Friday, November 25, 2011

That Was Stinky...

            While it often seems to be an overlooked sense, a human’s sense of smell is a remarkable ability.  Smells allow humans to assess their environment for dangers (as in the ability to detect and avoid rotten meat) and can even serve as a way for humans to communicate (as is demonstrated by research that indicates that smell plays a critical role in human attraction.)  An infant’s sense of smell is especially remarkable.  A fetus even experiences smells as his mother does; in fact, living in amniotic fluid actually heightens some smells for the fetuses (while I knew about the mother-fetus taste connection, I was surprised to learn this!)
            At birth, newborns can distinguish as many smells as adults- somewhere between 4,000 to 10,000 (big difference, but there seems to be some conflicts among olfactory theorists…) The smell that is most identifiable to newborns (especially newborn girls, the effect is seen much less in boys), though, is the smell of their mother’s breast.  They can actually distinguish their mother’s breast from that of another woman. 
            While infants have very developed olfactory systems, they do not yet have the ability to distinguish good smell from bad smells.  Experiments have shown that even when really stinky stuff (like “simulated feces”) is put in a 2-year-old’s play space, they hardly notice.  (Maybe this is some innate survival skill??)  But, by age 3, humans can determine whether something smells good or bad (known as odor hedonics.)
            Which is what led me to start researching this post- I like things to smell good.  My house, my car, my clothes. Most of the products I use at home have no added fragrances (laundry stuff and cleaning products, although vinegar could be considered a pretty strong fragrance at times…)  But, I do like plug-ins, candles, and Scentsy products.  But, this week Q-ball reached a much-less celebrated milestone- she had her first “it doesn’t smell like breast milk anymore” diaper.  This is obviously a challenge to my smell-good house. 
But I have been hearing and reading more about “toxins” in these fragranced products which makes me hesitant to use them around Q-ball.  Most of what I have read has provided no actual information other than “fragrances have toxins,” so I decided to delve a little deeper.

Here’s what I found-
In 2007, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that 12 of 14 air fresheners that they tested contained phthalates. Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are a group of chemicals that make plastics more flexible, resistant, or enhance fragrances.  They are found in some cosmetics, food packaging, shower curtains, detergents, flooring, and tons of other daily products. 
While no study has specifically tested the effects of phthalates in humans, in a 2005 study, the U.S. Center for Disease Control found that phthalates disrupted the endocrine system in test rats, resulting in reduced sperm counts, abnormalities in reproductive organs and systems, and even liver cancer.  Thankfully, for Q-ball and mine’s sake, it appears most effects have been found in males.  For my husband’s sake, it appears we were still able to have Q-ball….Other studies, more specific to fragrances, have found increased instances of allergies and asthma as a result of prolonged exposure.  Some researchers believe that the effects of these chemicals are especially harmful to infants and fetuses. They state that increased levels of phthalates in urine taken for pregnant women and a threefold increase in newborn boys with deformed sex organs over the last 40 years provide enough cause for alarm.
As a result of these reports, in July 2008 the U.S. Congress prohibited the use of some phthalates in children’s toys and cosmetics. 
            But, not all researchers believe that phthalates are harmful.  The study on test rats mentioned above was later conducted on test monkeys.  The results of this study show that there were no abnormalities in the offspring.  The researchers state that humans are closer to monkeys than humans, so that the effects of phthalates of humans is likely minimal at best. 
So, how can you establish a yummy-smelling secure base for your family?  As with all parenting decisions, it’s really up to you.  Because the tests haven’t actually been conducted on humans, and research is telling us two different things, some would consider the data inconclusive.  But, I’ve decided, why take any chances?  So, in my house, we’ve gotten rid of plug-ins and candles (these had to go with general baby-proofing anyways…) I’m also planning to place some plants that help remove toxins from the air around our home.  It looks like I might not even be able to kill spider plants, peace lilies, or devil’s ivy.  As for my beloved Scentsys, I’m now using the following recipe- 
·         2 Tbsp of coconut oil
·         A few drops of essential oils.
It should be noted that this smell is not nearly as strong as the actual Scentsy fragrances, and in large room probably won’t even be noticed.  But, it can keep a small room free from bad odors, and, since research has shown that my husband and baby probably don’t even notice the smelly stuff, that’s enough for us.

Have you stopped using fragrances in your house?  Do you have any other natural ideas to keep odors at bay? 

Sources:
Eliot, L. (1999). What’s going on in there? How the brain and mnd develop in the first five years. Bantam Books: New York.
Reineke, R. (2008, January 8). It's right under our noses: The importance of smell to science and our lives [Weblog post]. Retrieved from http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/1751
http://www.denverplants.com/foliage/html/CleanAir3.htm

4 comments:

  1. Interesting stuff, as usual. I didn't realize how much infants and fetuses could smell, or that the differentiation between "good" and "bad" smells came so late.

    We don't use synthetic fragrances in our home, but, like you, I love essential oils. I have had a scentsy warmer and some soy wax squares with essential oil fragrance on my list for awhile, but never thought to just mix the oils with coconut oil before. That's brilliant! Reed diffusers are nice, too, but also don't smell up a whole room very well. At this time of year, I do break out the essential oil scented candles - I just make sure they're made with soy wax and lead free wicks!

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  2. Thanks! Of course, I cannot claim the idea of coconut oil- I got it from another blog. But, I like it because, of course, coconut oil provides a little fragrance on it's own.

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  3. Very interesting! And, I must say that Annabelle is right. Italy is a beautiful and awesome country. But, I remember the cities being pretty dirty and stinky!!

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  4. Okay, I had to come back to this one, because I've been thinking about it and figured you would find my recent observations as interesting as I have. Annabelle will only be two next month, but I have noticed so much more awareness of smells lately. The best example is from when we visited Venice and walked through the city. She mentioned several times that it smelled, "stinky." No one else had said anything, but she was always right on - when she said something, we were indeed walking through a stinky space every time!

    So anyway, I'm beginning to question the current research on this topic. If only I had my own dedicated team of researchers!

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