Monday, November 5, 2012

Harmful Healthcare

I didn't see it myself, but I understand that chemical sensitivities were mentioned in a non-disparaging way on a television drama recently. Evidently, a character reasoned that a woman wearing a lab coat wasn't a doctor because she wore perfume. The thought was that a doctor wouldn't wear fragrance because she knew it would harm people with asthma or chemical sensitivities.

Hurray for the writers of the program for their awareness of the issue, but I'm not sure I could come to the same conclusion the character did. Unfortunately, more medical professionals use fragranced products than don't, in my experience. Those that don't actually apply perfume or cologne are still likely to use fragranced lotions, shampoos or other personal care products or to wear clothes coated in fragrances from detergents or dryer sheets. I've had  conversations with two medical professionals about the issue. Both told me the importance of being fragrance-free was mentioned in their training but they had never personally worked in an environment where the goal was mentioned or enforced.

Fragranced doctors and nurses aren't the only barrier to medical treatment for those with chemical sensitivities. Hospitals and doctor's offices are just as likely (maybe more likely) to be cleaned with toxic products than other buildings are. They are also just as likely to use "air fresheners" (see this previous post  for more information on their harm) as any other public space or to use dangerous pest control methods. Most people with serious chemical sensitivities eventually give up trying to access medical care.

Fortunately, there are a few organizations taking the toxicity issue seriously. Health Care Without Harm is a global coalition working to reduce pollution in the health care sector. Their website contains information and fact sheets on cleaning products, pest control and fragrances, among other topics.

The Massachusetts Nurses Organization is another group ahead of the curve. An article in their newsletter and on their website  discusses fragrance chemicals and their health effects, provides a model and sample of a fragrance-free policy, and includes a section on how to advocate for a fragrance-free policy in a healthcare environment.

One hospital that aims to be fragrance-free is Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. Their website states that they displayed posters near every elevator and in many clinics “promoting some of the things mostimportant to our patients and their families—equity, privacy, patient affairs and the WCH fragrance-free policy.” They developed a clever poster displaying various perfumes and personal care products labeled with names like “nausea,” “headache” and “wheezing,” which informed that “fragrances don’t smell beautiful to everyone” and asking people to respect the hospital’s fragrance-free guidelines.

Policies and guidelines that attempt to reduce the toxicity of healthcare environments are wonderful, and I pray the movement will spread. In the meantime, however, individual actions can make a difference. If you work in the healthcare field, your personal decision to use synthetically fragranced products or to be fragrance-free will impact every patient you encounter. If you don't work in the healthcare field, but occasionally visit a doctor's office, your product choices will also impact other people who share the air. If you're feeling brave, you might even want to mention to the office staff that their use of air fresheners and fragranced cleaning products isn't a good idea. Maybe you can make enough of a difference that some of us with chemical sensitivities will be able to access the medical care we desperately need.


DebraSY said...

Another great post, Martha. Healthcare is anything BUT healthy much of the time.

I have a post request for you. This year I am attempting a cruelty-free Christmas. I have already committed to NOT undercut American workers with products from countries of origin that abuse their labor. Made-in-USA, Canada, Western Europe and Fair Trade are all cool.

I would love a post on your favorite scent-free products to give as Christmas gifts. I give you permission to be a shameless marketer for a day.

Also, do you have an opinion on the Shark steam cleaner mop I see advertised on TV. Is it worth the $160 or are there better ways to mop?

Martha McLaughlin said...

I don't know much about the Shark, but I'm a fan of steam cleaning in general. I personally clean my floors with a spray bottle full of water and white vinegar (in varying ratios, depending on how dirty the floors are). I generally use a microfiber cloth, sometimes stuck on an old Swiffer pad.

I'll ponder your post suggestion. It seems like a good idea, but also a big subject. I admire your Christmas goal and hope you achieve it.

DebraSY said...

Just think of yourself as the "Unscented Oprah" presenting your favorite things. You don't have to present everything, and you don't have to give everyone in the studio audience a sample either.

Just a thought.

DebraSY said...

Off topic, but in today's Daily Tip, Alternative Medicine Super-Guru Dr. Andrew Weil is recommending Unscented Candles.

Thought you'd appreciate it. I have mixed feelings about Dr. Weil. I take some things he says and leave others. I once filled out his "vitamin advisor" form and his "advice" was for me to lighten my wallet by $135 each month in exchange for his vitamins. That's advice worth ignoring.

Martha McLaughlin said...

I just checked it out. I'm glad that in addition to mentioning that candles should be unscented that he mentioned using beeswax varieties. They're a much healthier choice than parrafin.