How to ask for a fragrance disability accommodation from a business

Pumpkin spice is here, whether you like it or not.

For me, pumpkin spice is synonymous with death. I don’t just mean in the figurative sense–the end of summer, trees shedding their leaves, and the demise of sensible shoppers.

No, I mean literally. Before September, I already had suffocated from a displaced pumpkin spice broom in a home improvement store. The cinnamon pine cones are sure to follow, filling everyone’s lungs with harmful particles.

Listen, enjoy your latte, but there is no need for pumpkin spice kitty litter. The cats are already suffering.

The problem with seasonal fragrances is I have no idea where they are going to pop up. I usually smell them before I see them, and then it’s too late. Even with rescue medications, my reactions last at least several hours, if not days.

Last year, I had a major victory. I requested my local grocery store remove its cinnamon pine cones… and they did! It took some time–because corporate bureaucracy–but they eventually responded:

“Over the weekend we were able to get approval to remove this product from our floral department. We won’t have them in store after today. Thank you for your patience while we found a resolution for you.”

A few weeks later, I requested another business to stop lighting a candle near its cash register. Their response was even better:

“I am so sorry our candles caused a reaction. We have had a handful of concerns so we understand now the issues the fragrances can cause and will remove them. Thank you for giving us an opportunity to hear you and help.”

In the United States, fragrance sensitivity can be considered a disability and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable modifications for people with disabilities.

“ADA requires businesses to make “reasonable modifications” to their usual ways of doing things when serving people with disabilities… Anything that would result in a fundamental alteration – a change in the essential nature of your business – is not required.” – U.S. Department of Justice

Tips for requesting a fragrance disability modification from a business

  • Write an email to the business. It is important to keep a written record of accommodation/modification requests.
  • I prefer to call it a “fragrance disability” instead of a “fragrance sensitivity” when possible.
  • Be specific. Name the store location and product.
  • Be reasonable. The businesses can deny unreasonable requests (e.g. removing all fragrances at all locations). A reasonable modification might be moving fragrant products away from high traffic areas, such as the entrance and cash registers.
  • Be kind and thank the business for its modifications.

Example email for U.S. businesses

I am requesting an ADA reasonable modification for my disability at [store name] in [city]. Today, I had a severe reaction to [product] at your store. I am requesting you to [move or remove the product from a specific area] from your store. I have been a customer for many years; however, I cannot continue to risk my health to shop at your store. A 2019 research study found 32.2% of adults suffer from fragrance sensitivity; this modification will likely benefit other customers.

Thank you,

[Your name]


 

I’d love to hear your experiences requesting fragrance disability accommodations from a business! Email me at hellsbellsandmastcells@gmail.com.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but pine cones will surely kill me

How to tell someone they smell

Based on my research, people don’t react kindly when you tell them they smell. In fact, it seems to be the quickest way to evoke paranoia.

Technically, everyone smells. Whether it’s from a fresh shower or natural body oils, even the cleanest people have a scent. Just ask my poodle.

However, I am specifically referring to people who drown their bodies in fragrance: perfume, cologne, lotions, deodorant, and detergent. These fragrances can be life-threatening for people with mast cell disease. Just a few seconds of exposure can destroy my health for several days.

Although I try to stick to scent-free environments where people understand my fragrance disability, inevitably someone forgets or doesn’t care. When I was first diagnosed, I tried to be Minnesota Nice and avoid the offenders, but avoidance only left me with two choices: never leave my home or destroy my body. After months of puking, pooping, and gasping for air, I began confronting people.

3 ways to tell someone they smell:

  • Yell “Skunk!” and run away
  • Slap a Mr. Yuck sticker on them
  • Start a game of “Duck, Duck, Smelly Duck”

“You smell” became my default declaration. Every time I sputtered those words, terror swept across the offender’s face, as if they were the one dying. I realize my delivery was not great. In my defense, it’s about all I could manage to say. When your body reacts to fragrance, your organs swell and your oxygen levels drop. Sometimes I become so confused that I forget to flee the room or take my medicine. I fumble for words.

“You smell” was never meant to be a personal attack. I hoped any embarrassment would convince them to respect the scent-free environment. It usually did not. They did not understand the long-term damage caused by their fragrances. I realized it’s easy to tell someone they smell, but it’s hard to explain the consequences.

When I say “you smell,” I mean you’re killing me.

Since my mast cell disease diagnosis four year ago, I have become braver about educating people about my fragrance disability. I have learned requesting scent-free environments is not selfishness. Spreading awareness does not just benefit me; it protects the health of other people with mast cell disease and conditions that cause fragrance sensitivities, such as migraine and asthma.

3 ways to tell someone they smell and it’s harmful:

  • Hand them your EpiPen and say, “You might need this.”
  • Write a passive aggressive blog post and send them the link
  • Email, text, or talk to them after you recover from your reaction. Specifically explain how fragrance affects your body. For example, fragrance reactions can permanently damage my kidney. Probably try this option first.

Of course, you always run the risk of finding out someone is a complete jerk, who doesn’t care if you suffocate or lose an organ. There will always be that one person who suggests you “just wear a mask” without understanding masks don’t block fumes, but they do reduce oxygen flow. It’s best to avoid assholes, whether you have a disability or not.

The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Dryer

Once upon a time, there were three little pigs, all with mast cell disease. The pigs lived on an American farm where antibiotics and pesticides were heavily used. As the pigs became sicker, they decided to escape the farm and move into three condos in the same building in the city. They loved their safe condos in the city.

One day, all three of the little pigs felt very ill. They noticed a flowery fragrance seeping through their condo vents. Their throats and heads swelled. They vomited and couldn’t think. When they asked the condo association about the smell, they learned their neighbor had recently installed a ventless dryer.

The dryer huffed and puffed and blew volatile organic compounds (VOCs) all over the condo building to the detriment of everyone’s health, especially the three little pigs.

The first pig cried, “Not by the flare of my skinny, skin, skin!” and filed a nuisance complaint with the condo association. The association asked the neighbor to stop using dryer sheets, but decided the fragrance was otherwise negligible. The first pig had no choice but to return to the farm, and shortly after, was turned into bacon.

The dryer huffed and puffed and continued to blow VOCs all over the condo building, even without the dryer sheets.

The second pig cried, “Not by the flare of my skinny, skin, skin!” and filed an American Pigs with Disabilities Act reasonable accommodation request with the condo association. The association inspected the common areas of condo building, which were not affected by the dryer fumes, and consequently, could not offer any reasonable accommodations. The second pig had no choice but to return to the farm, and shortly after, was turned into sausage links.

The dryer huffed and puffed and continued to blow VOCs into the lungs of the building residents.

The third pig cried, “Not by the flare of my skinny, skin, skin!” and filed Fair Housing Act reasonable accommodation request with the condo association. The third pig also provided medical documentation of her disability. The condo association had never heard of this before, and didn’t take the request seriously until the third pig threatened to sue. The condo association passed a new policy requiring homeowners with ventless dryers to use low VOC, unscented laundry products. If the residents insisted on using fragrant products, the association recommended they use one of the vented dryers available to all residents in the common areas.

And the third little pig lived happily ever after, except for ongoing, non-dryer-related, life-threatening mast cell reactions!

Learn more about ADA and FHA disability accommodations for housing.

P.S. While I hope for a fairy tale ending, I’m still legally battling my neighbor and association.