It Smells Good, But Is It Good For You?

Fragrances in the Indoor Environment: An Under-Recognized Public Health Issue

Christine Oliver, M.D.
Massachusetts General Hospital
Boston, MA

Occupational Health Initiatives, Inc.
Brookline, MA


Fragrances are everywhere in the indoor environment:  in personal care products, laundry detergents, candles, air fresheners, cleaning agents, and more.  While pleasing to some, fragrances are definitely not pleasing to all.  Fragrances are chemicals, containing both irritants and sensitizers.  Increasingly, individuals are developing sensitivity to these chemicals, with incapacitating symptoms when they are exposed to fragrances at concentrations commonly found in the ambient environment.  For these individuals, the world becomes a challenging minefield.

In the workplace, employees with sensitivity to fragrances and other chemicals often require accommodation by their employer to even be able to work.  Successful accommodation is not a simple task.  Options include isolation of the sensitive person, a fragrance-free policy that applies to the entire workforce, and the creation of “safe zones” for the affected employee.  What policies are needed to ensure a healthy and productive work environment for all?

Dr. Christine Oliver, a nationally recognized expert in occupational health and chemical sensitivities, will discuss potential adverse health effects of fragrances generally and in those who are chemically sensitive.  She will present some practical solutions that individuals and employers can implement to address this unrecognized public health problem.

About Christine Oliver, MD, MPH, MS:

Dr. Oliver is President of Occupational Health Initiatives, Inc. in Brookline, MA.  She is an Associate Physician in the Department of Medicine (Pulmonary and Critical Care Division) at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical Schchristine-oliver-picool in Boston.  Board certified in occupational medicine and in internal medicine, Dr. Oliver’s primary specialty is Occupational and Environmental Medicine, with an emphasis on occupational and environmental lung disease.  At the MGH she evaluates and cares for patients with occupational and environmental illness and disease, including occupational asthma, interstitial lung disease, building-related health problems, and chemical sensitivities.  Dr. Oliver has done research and published in the area of occupational lung disease and she has testified before the United States Congress with regard to work-related health issues and risks.

For the past three decades an important focus of Dr. Oliver’s consulting work has been indoor air quality and related health effects.  She has lectured and publis
hed on this subject and she has been actively involved in indoor air quality assessments in a variety of settings.  These include health care facilities, courthouses and other government buildings, schools, and commercial office buildings.  Together with industrial hygienists, engineers, and human systems specialists she has worked to identify, characterize, and resolve air quality problems and their related health effects.  In 2009 she was a participant and presenter in the ASTM Johnson Conference on the standardization of mold response procedures.

An important component of Dr. Oliver’s clinical work has been in the area of fragrances and their related health effects, including causation and/or exacerbation of chemical sensitivities.  She has lectured on these topics, counselled patients and their families with regard to steps that can be taken to identify and remove fragranced products from their environment, and advocated for a fragrance-free policy in the clinic in which she works.