Post 39: A Rose Is a Rose, But . . .

I think I was in grade school when our teacher taught us about smell.

“When you smell something,” she said, “you’re actually breathing in some really tiny particles of the thing you’re smelling.”

There was a silence, until one student dared ask, “Even dog poop?”

“Dog poop, yes. For sure. All kinds of excrement,” she told us.

In a loud chorus, which included my own voice, we responded, “EEEEEEUUWWW!”

I never forgot that lesson. How could I? I continued to smell stuff, and once I realized that little particles of the whatever were up my nose—well, that sort of thing changes you forever. I always tried to discover the source, and if it was lilies of the valley, my favorite flower, I didn’t mind. But if it was doggie do, or even the air in the bathroom after my brother had been in there awhile, I fled the scene if I could.

I still leave the scene if I can. I still think of having particles in my nose. Only it’s harder, these days, to identify the source. I smell diesel fumes more and more often, but I don’t know if it’s increased vehicle traffic or if it’s coming all the way from the train yard now. (Diesel is diesel, but I would like to know who the bad neighbors are.) Once, in the early evening, I wandered into my back yard and smelled what seemed like overpowering men’s cologne. It startled me at first. Was some guy wandering around back here? I looked and didn’t see anyone, thank goodness. I only figured out the source the second time I smelled it: The family next door had an outdoor dryer, and I could see what looked like its exhaust pipe going up, then out, aimed at our property.

I soon got better at identifying the strong and unnatural fragrance of dryer sheets. A month or so ago I had a memorable bike ride of about three miles, mostly on residential streets. I left home in a perfumed but invisible cloud of dryer sheet smell from next door. It faded as I rode away. But just a few minutes later, I began to detect another fake bouquet—different, but still that sharp dryer smell that I now recognized. From beginning to end, the fake fragrance took me past probably six or eight houses. After that I was able to take a few fresh breaths—maybe for a whole residential block. And that was all, until a third perfumed wave went up my nose. Then there was one last assault, which accompanied me pretty much the rest of the way to my destination. In other words, I had that uninvited company the whole way.

What, exactly, had my lungs drawn in? I had heard that dryer sheets were “nasty” but just how nasty? What made them so overpowering and recognizable?

I must say, I’m proud of my delicate, perceptive nose—I got it from (yes, you guessed it) my mother. Supposedly there’s research showing that people with sensitive schnozzes live longer. (Would it be because they can smell danger? Or is it some yet unknown correlation?) In any case, I’m always curious about what the breeze is carrying.

So I looked up dryer sheets online. And what I found made me broaden my questions. It wasn’t just what they had in them, it was what most products with artificial fragrances contained. Dr. Sylvi Martin and her associates at Naturopathic Pediatrics (link below) have written out an impressive list of new stuff with chemical scents: “laundry detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, air fresheners, cleaning supplies, perfumes, lotions, hand soap, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, perfumes, colognes, body care products, and scented candles.”

Wow. We’re all involved.

Their website is simple, direct, documented, and thorough—and still manages to be concise. I’m keeping this blog post short so you can visit:

Back from reading? I know. More bad news. Why can’t it be good for a change? My first reaction on reading about this stuff was to remind myself how old I was and how many decades I’d made it through without getting cancer or some other serious illness. I want to say I’m in perfect health. But of course I’m not. I have bunions, arthritis in my fingers, occasional back spasms, burning mouth syndrome, and an inefficient immune system. I sometimes forget words, feel depressed, and mess up appointments. Sorry, that’s TMI. But my point is, what caused these chronic maladies? Since I don’t know, I can’t say these chemicals had no effect on me. This site also made me realize that some of these toxic ingredients also have temporary effects. I have to wonder: did the fragrance in my shampoo cause this headache? Is the lotion I just got making my skin itch? Why can’t I concentrate this morning?

If people who smell well (as opposed to smell good) really do live longer because they’re more alert to various odors—I guess before synthetics it would have been things like mold, rot, a festering wound—well, then, rather than bury my head in the (fishy-smelling?) sand, I’m gonna continue to use my gifted nose and be aware of what my lungs take in. I can’t absorb all this information, or suddenly understand everything about the differences between safe and dangerous scents, but I can start paying attention and looking at substitutions.

We all meant well in the first place! We just wanted to be clean, to smell clean, to not offend friends and co-workers with too-intimate personal odors. Speaking for myself, I have this little story: I use a super-mild, Ph-neutral laundry soap, because the wash water goes to my plants and infiltrates my soil. It’s concentrated, and I never know how much to use. (Yeah, maybe I’m too casual about it.) One wash-day, some of my socks, after drying in the sun, still smelled a little bit like . . . feet. I realized, then, why people use heavily scented laundry soap. And dryer sheets!

But there’s gotta be a way to accomplish these goals without killing ourselves.

If you have a bathroom or kitchen cupboard full of scented products, please hear me: most of us do, and neither this blog nor Dr. Martin’s information (I’m sure) are meant to be judgements. The goal of is not to turn readers into sudden and complete environmentalists. That would be crazy. Rather, I want to link up aspects of consumerism with personal harm and—when it’s rejected—personal liberation. Much of the time, individual benefits go hand in hand with planet happiness. They’re two circles with a big overlap. It’s deceitful advertising, top-executive greed, and entrenched norms that keep us in the rat race, whether we want to be or not. I noticed (did you?) that Dr. Martin’s list of a dozen harms mentioned just one, at the end, that touched on what these chemicals of fragrance are doing to the soils and waters that surround us. The balance this time is weighted toward the personal.

If I write about all the reasons I don’t eat out, those are my reasons, poured out in the hopes that some people will connect with some of them—not to bludgeon anyone out of years of comfortable, happy eating habits, especially since there’s usually some good in them. There’s the future, but then, there’s also the present. There’s the long term and also the immediate. Human existence has always been that. It’s what makes life interesting. And difficult.

 I’m always looking for a balance between mine and ours.

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