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Death by Perfume?

-- by A. Marsh with apologies to A. Conan Doyle

"What do you make of it, Watson?"

The body sprawled next to a toppled chair on the floor of a dingy solicitor's office not far from our lodgings at 221 B Baker Street. Sadly, it was a handsome young solicitor's clerk who lay at our feet, one hand clutching at his cravat, the other holding a crumpled page. I knelt amidst the strewn papers of what appeared to be a singularly lengthy legal snarl and conducted my examination.

"There are no external signs of violence, Holmes." I rose from the floor. "The body is still warm. He seems to have been stricken quite suddenly, perhaps even in the last half hour. From his expression and the position of his limbs, I say he appears to have died gasping for breath...."

"Bravo, Watson! And what say you to this?" Holmes retrieved a small brown vial which had rolled under the desk. I glanced at the label.

"Arsenicum? I couldn't say. That is scarcely my medical specialty." As you very well know, I might have added. As a wounded former Army surgeon I'd had no occasion to add a study of homeopathy to my professional repertoire.

"Arsenicum, Watson, is commonly prescribed for those poor unfortunates who are quite literally in danger of breathing their last."

"So you would venture a diagnosis of status asthmaticus?" I asked.

"Quite so," Holmes was triumphant. "And do you notice nothing else?"

"Why, nothing at all." Aside from the corpse, and the disorder of the papers and chair, I could detect nothing unusual about the room.

"Breathe, Watson. Inhale. Do you not find the air laden with alcohol vapors and curiously heavy with scents of rose and musk? You may wish to inspect a little tract I have recently composed on the chemical composition of common perfumes and their devastating effect upon the human body."

From the beginning of our acquaintance, Holmes had exhibited a profound knowledge of chemistry, which, along with his keen powers of observation, often served him well during the course of an investigation.

He continued, "I have no doubt that our young clerk's final moments were spent with a woman, a woman with more money than taste. An overly fashionable person, as heavy-handed in her use of finery, as she is in her application of scent. No subtleties, Watson, no subtlety at all."

Now he crouched beside the body and deftly extracted the foolscap document held so tightly between the dead man's stiffening fingers. He handed it to me with that imperious gesture I'd come to know so well.

"Do me the favor of reading it aloud. And please, omit nothing."

Holmes went to the window and looked out upon the bustle of Baker Street as I began:

"Dear Friend,

"Pure air is one of the requisites of good health and yet today many people work and suffer in an atmosphere which rivals that of 19th century London. Formaldehyde fumes from carpets, ammonia and chlorine from cleaning products, ink fumes from copy machines..."

I paused. "What the devil are copy machines, Holmes?"

"Merely a mechanical contrivance of the twentieth century. It is of no matter. Pray continue."

"...even the solvents in ordinary perfumes and cosmetics combine to form an atmospheric 'chemical soup,' which, through repeated exposure, may ultimately endanger the health and safety of numerous employees.

"People may react to office pollution with a variety of symptoms, including an increase in colds and sinus congestion, fatigue, headaches, confusion, rashes, watery or irritated eyes, depression and even seizures. These symptoms may be temporary and acute, or they may become chronic and debilitating. But for those who suffer from a medical condition known as asthma, exposure to common chemicals can prove fatal.

"Asthma is a literal struggle for breath. A wide variety of triggers are known to cause inflammation and swelling of the bronchial tubes, often within seconds of exposure. Every asthma attack has the potential to suffocate. And in this country, the death rate from asthma is climbing.

"Perfume is a well-known asthmatic trigger. Those who suffer from asthma or experience other symptoms of chemical sensitivity cannot afford to underestimate the dangers of perfume exposure. And yet daily exposure is virtually a given for any working adult.

Often, the only option for many of these otherwise able-bodied workers is to give up their jobs and other activities in order to avoid all possible opportunities for exposure. Hardworking and talented people must retreat from the work force years before their time. Clearly, employers and employees alike must be educated. The use of perfume and fragrant cosmetics in all but the most intimate settings must begin to be as carefully considered as the act of smoking is today..."

"Enough!" Holmes motioned for me to cease.

"Come, Watson, there is nothing more to be done for this poor wretch. Inspector Lestrade will soon arrive. Indeed, I have already sent for him. We go," he said, snatching another paper from the floor, "to bring to bay this ... this careless creature, who has poisoned the very air with her habits of vanity!"

In the long course of our association, never have I seen Holmes so afflicted.

"To think," he murmured, "that this poor devil must have expired during the commonplace execution of his clerical duties, and in the very manner spoken of in this letter!"

He shook his head. "Death by perfume, indeed."

©Amy Marsh, 1997


Environmental Health Network (EHN) [of California]

See EHN's FDA Petition, Docket Number 99P-1340/CP 1
Includes analyses of six fragrances and a summary of one

Write to the Food and Drug Administration
about your adverse reactions to fragrances:

The United States Access Board
Board Adopts Policy to Promote Fragrance-Free Environments

Adopted on July 26, 2000, by the U.S. Access Board

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Return to The New Reactor index

Return to JAN (Job Accommodation Network)
Accommodation Ideas for those suffering fragrance sensitivity

EHN's home page (http://www.ehnca.org)

6/24/98 - rev: 3/11/00