This piece was cross-posted on Gina Carroll.
Last week my husband came home with the wrong kind of laundry detergent. He bought a brand that he thought was fragrance-free just because it had the word “pure” in the label. The ironic thing is, he is the most sensitive in our allergic family to fragrance. He is the most allergic person in the household, by far. When my daughter sprays her favorite fragrance in her bathroom, which is located on the second floor, my husband can smell it within seconds in our bedroom downstairs. So laundry detergents with fragrance of any kind are out of the question. The bottle of detergent that he purchased sits unopened in the laundry room like a beacon of caution.
I come from a long line of heavily-perfumed women. My grandmother practically bathes in her perfume. She literally sprays it up and down her arms until they glisten and then she rubs it in with her hands in sweeping strokes until the liquid is soaked in. When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things to do with my mother was to go fragrance shopping in the now defunct “The Broadway” department store in Los Angeles. We would circle the cosmetic counter and test several fragrances on our wrists. On the way home, the car would become instantly infused with a whole exotic mixture of the perfumes we sampled. My mother and grandmother love to get perfume for Mother’s Day. This is a bit of a family tradition.
But ever since I married my husband some twenty-eight years ago, the line of perfume worshipping has been severed. I do not wear perfume anymore (at least, very rarely). It makes my husband ill. When he goes to a cocktail party or to church, he is under attack. When fastidious women put their best-dressed selves together, they usually go a little heavier on their most treasured perfume. The resulting assault on my spouse is just torture. He is in a very special anguish when a well-wishing acquaintance gives him a hug and kiss and thereby leaves a smear of her fragrance behind on his cheek or jacket! He is then left to deal with his body’s response for the rest of the night. The only good thing to come of this is that after so many hugs and kisses, his weepy eyes and runny nose usually discourage any additional contact from others!
One anniversary we went to a very nice restaurant. When we walked in, he immediately smelled insecticide—another offender. Then on our way to the table, we passed by a group of patrons, walking through their cloud of mixed perfumes. And then to finish him off, a gentleman at the table near us was enjoying a post-meal cigar. My husband was done- his nose closed, his eyes were watering and he began that tickle-in-the-throat cough that never ends well. We turned around and went home. My friends once asked me over a pitcher of margaritas if I ever missed wearing perfume. I like to say that when I got married I decided to wear my husband’s favorite fragrance. It’s a very inexpensive brand. It’s called Nothing. The answer is no, I don’t.
I suffer for him. I do. I know he is miserable. And I know that his misery is part of his reticence to go out. But sometimes the risk to clear breathing is worse when we stay in. The fact is, indoor air pollution is a commonly ignored but universal problem. According to the American Lung Association, indoor air is often worse than the air outside– full of mold, animal dander, pollen, tobacco smoke, radon, formaldehyde and asbestos. ASBESTOS! Unknowingly, our homes and indoor spaces (like offices) can harbor pollutants that when breathed in enough could increase the risk of lung cancer and exacerbate and aggravate asthma.
The fact that we live in Houston makes matters worse. Because the air is so polluted, my husband’s and our allergic children’s systems never really get a rest. Their bodies are always under siege and sensitized. This is the only place I have ever lived where allergy experts suggest that you never open your windows! This means that we have to be very careful about the quality of our air both inside and outside of our home. We are very attentive to what we choose as household cleansers, deodorizers and insecticides. We tend to our air filters like they are pets, and not just the HVAC filters, but all of the portable air cleaners we have throughout our home. We have no carpet or drapes. We have lots of live plants.
When we decided to get a puppy, we researched hypo-allergenic breeds. Ironically, we ended up with an adorable Schnauzer-poodle mix from the Poodle Rescue Shelter who, according to the vet, also has allergies. Why not? Join the club!
But we are very lucky. None of our family’s allergies have turned into asthma. Asthma is super costly, too. A recent study reported in the May issue of Health Affairs, determined that childhood asthma cost the U.S. $2.2 billion in 2008. This is a small percentage of the national cost incurred as a result of environmental illness in children. I know that my children’s allergies have a genetic component. But I also can’t help but wonder if my kids have manifested their sensitivities because we live in Houston, Texas. Experts say that some children develop allergies and asthma in Texas when they would not have in other less polluted parts of the country.
And there’s lots that can be done for the air outside, too. I encourage those who care for allergy and asthma sufferers (and of course, sufferers themselves) to help empower the EPA, who we entrust to take care of the air outdoors. Here’s how! It takes a little more than passing by the perfume counter, but not much! I know I’ve mentioned this part already…But it bears repeating, yes?
Happy Mother’s Day! May your day be bright and your lungs be clear!
This piece is part of the Moms Clean Air Force Blog Carnival: A Mother’s Day Gift.