Perfume allergies prompt a battle

The people in the center of a bustling big city are completely captivated by the aroma of a fabulous French perfume for men, resulting in pandemonium.

One guy tumbles off a moving motorcycle, which then hurtles through a plate glass window. A gorgeous nurse is so distracted she lets go of a wheelchair and the geezer in it rolls into traffic, causing a demolition derby.

A bus full of gorgeous female cheerleaders crashes onto its side and the cheerleaders leap from bus windows to join others in passionate pursuit of the guy or guys wearing that perfume, just as a mime runs down the street completely on fire.

Previously, I had not seen any commercials for Axe perfume for men, or, if I did see any, they did not register. (I have a bad habit of switching channels during any commercial.) In view of a nationwide fuss over Axe, focusing on the Bethlehem Area School District, I knew I had to check out that product's commercials, some of which I found on the Internet.

My first thought was that I wish this stuff had been available when I was in high school. For one thing, I could've saved a lot of time by avoiding showers after football practice, to say nothing of the romantic opportunities the perfume would provide.

Instead, I've always detested perfumes, for myself, for other guys and especially for girls and women. Some guys, by the way, call their perfume "cologne," to avoid being associated with, um, well, the Joel Cairo character in "The Maltese Falcon."

I do not have an allergy to perfume, as far as I know, but if I get trapped in an elevator with somebody who reeks of the stuff, I try to hold my breath for what are probably dangerous lengths of time.

Perfume, I am convinced, is designed mainly for people who do not like to take showers or baths. Slosh or spray enough of it on yourself and others may never suspect you have mold or parasites growing in your armpits or in other sensitive areas.

It is no accident that Axe and other perfumes originate mainly in France. I have never been there, but it's my understanding there are large segments of French culture with strong aversions to bathing. The French need something to deal with that.

Last March, The Morning Call had stories about a student at Bethlehem's Freedom High School who was hospitalized twice after allergic reactions to the Axe body spray perfume. Brandon Silk, 15, had to be treated for anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal.

Bethlehem is not alone. Other stories ranged from a Connecticut school where Axe fumes set off fire alarms to a New York City school where eight students had to be hospitalized for reactions to the perfume.

Bethlehem's school officials did not ban Axe, but "requested" that Freedom students refrain from soaking in it out of consideration for Silk. That did not work and Silk was home-schooled as a way to remain alive. Last month, Rosa Silk, his mother, asked the district to ban the perfume spray, but Superintendent Joseph Roy did not sound supportive. "I don't believe that such a policy will be readily enforceable," he was quoted as saying.

Since then, a state legislator has decided that if Roy won't help Silk, maybe Harrisburg can enforce an Axe ban for him.

State Rep. Marcia Hahn, R-Northampton, said she'll write a measure to create "fragrance-free" school buildings when any student's health is threatened by such perfumes. Hahn's office said Thursday that she has not yet introduced the legislation, but plans to do so.

The threat of legislation has created a nationwide fuss. "Students in some schools will no longer be allowed to wear scented products like Axe Body Spray and perfume if one Pennsylvania lawmaker has her way," reported The Huffington Post, a popular online news service based in New York.

Rosa Silk told me Brandon has had reactions to Axe since the fifth grade. "He almost died on me," she said of that first episode. Over a three-year period, she said, he has required medical treatment, usually in a school nurse's office, 175 times.

"He has tried so hard to go back to school" she said, but Axe appeal trumps any effort to get students to voluntarily refrain from using it. "The boys are thinking, the more they spray, the more girls are going to come running after them," she said.

After seeing the Axe commercials, I can see how feeble juvenile minds can be molded along those lines. I bet there are even members of the opposite sex who can be programmed to respond to a particular stench, as long as it's popular.

Rosa Silk was particularly upset with Roy's opposition to Hahn's proposal. A couple of weeks ago, Roy was quoted in the Easton Express-Times as saying it "is an ill-conceived piece of legislation that would result in another unfunded mandate and financial burden on local districts."

Hahn, however, noted that schools create peanut-free zones to deal with students who are similarly allergic to peanuts.

I can't prove it, but personally I suspect the real motive of school officials is to eliminate the need for locker room showers. If boys can mask their body odor with generous applications of Axe perfume, school systems could save oodles of money with lower soap and water costs alone.

It works in France.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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