Perfumes and fragrances: A potential health hazard

Updated 10 January 2013
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Perfumes and fragrances: A potential health hazard

A rose may be a rose, but that rose-like fragrance in your perfume may be something else entirely. It might well be concocted from any number of the fragrance industry’s 3,100 stock chemical ingredients, the blend of which is almost always kept hidden from the consumer. Makers of popular perfumes, colognes and body sprays market their scents with terms like floral, exotic or musky, but they don’t disclose that many scents are actually a complex cocktail of natural essences and synthetic chemicals — often petrochemicals.
Products we put on our bodies should not contain chemicals that could damage our health. Over the last 20 years, fragrance contact allergy has become a major global health problem. Many scientists attribute this phenomenon to a steady increase in the use of fragrance in cosmetics and household products. Fragrance is now considered among the top five allergens in North America and European countries. Research confirms that many of the ingredients in fragrances are neurotoxins, meaning that they have poisonous effects on the brain and nervous system. Additional studies link other negative emotional, mental, and physical symptoms to various fragrance ingredients. Until recently, scientists believed that the brain was protected by an impermeable mechanism, known as the blood-brain barrier. This is only partly true. Recent studies show that this system allows many environmental toxins — including those found in perfumes and other scented products — access to the delicate brain. Once found in the brain, they can take decades to eliminate. Decades that can result in substantial damage in the form of inflammation and plaque build-up in the brain, two of the precursors to serious brain disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Some fragrance ingredients disrupt our natural hormonal balance, causing any number of possible emotional concerns. These include anxiety, mood swings, and depression. Feeling down? It could be the scent you’re wearing. Even if you can’t smell perfumes, you may be suffering ill effects from exposure.
Not all scented products are created equally. Commercial brands of perfumes and colognes primarily comprise synthetic chemicals. Even many natural products contain synthetic fragrance ingredients so it’s important to start reading labels on personal care products. If there’s no ingredient list, the manufacturer may have something to hide. Also, beware of “fragrance oils” masquerading as essential oils. The former is synthetic, while the latter are derived from flowers, leaves, and other natural substances.
There are over 500 potential chemicals that can be used under the single name “fragrance” found on the label of many products. These are not just perfumes and colognes. Fragrances are found in air fresheners, room deodorizers, cosmetics, fabric softeners, laundry detergents, candles, and more. Some of these chemicals cause irritability, mental vagueness, muscle pain, asthma, bloating, joint aches, sinus pain, fatigue, sore throat, eye irritation, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, dizziness, swollen lymph nodes, spikes in blood pressure, coughing, and burning or itching skin irritations. Many of the scent chemicals used in fragrance formulations are unstable and tend to oxidize and break down when exposed to sunlight and air, during storage or when applied to human skin. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Acetaldehyde, a common ingredient in perfumes, is a probable human carcinogen. This means it may cause cancer in living tissue. In animal studies, it crosses the placenta to a fetus. The chemical industry’s own Toxic Data Safety Sheet lists headaches, tremors, convulsions, and even death as a possible effect of exposure to acetonitrile, another common fragrance ingredient. Bronchial spasms may be caused by perfume for those with asthma, according to groups like the American Lung Association and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Allergy sufferers can also develop other upper respiratory problems from exposure, a serious health risk. Hormonal reactions can occur from known and unknown chemicals in perfume. A study commissioned by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics revealed 12 hormone-disrupting chemicals in tested products. Some chemicals mimic the hormone estrogen (the female sex hormone) and others are associated with thyroid effects.
The National Cancer Institute finds lavender and tea tree oils, in particular, have effects similar to estrogen. They may also block or decrease the effect of androgens (male sex hormones). Long-term use is linked to breast enlargement in pre-pubescent boys. Cancer patients should consult a physician before using perfumes with ingredients that can cause interference with hormones.
Switching to products with natural-based ingredients and less synthetic additives may help.
“The way to the heart is through the nose,” says Haarmann & Reimer, a leading fragrance manufacturer. But we may want to think twice about giving a bottle of cologne or perfume to our loved ones.

— Muhammad Waqar Ashraf is professor of Environmental Chemistry at Prince Mohammad bin Fahd University.

Email: [email protected]


Blood donation in the Middle East: The gift of life that is easy to give

Updated 14 June 2019
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Blood donation in the Middle East: The gift of life that is easy to give

  • World Blood Donor Day observed on June 14 to raise awareness of the life-saving importance of blood donation
  • Regular, voluntary donors are vital worldwide for adequate supply of safe blood and blood products

DUBAI: Blood donations in the Middle East have been described as “the gift of life” as the region struggles to cope with the demands posed by conflicts, humanitarian emergencies and the medical needs of a growing population.

International health experts have called on regular donors to step forward to mark World Blood Donor Day on June 14.

