are increasingly finding and designing chemical substitutes. The Case Against Fragrance will certainly make us see and smell the world differently. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Kate Grenville and Gia Metherell in conversation.
GM: Thank you, Colin. I think that’s pretty hard to surpass, the Sense and Sensibility. Kate, as Colin alluded to the book has - very much arose from your personal experience. It goes back – it’s not a recent affliction, it goes back a way. Can you tell us the story of your relationship with fragrance?
KG: Yes, certainly but let me just apologise in advance for my voice. As you can hear it’s fading rapidly so I’m hoping that Gia will ask very long questions. But I’ll do my best so I’m sorry it’s a bit croaky and faint. Yes, I’ve always known that I had a slight problem with fragrance – actually not always, when I was in my 20s having dates with boys I used to of course pour perfume all over myself in an attempt to become desirable. They of course were pouring Old Spice over themselves in a similar attempt and I used to wonder what was wrong with me that I didn’t enjoy dates, after half an hour I’d have this ripping headache and just want to go home and have a shower and go to bed. I thought oh, I must be totally neurotic, you know? I thought I liked boys but as soon as I go out on a date – anyway I gradually managed to piece two and two together. It was not boys that I didn’t like, I like boys quite a lot, it was - and it wasn't going out on dates, it was as simple as the perfume, the fragrance.
So as the years went on I used less and less, I started to eliminate it from other products as well as actual perfume. But about 10 years ago I suppose I noticed it had got much worse and as I think Colin or Kathryn mentioned when I was on tour for my last book which was only two years ago you know as a writer you can be a recluse at home in the controlled environment of your house but once you step out in the world you’re exposed to what other people are doing. That’s when I realised that it was a major problem. In fact there was a night in Launceston in a hotel that was very heavily fragranced as many hotels are now when I had such a headache and the perfume from the foyer was coming through the crack around the door.
So after the book business was finished I went out in the streets and found a newsagent where I could buy packaging tape nice and wide and I sealed myself in for the night like a pharaoh and I thought I have just you know crossed some boundary into crazy person territory. But I also thought am I really that crazy? And that was the very night that I sat up and I had my laptop with me, Googled fragrance headache and that’s when I realised that I was not alone. In fact the figure is that 35% of the population not only get health effects of some kind from fragrance, 35% know that they do, either headaches or asthma or skin allergies or many other sorts of effects and that’s when I began to think well if it’s that common and yet nobody is talking about it maybe somebody should.
GM: I suppose having the problem is one thing but actually as a novelist turning scientist is another and I don’t think your publisher was madly keen on the idea. So what impelled you then to I assume spend quite a lot of time and effort researching this? So there’s some very hard data in here.
KG: Mm, there is, yes, I did some hard work.
GM: What did you hope would happen?
KG: Look, my publisher was terrific, he’s a marvellous man, Michael Heyward at Text Publishing. I told him that I planned to write a book about fragrance and he blanched. Never seen anybody blanch before but he did, the blood left his face and he said Kate, for you to be writing a book about fragrance would be like Mozart giving up symphonies and taking up greyhound training. Which was very nice of him, I would not compare myself to Mozart but that was how keen he was. But he’s a fantastically loyal publisher and moreover since he’s sort of read the book and heard me talk about it I like to feel that he’s actually kind of come around.
It was a daunting task because the science – reading – I decided very early on that the only research I would quote would be from scholarly articles published in peer review journals, that is, heavy duty science you know multiple authors, little abstract that’s usually fairly readable, long piece which is often very opaque to a non-scientist such as myself. I was very lucky to have a lot of help with science-literate friends who helped me through all that and I began to see that actually the fact that I’m not a scientist is kind of an advantage because I know what we don’t understand, what we non-scientists don’t understand so I began to see my job as like that of a translator. The science is out there but nobody’s reading it except other scientists so there’s a place for someone who can take it and with help understand it and re-express it in a way that people like me can understand.
GM: It was more than daunting as well in another sense I think because you did feel quite embarrassed about all of this and felt that you might be sort of regarded as a bit weird so in a sense you’ve outed yourself but you have now – that’s opened up doors in terms of meeting other people who you - I imagine you hear all the time you know this has happened to me to a greater or lesser extent.
KG: That’s absolutely right, it’s been an interesting process for me, in fact the whole book has been a process and I suppose that’s where being a novelist coming to this subject is also an advantage because I could see that a book has to have a – if not an actual story, a sort of narrative shape so that you’re not just reading a whole lot of facts, you’re actually you know going on a journey I think is the cliché. And I have been able to do that through exploring my own questions as they – one question leads to another. How many of us are there? What is it in the bottle that’s making us sick? Who is regulating it? So it became a kind of narrative. I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten the second part of your question – oh the shame. I wanted to talk about shame, sorry, yes.
