Monday, 5 June 2017




Text Publishing, 2017, 198 pages

Review by Phil Shannon

The fragrance industry really gets up Kate Grenville’s nose.  The Australian novelist has gradually worked out that artificially-scented consumer products, from high-end perfume to toilet cleaner, were the cause of her debilitating headaches and wooziness.  In The Case Against Fragrance, Grenville discovers that synthetic scent molecules literally get up the nose and attach themselves to nerve receptors causing all manner of medical mayhem in the brain and nervous system.

Scented products such as cosmetics, shampoo, soap, after-shave, moisturiser, laundry detergents, cleaning products and air fresheners have been scientifically implicated in a vast suite of health problems including migraines (around half of sufferers have them triggered by fragrance), sore eyes, breathing difficulties, asthma, skin rashes, fatigue and, with high enough fragrance doses over time, some cancers.  Over a third of all people report having some sort of health problem from fragrance.  The problems are most acute, and potentially fatal, in the growing population of clinically-diagnosed chemical sensitivity sufferers like Grenville.

Avoidance of fragrance is virtually  impossible - fragrances used by other people or in air-conditioned buildings permeate the public air space, including public transport, offices, concert venues, restaurants and shopping centres. 

None of this worries the fragrance industry, however.  Artificial scents are cheap to synthesise and have a large manufacturers’ market.  They are not subject to profit-thinning regulation - time-consuming and expensive safety testing of the chemical ingredients of fragrances is avoided when the only safety watchdog is the industry itself which magically transmutes conflict of interest between sales and safety to a rewarding confluence of interest.

Grenville devotes much of her book to unsnarling the technical tangle of polysyllabic alpha-numeric molecular chemical compounds and their heath effects, and advocates a policy of using ‘fragrance-free’ products, but only occasionally touches on broader corporate and political issues.

Nevertheless, her disgust with the industry is evident.  However nice the product smells, the fragrance industry is malodorous.  It produces an entirely unnecessary product, wastes the valuable skills of many scientists and condemns huge numbers of consumers to ill-health in known and as-yet-unknown ways, all in the pursuit of money-making.  What really stinks, however, is the capitalist economic and political system which allows it to happen.

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