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Fragrances have been under fire for their toxicity lately and now the evidence is mounting that wearing deodorant and other simple acts of human existence – including breathing – may be the biggest source of air pollution in offices.

The preliminary research out of Purdue University in the US found that the chemistry of indoor air is constantly changing and that people might be the main source of volatile organic compounds in a modern office environment.

“The chemistry of indoor air is dynamic. It changes throughout the day based on outdoor conditions, how the ventilation system operates and occupancy patterns in the office,” Purdue University assistant professor of civil engineering Brandon Boor said.

For the research, the team of engineers came up with new precision ways of measuring and tracking volatile organic compounds in a Living Lab building.

It involves putting temperature sensors in each desk chair so that researchers know when people are coming and going, and a collection of sensors to track the flow of indoor and outdoor air through the ventilation system.

Sniffing out the human pollutants

A nose-like instrument was also used to “sniff” out airborne compounds in real time. It found that people leave behind many volatile compounds even after they have left the room.

Another key finding was that the more people in the room, the more VOCs were found in the air. Without appropriate ventilation, which can dilute the concentration of indoor pollutants, the levels of many compounds were found to be 10 to 20 times higher indoors than outdoors.

This is complicated by the level of pollutants in the outdoor environment, which people also have an effect on. The researchers believe that chemicals from self-care products such as deodorant, makeup, and hair spray may raise levels outdoors as they are dispelled outside by the ventilation system.

High-efficiency filtration systems were found to help keep down the concentration of pollutants in a building.

The purpose of the research is to identify all types of indoor air contaminants and recommend ways to design and operate buildings that control pollutant levels.

“If we want to provide better air quality for office workers to improve their productivity, it is important to first understand what’s in the air and what factors influence the emissions and removal of pollutants,” assistant professor Boor said.

The research follows rising concerns that many personal care products, such as perfumes and other fragrances, contain toxic chemicals.

At The Fifth Estate’s Happy Healthy office’s event earlier this year, air quality expert Adam Garnys from CETEC explained that perfumes and fragrances can cause a building to fail WELL accreditation, a health and wellbeing rating scheme.

“That’s from a rating scheme point of view, but from a real health point of view, certainly it does have an impact, I’ve banned them at home,” Mr Garnys said.

He said it’s better to look for the source of the odour rather than masking it.

“Fragrances are full of chemicals. Even some of the common ones like limonene – which is lemon oil – people have serious allergies to it. And do you need it? I guess that’s the question.”

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  1. I have great trouble with scents at work due to asthma. There is no scent policy so when I complain they don’t k ow what to do. This last one was due to a coworker in the office next door plugging in a fragrance plugin which made the whole area stink. I did speak to her about it but she continued to do it. I find very few people stop when I ask them to. I need thi s job as I am close to retirement and I suspect other offices will have the same problem but people treat me differently because of my disability and I feel that they just can’t wait until I quit.

  2. So true. Those awful ‘air freshners’ in office bathrooms and chemicals everywhere…
    It’s all about consumerism and marketing to encourage people to believe they are ‘dirty’ and smelly and unhygienic. Good old soap and water and light a match in the toilet if you need to!
    Love your work Tina. Keep it up

  3. There was a lady in my office that only worked one day a week. But I knew which day it was as soon as I walked out of the lift I could smell her perfume. It made me so ill, there was something in it that I was allergic to. The back of my nose and throat would swell up and I would get a massive headache. I approached HR as to what to do about it, and she told me to go and speak to the lady, which I did and she took great offence because it was a very expensive perfume. I think raising these issues is great to make people aware that they may be causing someone else distress.

    1. brave you for raising the issue. It might offend at first but when that person had time to think about it hopefully she got the picture and the message. I heard years ago that in the US perfumes are akin to smoking in front of people. So perfumes are the new smoking? Missed a great headline opp there, methinks

  4. Did they do these tests in a REAL office environment, where people use sprays and diffusers to put fragrance into the air? If not, then your typical office is much worse than they found in their tests.

  5. We live in a miasma of toxicity from hair products, body products, laundry products, add-ons, plug-ins, spray-ons etc. Until governments have the guts and will, stop putting their hands in the rich pockets of chemical companies, and legislate and ban these synthetic, toxic, unhealthy chemicals often made from petrochemical waste, it will not change, because even tho millions are now getting ill from it all, the rest of the population don’t care, don’t get it, dismiss the truth, and will not give up what they use. More real education, more legislation, more banned chemicals needed. Europe has banned many chemicals in products that are still allowed in North America, because it is more corrupt and greedy and over here.