GM: Shame, see, I’d also forgotten it.
KG: The shame is an interesting thing because I suppose we all like to feel that we’re kind of normal, I suppose that’s where that shame comes from but for a very long time, really until I started writing the book, I didn’t tell anybody. I knew it myself but I didn’t tell anybody but I now realise – well I began to realise writing the book that one of the – because it’s terribly difficult to say to somebody I’m really sorry but the way you smell is giving me a headache. That’s a seriously difficult conversation to have with your colleague or whatever and I have a feeling that one of the tasks of this book might be – or one of the things that it might be useful for is to be just casually left lying around as a substitute for the impossibly awkward conversation. 
So I did feel shame but of course the more research I did, and particularly when I discovered how common this was, ah, I thought I actually have a responsibility in a way. As a person with a bit of a public profile I thought I probably will get this book published whereas perhaps another writer might not and this is a book that should be out there. So I felt – yeah, that it was a kind of – someone had to start the conversation, is what I was thinking as 30 years ago somebody had to start the conversation about passive smoking.
GM: Kate, you talk about people putting stuff on themselves but it’s not just that, is it? I mean it’s – in the book you say it’s everywhere and I was going to ask you to read a thing but –
KG: Perhaps you could read it.
GM: I was going to say –
KG: Thank you.
GM: - given the state of your sore throat I’m – if you don’t mind listening to me I’ll – 
KG: Thank you.
GM: So you say fragrance is everywhere. Unless you go out of your way to avoid it you live in a permanent mist of scented air. Think about the morning routine for a typical woman, she wakes up from eight hours spent in sheets and pyjamas fragranced with detergent, she goes to the bathroom and uses the loo smelling of toilet cleaner, the toilet paper probably smells of flowers and there might be an air freshener in the bathroom too. She washes her hands with scented soap, she has a shower using fragrant soap, shampoo and conditioner. She dries herself with a towel radiant with the scent of laundry detergent and applies fragrance, deodorant and moisturiser. She puts on clothes, they smell of the same laundry detergent. She does her hair with fragranced product or hairspray. Each item in her makeup bag, foundation, powder, blusher, lipstick adds more perfumes. She’ll throw the empty packets into a bin with a liner that smells of lemons. To finish she gives herself a good squirt of her favourite scent.
She hasn’t even had breakfast and already she’s been exposed to fragrance in something like 15 products, 16 after she’s washed up her cereal bowl in scented detergent. And then she goes out into the world. Say she works in an office, she’ll breathe in everyone else’s choice of perfumes, colognes, deodorants and laundry detergents on the bus. She’ll breathe more second-hand scent all day at work. The air might be freshened there as well with reed diffusers or wall-mounted squirter. If she goes shopping at lunchtime she’ll get another dose, second-hand fragrance from the other shoppers plus the room fragrance that many shops now use and the smell of fragranced candles and soaps in the bed and bath shop and the gift shop and the florist. She stops at a supermarket, she’ll get a bit hit of detergent smell in the laundry product aisle. If she takes a taxi it’ll probably have one of those fragrance diffusers. Even after she’s gone home for the day she’ll still be breathing fragrance because each one of those sources of second-hand scent will have left a little residue in her hair, on her skin and on her clothes. So it’s absolutely ubiquitous –
KG: Ubiquitous –
GM: - as we probably all now recognise. What is in those smells?
KG: Ah well the fragrance industry has a list of their website of roughly 4,000 chemicals that are the palliate as they call it from which fragrance manufacturers create their particular smell. But beyond that we can’t actually know because what the manufacturers do is combine a little cocktail of up to 150 or 200 chemicals to make their particular smell and that is the subject of a trade secret, that’s a commercial in confidence thing because it’s you know they’ve put money into putting it together in just that way. And as a result those ingredients, that cocktail of anything up to a couple of hundred chemicals does not have to be declared on the label so any fragranced product will have in unreadable tiny letters a whole lot of other chemicals, some of which are not too good either, but in there somewhere will be the one word, fragrance or parfum. Now that’s the legal sort of coverall for that cocktail of completely unknown chemicals. The only way you can actually know what’s in a scented product is to take it to a chemist who has an elaborate machine which can you know identify all the things.
So even if you knew which chemicals out of those 4,000 were upsetting you it wouldn’t help you because for any scented product you can’t know what’s in it. And of course many scented products don’t have to declare anything on the label, for example air fresheners and so on have completely unregulated amounts of all the fragrance chemicals and cleaning fluids and air fresheners and things like that don’t have to declare anything on the label.
