Home Air Quality How to Better Accommodate Travelers with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity

How to Better Accommodate Travelers with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity


NATIONAL REPORT—Prior to one of her recent trips, Judy Smith* called the motel where she was going to be staying and requested that no chemicals, air fresheners or room deodorizers be used in her room. Unfortunately, housekeeping only got the message about not using cleaning chemicals and not the part about not using air fresheners or room deodorizers. Upon entering her $110 room, Judy said a flowery fragrance of artificially scented products hit her immediately and her throat began to close. “I became hoarse and had to leave the room, sit outside for an hour or longer while my own room air purifier worked,” Smith said, adding that the bathroom was truly the only safe place for her in her guestroom.

Like millions of other travelers, Smith suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). MCS involves an unusually severe sensitivity or allergy-like reaction to many different kinds of pollutants including solvents, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), perfumes, pesticides, petrol, diesel, smoke, petrochemicals in general and often encompasses problems with regard to mold, pollen, dust mites, and pet fur and dander.

“MCS affects about 12 percent of the U.S. population but more than 30 percent of the population is fragrance-sensitive,” says Dr. Anne Steinemann at the University of California, San Diego, and starting this fall, Professor of Civil Engineering, and Chair of Sustainable Cities, at The University of Melbourne, Australia. “People with MCS are great canaries because they can tell you whether hotels are truly green. There are a lot of green hotels that may be good for the environment but are not good for health.”

MCS affects people differently. One person may have a reaction to scented laundry products, another may react to off-gassing. “Some people are even sensitive to [some forms of] peppermint,” a representative of a state-based association for the chemically injured told Green Lodging News. “MCS can result in migraines, gastrointestinal problems, and impair cognitive abilities. It can cause muscle and joint pain. It can affect people mildly or be devastating.”

Fragrances Found in Many Places

In hotels, fragrances can show up in general cleaning and laundry products, air fresheners, room deodorizers, toiletries, and in some cases are purposely pumped into the ventilation system. Those with MCS can also be impacted by paints, solvents, glues, adhesives, mold, smoking and the off-gassing of toxins such as formaldehyde from furniture. Green cleaning products are not necessarily safe for those with MCS. “Citrus-based products can react with ozone in the air to form formaldehyde,” the association representative said.

Steinemann, an internationally recognized expert on pollutant exposures and associated health effects, says she has received hundreds of e-mails over the years from travelers with MCS who have struggled to find safe hotel accommodations. They often rely on directories that accommodate those with MCS—the Safer Travel Directory, for example.

In her research, Steinemann has analyzed a range of fragranced products, including ones called green and organic, and found all emitted hazardous pollutants. But virtually none of the ingredients were disclosed.

Steinemann recommends going fragrance free in both laundry and cleaning products, and personal care products such as soaps, lotions, and shampoos. “Fragrance chemicals are persistent and adhere to fabric and surfaces,” she says. “Make the complete switch and go fragrance free.” It is best, she says, to dedicate certain linens and even certain washers to be fragrance free from the beginning.

“Avoid air fresheners and deodorizers,” Steinemann adds. “Do not rely on green labeling because a lot of green products have fragrances in them.”

Steinemann says travelers with MCS often go to great lengths to protect themselves while traveling—bringing their own soaps and shampoos, sheets, towels, and even covers to put on their beds or the carpet. “People go through so much to stay a night at a hotel,” she says, “and they still get sick from the room.”

Be Careful with Pesticides, Herbicides

Hoteliers can accommodate travelers with MCS by agreeing to locate them away from parking lots, pools or other areas where air quality may be a concern. Use integrated pest management techniques to control pests and to avoid herbicides—especially where guests are at risk of exposure.

While scent branding or marketing has become increasingly popular in recent years, Steinemann is concerned. “Pumping fragrance exposes people to risks,” she says. “Kids can have seizures and asthma attacks around fragrance products.”

Offering a 100 percent nonsmoking environment goes without saying. Offering windows that open is important. A recently remodeled room, one tending to have off-gassing from paint and other fixtures, is not suitable for someone with MCS.

Air Filters Can Provide Some Relief

Air filters may help those with MCS, depending on the type and how often filters are changed. Ozone generators, however, may cause problems for people with MCS. Filtering out chlorine in the showerhead also is important. So too is choosing inert materials such as glass, hard wood, tile and metal when designing a guestroom and other parts of a hotel.

Challenging for anyone running a lodging establishment is accommodating those travelers with sensitivities to electromagnetic fields—the wireless signals being transmitted throughout a hotel. Those with issues with electromagnetic fields can benefit from using a direct-wire connection to the Internet instead of a wireless connection.

Steinemann says that what is good for people with MCS can be good for everybody—hotel employees and other travelers included.

“Hotels that jump on this early are going to do very well,” she says. “They can increase revenues, improve health, and reduce costs and risks.”

*The name has been changed but the story is true.

Glenn Hasek can be reached at editor@greenlodgingnews.com.


  1. I’m so glad you wrote about this! And–I wanted to let you know Enliven B&B exists, as it addresses all the concerns listed in this article. Enliven is fragrance-free, chemical-free and tests extremely low in EMF. Floors in the guest rooms are heated porcelain tile, which does not conduct electricity, and every room has windows that open. We do not use any pesticides or herbicides on the grounds. All mattresses, bedding and towels are organic and without fire retardants (check out OMImattress.com for info on the mattresses we use.) We clean using the Ladybug Steam Vapor System, which is listed as a disinfection device yearly with the EPA and cleans like an absolute champ with only water. Laundry products are fragrance-free. Enliven also tests extremely low in mold testing; our ERMI score is -1, HERTSMI2 score is 0, and people with high test scores of molds in their system have seen significant drops in their numbers while staying at Enliven. We offer organic, gluten-free and dairy-free breakfasts, including a Paleo AIP option.

    I wish more B&Bs and hotels followed Dr. Steinemann’s advice, as I have had chemically sensitive people and/or their loved ones cry when they realized they didn’t have to wear a mask inside Enliven. Chemicals affect us all, whether the reaction is immediate or cumulative. Thanks again for your article!

  2. I am glad I found this article, it is so important! I look forward to staying at Enliven, it sounds like a safe haven. Where can one find other B&Bs and hotels that follow Dr Steinemann’s advice and are safe for people who are chemically intolerant?