It could be perfume, cleaning products, smoke, or exhaust, but aromas and air pollutants can trigger a litany of allergy-like symptoms for many people. For those with chemical sensitivities, the onslaught of environmental agents contributes to respiratory issues (and possible asthma attacks), sneezing, nausea, headaches, and eczema. Complaints of workplace allergens are common. For musicians, when the workplace comes with an entire audience, the problem is not an easy HR fix.
People who cannot tolerate even small concentrations of chemicals have multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Described as an idiopathic environmental intolerance (IEI), the mysterious phenomenon is largely invisible and hard to pin down. It presents as a cluster of symptoms that almost always occur together. There are potentially dozens of causes, from allergies to autoimmune disorders.
When we think of pollution, we think of outdoor air pollution. But most of our exposure to pollutants occurs indoors. For example, air fresheners may emit or cause the formation of numerous substances associated with harmful effects. Claims like “green” and “all natural” on packaging do not have legal or regulatory status.
A primary source of indoor air pollutants is fragranced consumer products. Scented products—perfumes, hair spray, and laundry detergent—may emit the same number of chemical vapors as petroleum from vehicles. Each spritz of perfume contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Sonia Klimasko, a 45-year member of Local 149 (Toronto, ON) and violinist with the National Ballet Orchestra in Toronto, says that it’s debilitating when symptoms develop during a performance. “Violins are situated approximately seven feet from the front row of the audience and potential scent exposure.”
Years ago, she reached out to the HR department regarding the orchestra’s exposure to products, specifically fragrances in the audience. The company took it very seriously. She says, “They added notifications about scent to their website and programs, and even to their call center on-hold recording. Signs are posted at the box office and in the theater washrooms, and the company has a two-page health and safety scent policy.”
Despite all the proactive measures, many patrons continue to wear strong fragrances in the close confines of the concert hall. Klimasko says, “These exposures generate many ailments for our musicians, including migraines, nausea, coughing, and difficulty breathing and concentrating, which make performing difficult.”
When It’s an Underlying Problem
Overwhelming sensitivity to smells is called hyperosmia. Relatively rare, it may evolve from a certain condition, perhaps with the onset of pregnancy and hormonal changes, autoimmune disorders, Lyme disease, and some neurological conditions. Scientists speculate that there may be a genetic link. In most cases, doctors can only rely on the patient’s report of what they are experiencing. Because scent travels from the olfactory system into the throat, inhaling strong scents creates a taste in your throat that may cause nausea. The increased sense of smell may also make flavors more intense.
Post-COVID and Indoor Air Quality
As COVID restrictions ease and venues prepare for in-person events, more concert spaces are paying attention to air quality to handle possible virus-infused air. A dividend, of course, is that better ventilation can remove excess moisture and microbes, eliminate smells, and reduce volatile organic chemicals.
The Four Season Centre in Toronto, where Klimasko and The National Ballet of Canada perform, has addressed airflow quality. They employed an indoor air security system for extensive testing of circulated air. DNA sequencing provided a high-resolution view of bio-aerosol movement. Results show that the center’s state-of-the-art ventilation systems support above average air quality and sanitization.
Other venues are fine-tuning their HVAC systems. Air handling systems at Symphony Hall in Boston have been upgraded to provide enhanced ventilation and filtration, including filtration with MERV13 or higher rated recirculated air systems and bringing in outdoor air at increased rates of ventilation.
The Bradley Symphony Center, home to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, is equipped with a state-of-the-art HVAC plasma air bipolar ionization system to deactivate virus particles and improve indoor air quality. The system greatly reduces dust, mold, allergens, and viruses.
Walt Disney Concert Hall, where The Los Angeles Philharmonic performs, and the entire campus at the Music Center, has improved air circulation and filtration across all spaces. It is the first performing arts center to earn the UL Verified Healthy Buildings Mark for indoor air quality.
Results of recent scientific research point to new directions for reducing the effects of fragranced consumer products on air quality and health. Klimasko, who is thankful that there is increasing recognition of the hazards of everyday chemicals, has made it her mission to heighten awareness about MCS in the symphonic world. She notes, “I like to say that I want to leave an impactful and positive vapor trail when I retire.”