GM: Why is that?
KG: I think the theory – it’s a good question – I think the theory is that it’s not up against your skin. Certainly the fragrance industry’s justification for air fresheners and reed diffusers and all those things not listing ingredients and having unrestricted amounts of the chemicals – some of them are restricted but not for these products – is that you don’t actually rub air freshener on your skin. Well of course you do more than that, you’re breathing it into your lungs. It is also falling on your skin and many of the chemicals can go through the skin but you know you’re taking it through your lungs and those delicate little bits in your lungs, they’re specifically designed to let things into your bloodstream.
GM: Is there a particularly common chemical that most of our say cosmetics, toiletries, that sort of thing would use?
KG: Well there has been research from the University of Melbourne by Anne Steinemann who took a basket of 40 or 50 very commonly used products and she has listed the most commonly occurring of these chemicals but of course that list would vary depending on which chemicals are used. Certainly some are more common than others but as I say it’s not all that useful to those of us without mass spectrometry, gas chromatography - I haven’t quite got that right but it’s something like that - machines.
GM: You would think that those chemicals had been tested and were declared safe but that’s not so, is it?
KG: This was another absolutely astonishing fact to me, I mean we live in a world that many people disparagingly call the nanny state, everything's regulated you know within an inch of its life. My sister-in-law has chooks, the happiest, healthiest chooks in the world on her farm near Gundagai but she can’t sell those eggs unless she gets a laborious paperwork and certificate from the Egg Board. Children’s playgrounds, so boring that children hardly want to play in them and yet when it comes to fragrance and these 4,000 chemicals and we’re going to get onto in a minute the fact that many of these chemicals are definitely bad for us, there’s no question about that, the horrifying thing is they’re really not efficiently regulated at all. The fragrance industry as it proudly says on its website is a self-regulated industry. So you know I had this idea that if something was for sale it meant that it had been tested by objective you know government people and had been declared safe. This is actually not the case at all.
GM: Can you perhaps pick a couple of the chemicals that might be - I you know I imagine you wrote the book and not everything's stuck in your head but are there a couple of chemicals that sort of leap out that you would associate with having harmful effects?
KG: Well maybe I’ll start somewhere else and say what kinds of symptoms they elicit. Now many of these tests are done by the fragrance industry themselves so it’s not as if mad anti-fragrant scientists are finding this, this is – the fragrance industry itself takes its responsibility seriously as a self-regulating industry, I don’t want to you know dis the fragrance industry so they test a lot of their ingredients mostly on animals because it’s astonishingly hard to get human volunteers to subject themselves to these tests. Now the results show that many of these common chemicals are skin allergens, that’s like well-known so they cause contact dermatitis and eczema, both of which are on the increase oddly enough in the last 20 or 30 years.
Many of them are irritants which means that they can trigger asthma in people susceptible to it. It’s the irritants that probably give people like me a headache. It’s probably also what makes some people sick to the stomach or their throat closes up or they cough and sneeze so that’s the irritants. Then a lot of these tests have also shown that many of these chemicals are carcinogens and I’ve got a little chapter on that in the book. Many of them are also hormone-disrupters. The body actually is fooled into thinking that they are the same hormones, particularly the sex hormones, that the body produces.
Now what the effect of all that is, particularly the carcinogens and the hormone-disrupters, all this is fairly new so it’s still being studied as you can imagine by the scientists but when I read all this I thought well no wonder, no wonder so many of us have varying bad effects. The fragrance industry as I say does a lot of these tests and it certainly doesn’t deny that many of their ingredients are not good for the health. They have a number of ingredients that are actually prohibited although they’re on the 4,000 list and another lot that are restricted so the fragrance industry is happy to say yes, these chemicals are not good for us but their defence is to say it’s okay, we’ve done tests on animals and we have discovered a safe dose for these chemicals and we make sure that in the products that go against your skin you only get the safe dose. Doesn’t apply to air fresheners, of course, you can put any amount in there.
But there are a lot of problems with that. To extrapolate from lab animals to the human body is a big leap. We are like animals in many ways but not in others, for example we can eat chocolate with no worse result than we get a bit fat and feel great pangs of guilt but as many of you will  know if you give chocolate to a cat or a dog it may die so you know you can’t extrapolate from animals confidently. 
The other thing of course is that – so we can’t know that the safe dose for an animal when extrapolated to a human, even with a safety margin, is actually going to be safe for us. The other thing is that because we’re getting the safe dose in 15 or 16 products before we’ve even had breakfast what does that mean? Plus all the other exposures that we’re getting during the day so even if there is in fact a safe dose for these chemicals we can’t know what it is and we can’t know whether we’re on the right side of it.
