Pumpkin spice: seasonal scent may not bring holiday cheer to everyone

Pumpkin spice -- delightful seasonal scent or health threat?

The proliferation of pumpkin spice products may indicate the pie-inspired cinninmon-nutmeg-ginger-clove mixture is a good thing. But the science is less certain.

An air freshener likely puffing out a chemical blend caused a brief scare this week at a Baltimore school when several students and teachers felt sick. After an evacuation and a quick investigation by the fire department, the offending scent was assumed to be an aerosol plugin air freshener in a third-floor classroom.

The fire department declared there was no danger, and the school’s windows were opened to air out the building.

But a 2009 survey published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing found that a quarter of more than 250 people with so-called multiple chemical sensitivity had serious impairments such as job loss, financial loss, social isolation and even homelessness. This, however, is a severe, even disputed, condition where low levels of chemicals hinder basic functioning.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that chemicals that make up some odors in paint, cleaners, perfume and air fresheners have the potential to effect air quality, and therefore cause health issues, when they release volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Those are chemicals that contain carbon and easily turn to vapor.

The odors containing VOCs can be pleasant or unpleasant. Some are a health hazard and some are not. The CDC concludes reducing exposure to chemicals can “improve outcomes” for people and the environment.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says VOCs cans cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, allergic skin reactions, and in some cases, liver, kidney and central nervous system damage. Some scents can also contain benzene, formaldehyde and phthalates, which have been linked to cancer, neurological troubles and harms to the reproductive system.

But most of these potential reactions are not worth worrying about, said Dr. Alvin Sanico, an asthma and allergy specialist at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

“Strong scents, even cold air and tobacco exposure, can cause an irritant effect for people who have hyper responsive airways,” he said. “Those with asthma can be impacted by such exposure.”

For most people, however, excessive pumpkin spice is just annoying, Sanico said, “There was no need to evacuate a whole school.”

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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