This year’s campaign focuses on blood donation and universal access to safe blood transfusion, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), more donors are needed “to step forward to give the gift of life.”

Those who benefit most from blood donations include people suffering from thalassaemia, a blood disorder that affects hemoglobin and the red blood cell count, as well as victims of road accidents, cancer patients and sickle-cell disease patients.

Experts say while the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have launched numerous initiatives to raise awareness of the lifesaving importance of blood donation, there is an increasing need across a wider region for regular donors.

“Many countries in the region face challenges in making sufficient blood available while also ensuring its quality and safety, especially during humanitarian emergencies and conflicts,” Dr. Ahmed Al-Mandhari, WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, told Arab News.

The GCC countries say they collect in total more than 10 whole blood donations per 1,000 population per year, or about 1 percent, Al-Mandhari said.

According to WHO, blood donations by 1 to 3 percent of the population are sufficient to meet a country’s needs. Even so, achieving self-sufficiency is a daunting challenge for many countries.

Al-Mandhari said that more than 90 percent of the blood is collected from voluntary, unpaid donors, aged from 18 to 44, with an increasing proportion of repeat donors. What is more, blood demand is unpredictable and even differs with each blood type. “For example O- blood can be given to patients with all blood types. But AB+ can only be given to patients with AB+,” he said.

Then there is the issue of short shelf life.

“To be ready to help patients in all hospitals, countries aim to stock usually six days’ worth of each blood type at all times,” Al-Mandhari said. “Since blood has a short shelf life — a 42-day window — and cannot be stockpiled, blood banks are forced to depend on donors to help maintain stocks.”

WHO’s most recent report on blood safety and availability points to “gaps in the key elements of national blood systems” in the Middle East.

A Saudi donor flashes the v-sign for victory as he gives blood in Jeddah. The Kingdom has one of the highest rates of repeat donors in the region. (AFP )

While GCC countries have taken steps to keep stocks at optimum levels, other countries in the Middle East are lagging behind international standards. The WHO report shows wide variations in annual blood-donation rates among countries, ranging from 0.7 per 1,000 population in Yemen to 29 per 1,000 population in Lebanon.

Al-Mandhari laid out the solution in a few easy steps: “Governments need to provide adequate resources, and put in place systems and infrastructure to increase the collection of blood from voluntary, regular unpaid blood donors, provide quality donor care, promote and implement appropriate clinical use of blood; and set up systems for oversight and surveillance across the blood-transfusion supply chain.”

On the positive side, Saudi Arabia recorded a rate of 13.8 per 1,000 population, with a healthy spread across all age groups. The country also has one of the highest rates of repeat donors (91 percent) in the region. According to the WHO report, the proportion of repeat, voluntary, non-remunerated blood donation in the Kingdom is 65.3 percent, which “will keep the prevalence of transfusion-transmissible infections among blood donors at much lower levels than in the general population.”

In recent years, Saudi health officials have introduced a number of measures to ensure adequate stocks in blood banks, including those run by the Ministry of Health and dedicated centers. These include a large facility at King Fahad Medical City (KFMC) and the country’s Central Blood Bank.

In the Kingdom, to be eligible for blood donation, donors must be aged over 17, weigh more than 50 kg, and have passed a brief medical examination. The health ministry recently launched Wateen, an app designed to ease blood-donation procedures and help ensure facilities across the Kingdom have adequate quantities of blood by 2020.

KFMC officials say that every day at least 2,000 units of blood components are needed to sustain a minimum supply for patients at the facility and other governmental and non-governmental hospitals in Riyadh. Donated blood components are essential for the management of cases involving cancer, sickle-cell disease, organ transplant, surgery, childbirth and trauma, to name just a few.

The situation is not very different in the other GCC countries, which also need more donors.

In the UAE, Dubai Blood Donation Center, which accounts for roughly half of the total blood collected in the emirates, frequently highlights the urgent need for donors. In 2018 alone, it ran 635 blood-donation campaigns, which resulted in 63,735 donors and a collection of 50,456 blood units.

While all blood types are needed, negative blood types are in greater demand due to their rarity. “There is a continuous demand for all blood types as blood lasts for only 42 days. So donors are always needed to come forward to replenish these stocks,” Dr. Mai Raouf, director of Dubai Blood Donation Center, said.

“People can donate blood every eight weeks, with each donation potentially saving up to three lives,” she told Arab News. 

Given that transfusion of blood and blood products save millions of lives every year, and the fact that “regular donors are the safest group of donors,” the importance of encouraging people to return to donate blood, rather than be one-time donors, can hardly be overemphasized, experts say.

“Without a system based on voluntary, unpaid blood donation, particularly regular voluntary donation, no country can provide sufficient blood for all patients who require transfusion,” Al-Mandhari said.

“WHO is calling on all countries in the region to celebrate and thank individuals who donate blood — and to encourage those who have not yet donated blood to start donating,” he said.