GM: The synthetic chemicals that are used are as a result of the fact that they are cheaper, aren’t they –
KG: Yes.
GM: - to – it’s cheaper to synthesise a smell and mimic it in a chemical way than to use – I think you’ve got an extraordinary figure in the book about rose petals, you need I forget how many thousands of kilos to get just a very small amount of the natural – so for example musk I think used to be from an animal –
KG: That’s right.
GM: - and is now – and that’s a very widely used –
KG: Laundry detergent is full of artificial musks, yeah.
GM: I was pretty horrified by what you had to say about laundry detergent, it does seem to be one of the very big baddies in the story, doesn’t it?
KG: I think it is because laundry detergent is usually scented with musks which as you say you used to have kill deer or civet cats or something to get it so it was very expensive and animal rights people thought that was a bad thing and I think they were probably right. So post second world war mostly artificial musks were developed. Now these are chemicals that the planet has never seen before, they’re not synthetic versions of natural chemicals as some of the other fragrance ingredients are, they’re brand new inventions – bit like plastic and things like that. And they’re very effective in making laundry detergent smell like an ocean breeze or a pine forest or whatever your choice of the day is but they unfortunately – they have two unfortunate unintended consequences, one is that they are virtually indestructible. From the laundry to the world they go into the wastewater treatment plants of the world and come out the end essentially unchanged and what they’re doing when they come out the other end has made people realise the other bad thing about these so they bioaccumulate, that’s – so if we eat fish that have - or virtually anything that’s been in contact with these things – you probably all know what bio – this is Canberra, you will all know what bioaccumulate means –
GM: Yes, we do, I think.
KG: - and it was the aquatic life downstream from wastewater plants that first alerted scientists to the fact that these things are doing something very weird which is what I mentioned before, they are acting like hormone – either hormone mimics or hormone blockers and they were doing very strange things to the wildlife downstream from the wastewater plants and that has made scientists start to research what they’re doing to us. Now this is very recent research because these chemicals have only been in wide use for really my lifetime, you know? It’s that recent. In fact we are the lab rats in a giant experiment in a way but because we’re exposed to those - because they’re so ubiquitous we’re exposed to them all the time because we’re up against fragranced fabric 24 hours a day one way or another, they are undestructible, they bioaccumulate. I mean they’re found in breast milk. This is all uncontroversial science. So the only question is what are they doing to us? If for example a mother pregnant with a baby boy is getting a much bigger or a bigger dose of oestrogen in the form of these musks than her body would normally produce what might that be doing to the child in her womb, particularly a boy child? So these are questions that are still being studied but they are of huge concern given that fragrance is an optional extra to life.
GM: Yes so it’s a modern-day problem, it’s – I mean with the old perfumes do you think you would have had the similar headaches and that? The concentration of the natural oils or whatever is in them?
KG: Look, some people are sensitive to natural oils, essential oils because although essential oils are made from natural ingredients, for example all those squillions of kilos of roses – I’ve forgotten too but it’s a gigantic number that you need to produce a tiny drop of rose otto. It’s true that they are made from natural ingredients but they are concentrated in such a way that nature did not intend us to smell them like that. Nature intended us to pick up a rose or at most half a dozen roses, on Valentine’s Day perhaps a dozen roses and smell them, it did not intend us to have up our nose something that is the equivalent of – I don’t know, thousands, 40,000 roses. So that’s why some people, although they’re natural products, some people are still sensitive to them because in a way they’re not very natural.
GM: I mean I can’t for example bear to have hyacinths or jonquils in the room, I absolutely cannot stand the – ‘cause we have to take them out.
KG: It’s a very strong smell.
GM: It’s very strong smell and it’s perfectly natural. And would you differentiate between expensive perfumes and cheap ones then? Does it make any difference?
KG: Thank you for that question because many people say to me oh yes, cheap perfumes gives you a headache but my expensive one wouldn’t.
GM: Bit like cheap wine and expensive wine or something.
KG: Yes, French champagne couldn’t possibly give you a headache. Would that it were so. Well unfortunately there’s no way of knowing because even the most expensive perfumes don’t declare their ingredients and of course you know if you’re a manufacturer and you’ve got something that’s like a thousand per cent cheaper to make virtually the same smell and you don’t have to declare the ingredients would you use the expensive $300 for less than a teaspoon of rose oil? Probably not so I think even the expensive ones – they may smell nicer than the toilet cleaner but essentially they’re made of the same things. Sorry.
GM: Now I was interested, really interested to read that in the United States and Canada for example, which I have never heard of, there are organisations and workplaces that have fragrance-free policies and we in Australia must be lagging way behind that because I don’t think I’ve ever been aware of walking into anywhere that said you know this is a fragrance-free zone. Were you really surprised to discover that or did you know about it well before?
KG: I had no idea, I was astonished. The reason why, in Canada it was some progressive nurses in Halifax at a famous – I’ve forgotten the name of the very famous hospital in Halifax and the nurses, some of them were sensitive but they also could see that some of their patients were suffering from the input of fragrance so they made that hospital fragrance-free – this is a long time ago, they were very forward-thinking, those nurses. And Canada has since then been on the leading edge of saying yes, let’s stop pumping this stuff into the air without knowing what it’s doing to people.
Now in America it was a little bit different in I think 2008. A woman who was sensitive to fragrance and had asked her colleagues to stop wearing fragrance and putting potpourri and diffusers on their desks. Okay so she had had that problem, she’d gone to management and said look please, would it be possible to ask people to you know cut down on the smell? They said oh no, no, no, it would be going against their constitutional rights to ask them to refrain so she soldiered on until one day she collapsed and had to be taken to hospital and it was very clear that she could never go back to work. So she found a good lawyer and took her employers to court and won a very, very large payout. Within about a week government offices all over America became fragrance-free at least in theory so they had fragrance-free policies, fragrance-free – or low scent signs up.
Now in Australia it’s interesting, a lot of places – I’ve talked to a lot of people who say oh yes, I’m in a choir and we’re all asked not to wear perfume. That’s very common because I think it gets in people’s throats and there is a woman who has taken her employer to court, actually she was a Canberra public servant but unfortunately she couldn’t afford a lawyer so she didn’t win but we have the framework in disability discrimination legislation and also human rights, the Human Rights Commission recognises imposs – if you can’t access premises because of the way they’re fragranced you have the right to you know your human rights have been negated. So in other words we have the legislative framework here and I think it’s only a matter of time before there’s a case. There might even be a lawyer in this audience who thinks oh yes, let me be the first.
GM: So you think that that’ll have to be the route through? Will be a case establishing the right of those into a fragrance-free workplace, whatever.
KG: I think it will have to be because if you look at the second-hand smoking analogy which is a very close one in many ways –
GM: Yes, it is.
KG: - that’s how that you know an employee – I mean the OH and S regulations often mention fragrance – I’ve got a chapter about that too so you know we have the right to breathe air that does not make us sick if the employer has the power to make that happen and they do.
GM: Well I certainly think that your book will be you know really raising awareness about the issue. Even though I was sensitive to a couple of things, nothing like you, I had no – really no awareness at all of what I was using in my home and since then I’ve been going ‘round sniffing the sheets and my laundry and reading my bottles and being absolutely staggered by what’s in them and I have seen the parfum or whatever it is and some of the other chemicals that you mentioned so I for one will be reassessing the way I run my household and my toiletries etc.
KG: Well the thing is fragrance-free as you no doubt know are very easy to buy these days, the market has spoken and the market says we may not quite know why we don’t want to saturate ourselves in fragrance but we want to go fragrance-free so you can buy it at any supermarket now.
GM: Yeah well I’ll certainly be looking out for it now. What would you really like to see happen? Would you like actually for there to be some sort of uprising with you in the lead or what do you think needs to happen to – aside from a court case to – I mean it seems that in our nanny state there is a role for government to play if this is such a widespread health issue and if it’s an environmental issue as well, that it’s you know not just for individuals suffering in silence, it should be at much greater concern at a policy level about this and the Health Department –
KG: I agree.
GM: - Environmental Department.
KG: The judge who awarded the woman in America the big payout said that the problem with the fragrance was that it interfered with the major life activity of breathing and it is as basic as that. Now exactly what you do next, it would be I think a mixture of things and certainly legislation but that often happens after litigation. I think I used the word legislation before and I actually meant litigation. Sorry, the brain is a bit addled by the virus. I think a successful court case would do a great deal but I think all of that is kind of way beyond my area of expertise or knowledge. My aim in this book is to start the conversation and to make people like you just start to say well wow, we are using this stuff, we are saturated in this stuff all day every day, let’s start to think about it. Yes, we may still choose to use some scented products but let it be an informed choice, not just a sort of passive oh well this is the products that are there. Let’s start the conversation to realise the effect that something that one person does will have a big effect possibly on the health of people around them. So the starting point is awareness, I think. And I’m hoping that copies of this book will be left casually lying on desks all around Australia to make that happen.
GM: Well I hope so too and I have a suspicion that some of our audience may hope so too because I would think that given the figures that you’ve mentioned people in the audience might also have similar you know impacts on their wellbeing.
KG: I wonder if we could ask for a show of hands. Those who are affected by – oh my goodness. That’s more than 35%. Wow.
GM: So a lot of people –
KG: I suppose you’re self-selected because you’ve come to hear a thing about the case against fragrance. But still -
GM: Well I am going to – I think, Kate, we will open it up to the audience now if you would like to have questions. I just would ask if you have got you know – if you have had a problem with scents and whatnot please keep it brief because we don’t want a long you know life story about it but you’re welcome to state you know your experience. I think you were first over there.
KG: Actually this lady was first but –
GM: Oh this lady, alright, we’ll go to second.
A: Thank you. Kate, I’ve actually had the experience of being sacked from a government department in Canberra –
KG: Oh my goodness.
A: - when I very politely asked my boss if she could reduce the perfume after I had passed out at work, smashed my face on a filing cabinet which I have a permanent scar for. Her response was to put her hands on her hips and say to me well you will have to find another job because I’m not changing anything I’m doing, I’m the perfume girl, I wear a different perfume every day and we can’t have you here because you won’t be able to come to meetings. From a job that I adored. But just a second thing I didn’t know whether you would be aware of this, that the National Gallery of Australia at the moment has the Versailles exhibition on where they are pumping perfume into the foyer –
KG: Yeah, good point, good point.
A: - that you can’t get by as an enhancement to your unforgettable experience so I could end up in hospital –
KG: Absolutely, from waiting in line to see that show. Look, I actually wrote to the Director. I read that in The Monthly, I haven’t been myself but I read it in The Monthly and I immediately wrote to the Director of the National Gallery, very reasonable, reasoned, mild-mannered letter, just putting out some of these facts. No answer.
GM: No answer, how long ago is that?
KG: Oh – well when did that Monthly – it would have been the January Monthly probably so you know he’s had plenty of time to reply.
GM: So well over a month
A: <inaudible> 39:07.
KG: He won’t.
A: <inaudible> 39:09.
KG: Oh great. They were willing to do that and yet they want to keep it going?
A: <inaudible> 39:15.
KG: Yeah but the more of us protest. Next time some fragrance person says oh, we can enhance this exhibition with some fragrance they will think twice about it so that’s what we’ve got to do, we’ve got to make the fuss, not be embarrassed. Thank you for that.
A: Thank you. I’ve been living with this sort of thing for 40 years and I really want to thank you for writing this book and going around and talking about it because there are two things for me right now, one of them is that I’m fairly sure that my speaking about chemical sensitivities and perfumes and whatever has led many people that I encounter living in this town to decide I’m crazy and I have to tell you I’m awfully sick of it. So I’m sick of what the environment does to me and I’m sick of what people will then do. And one of the things I wanted to tell you is that we’ve done some work in my allergy group for several years to get the ACT Health to take this seriously and about four years ago they put in a policy for – at the hospital on managing people with chemical sensitivities and it was a bloody good policy.
It came out of the work that had been done by Queensland, South Australian and Victorian support groups for – in August last year they agreed to revise it in the hope that it would get better and the draft was much worse and five months later we’re still waiting to see what they say. So it’s possible that in fact the counterforces have watered it down substantially or maybe I’ll get a pleasant surprise. But people in this room need to know that you can actually – at least today or last week before they change the policy – the policy’s been released but not to us which is interesting, not to the community. You could have gone a month ago to the hospital and said look, I need you to make sure that my environment is fragrance-free and hardly any staff know much about it but it was possible and I hope it’s going to go on being possible.
KG: Well thank you, yes, we all just – thank you for that and we all just have to keep pushing back.
GM: Sorry, I think you were quite clearly on, weren’t you?
KG: And you’ve done a good job, obviously you’ve done an excellent job so thank you.
GM: If everyone could keep it brief because I think there's a lot of questions in this room.
A: My name is Heidi. I just wanted to mention that some 13 years ago I went through chemotherapy and the thing we were told as part of our care was not to use perfumes. And my husband initially didn’t understand that it would be a good idea, him not to use the male equivalent and as soon as he put it on I just was - I just – I had a sheer reaction to it and after that he stopped. I noticed just a couple of weeks ago, he’s gone back to having the odd puff again and I said to him again I still don’t like having any scent or male whatever you call it around the place because it does affect people and a lot of people may not realise what the irritation is because it’s so common to be amongst others who are wearing it.
KG: Thank you very much for that.
A: I was wondering if the fragrance lobby has approached you at all? Given it’s so pervasive, whether you’ve been contacted at all.
KG: Look, the answer is not yet and if and when they do I will consider that I have succeeded. If I’m big enough to be a target I’ve made a difference.
GM: Question down the front row here.
A: Thank you. Like the lady up the back, chemotherapy, developed chemical sensitivity, particularly to a certain very expensive brand of perfume but it wasn’t just perfume –
GM: Sorry, can you hold the microphone up a bit?
A: Yeah, it wasn’t just perfumes, it was other smells and particularly I narrowed it down to the fixatives as well as the fragrance. The two areas I find the most problematic are sports gyms and indoor pools but I always go up and say look, I’ve been through cancer, these fragrances, these smells affect me, will you please ask the people not to wear it and usually they comply because you used the word cancer.
KG: That’s actually a really good – yes, I wouldn’t want anybody to tell lies but actually it sounds like a very effective way of cutting through the resistance, the oh this is just a crazy person saying you know a serious illness. Thanks for sharing that, that could be useful.
GM: So we’ve got a gentleman over on the far left.
A: As I was listening to your discussion of fragrance and chemicals I saw a parallel with the ubiquitous nature of sugar. At the moment of course we’re now trying to impose a tax on sugar. Should we - in spite of what Pauline Hanson says that we’re responsible for our own actions should we try to move in this direction?
KG: That seems like a fair way down the track but that would be great. I don’t know what the tax is actually on imported fragrance ingredients at the moment buts maybe it’s not low enough – maybe it’s not high enough. Yeah, good idea.
GM: Right up the back.
A: Yeah, this is just a comment following up on the person who mentioned fixatives. I know – I was close to someone who has pretty violent reaction as in throat closing over to aromatic hydrocarbons and so amongst that 4,000 list of chemicals that are being used he would probably be allergic to some of them and not to others and we find sometimes that even fragrance-free situations can trigger this and it’s often spores or fungus as well which has a common – like an almost unable to be smelt smell if you like. But – so the fixative business is – and some fragrances that you’d think would be a problem aren’t and it seems to be this – what they’re attached to, what their disperser is. Just wondered whether you’ve been able to address that in what you’ve written?
KG: Look, I haven’t. I opened up a can of worms in a way once I started doing the research because it led me into the plasticisers in plastics, the hormone-disrupters in pesticides, there’s a whole Pandora’s box there of which those other fragrance ingredients – I do mention phthalates and the UV blockers, both of which present problems also. I had to stop somewhere but I think - we just don’t need such elaborate products, I think that’s probably the bottom line, we can go back to much simpler products you know soap rather than –
GM: I think and probably the other thing is the antibiotic washes and things, I mean it’s a complete nonsense and now they’re ubiquitous as well and creating of course resistance.
KG: Absolutely but they’re being banned –
GM: Why we need to live in such a fragranced world is a question I think we should probably all ask ourselves, I mean it’s not as if we’re living with open sewers or – in the olden days and all that sort of thing you know it’s quite extreme, isn’t it? It’s even in – you talk a lot actually in the book – sorry to interrupt you, Kate – about the baby fragrances.
KG: Oh that’s just –
GM: You know their nappies –
KG: - heartbreaking.
GM: - and their wipes and their – 
KG: And their skin is so absorbent, their bodies are not developed yet, they can’t deal with this stuff. For babies particularly it just horrifies me.
GM: It is horrifying, I mean the natural smell of a baby is beautiful.
KG: Unless they’re chucking or pooping.
GM: Yeah but there’s soap and water to clean that up, I mean you know you don’t need daily going around in scented nappies and that sort of thing, I mean –
KG: I quite agree.
GM: Sorry, now I interrupted the question. Sorry, Kathryn.
KF: We have another question over on the left.
A: Oh just a – I was just reminded in listening to your talk about reading – I’m not an expert in this area but in the area of psychoneuroimmunology, some of the early research that was done very specifically – was focused on the olfactory nerves and their connections in the brain and the definite connections in terms of immune response which you can look at some time. But I was also reminded of what was it like before there was any perfume industry and there’s some wonderful early – I don’t know if you’ve looked at these as part of an introduction but accounts from medieval times – middle ages of what was valued for scent was when people gathered, youth gathered especially was clothing that had been worn over and over and over again and stank just as much as possible of sweat, even urine and all sorts of other things and there were court cases of – for example one was where a young woman had cut a piece of clothing, a little fragment of cloth out of a man’s attire at a party and she was charged by the family because of the smell. So the natural odours enhanced was what was valued.
KG: Right, yes. Yes, the whole business about the olfactory, it’s not something I went into in huge detail but it is fascinating because it reminds us that we are still animals and at that level quite primitive ones. You know mothers and babies can recognise each other by smell, human mothers and babies just like sheep and other animals. We can pick up when a man’s immune system is going to make – if we have a baby with him, that child will have a stronger immune system. We can actually smell that at an unconscious level. We don’t respect our olfactory system as much as we should, it’s a very powerful thing.
KF: Any other hands going up? Oh –
GM: In the front row again. Hang on, we’ll just bring a microphone to you ‘cause we’re recording.
A: Thank you. When I was working for the science program, Quantum <inaudible> 50:16 –
GM: Just hold it closer to your –
A: When I was working –
GM: That’s it, yeah.
A: Sweet spot?
GM: Yeah.
A: When I was working for the science program, Quantum, we did a study – a program on early memory and how the process of actual memory gets kick-started and what it is it’s a smell and so what they did was habituate some poor newborns to the smell of a fresh lemon as opposed to the mother but apparently they need the smell to kick-start the whole neurological process, I mean.
KG: Yes, there’s a lot of studies about infant parent bonding through smell and it does make you wonder. In fact at one of the Canberra hospitals I had a young friend who had a baby there some time ago and she said to me the nurses said to us stop using fragrance products on either side of the birth for some time because as the nurses put it Bub needs to learn the smell of Mum and Dad. And you can imagine how – what a basic sense of reassurance that must be. Well if that basic smell is clouded and completely masked by synthetic smells what happens to that sense of reassurance?
GM: You know you’ve reminded me of my little baby when he was a little baby developed a habit of sniffing me as he fell asleep at night, he’d just put his nose up on my cheek and go [makes sniffing sound]. And he kept doing it ‘til he was about seven years old and I thought it was quite bizarre but now after reading Kate’s book I understand what was going on there. Fortunately he’s stopped now which is a relief. Do we have any more questions? We’ve probably got time for one more question before we move the conversation upstairs. Does anyone want to be lucky last or shall we take our fragrances up the stairs? There’s a lady in the second row here, we’ll just get a microphone to you.
A: Kate, I used to live in Oxford where there was a wonderful herbalist called Culpepper’s and one of the things that they produced were sleeping pillows filled with what they – natural you know things like lavender and thyme and other things and the whole idea was that they encouraged sleep. Now I’m just wondering, I’m sure that Culpepper’s stuff was natural and those things like lavender and thyme, the list goes on and on, can I just be clear that we’re not talking here about those naturally occurring things that in fact you know do help us?
KG: Yes although Gia has just said that she can’t bear to be in the room with hyacinths and other strong-smelling things so it is a spectrum and there are people who even with an absolutely 100% natural flower in a pot are going to be sensitive. But yes, there’s some fairly good science about lavender and so on in its natural state like as the plant as opposed to the thousand times distilled and concentrated form but you know you’re living proof –
GM: It’s concentration –
KG: - that even the natural ones –
GM: But that’s easy for me to avoid, you just avoid those things. I don’t have the problem that you have.
KG: So the natural plant – I mean we evolved alongside plants, our bodies actually need a lot of things obviously that plants give us but we have – because we’re such clever animals we have done things to those natural things. The other thing is that these days there would be nothing stopping a manufacturer of a pillow like that just enhancing the effect of the natural lavender by popping in a little bit of extra synthetic lavender as well. They won’t be obliged to declare it on the label. In fact I’m starting to think that florists actually spray flowers – does this sound completely crazy? Because they’ve bred for example roses to be thornless, when you breed for one characteristic you often lose another so I have a feeling that the roses might have lost a bit of their natural smell and you go into a florist shop and it’s – well I used not to get a headache from roses and I sometimes do, let’s put it that way.
GM: That’s really interesting.
KF: Well thank you both very much for an incredible evening’s discussion. I – if you haven’t read the book I have to give you a warning that when you do read it you will spend the whole time you’re reading it doing an inventory of every product in your home. You may find yourself standing for hours in the supermarket looking for fragrance-free deodorant and shampoo until you find it. It will certainly change the way you think about perfume, fragrance, all of those little hidden smells that permeate our lives.
I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t tell you the book was for sale upstairs at a 10% discount tonight so if you haven’t read it yet please grab a copy. Kate has also agreed to sign copies for us tonight and if you’re feeling a little bit sensitive about perhaps the perfume that you’re emitting this evening, you don’t want to get too close to Kate, please let us know, we can help pass books between her and you won’t catch her bug, she won’t smell you so just let us know how we can help in any way. Thank you very much for coming tonight and thank Kate and Gia.
KG: Thank you.
GM: Yeah, thank you so much, that was <inaudible> 55:58.
KF: See you upstairs.
[End of Recording]
Download transcript 121.82 KB

Recent audio All recent audio