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Church Can Be Perilous for Those With Allergies

There are people for whom going to church is akin to visiting a hazardous chemical site. The experience can induce severe allergic reactions. These people suffer from what is sometimes called multiple environmental sensitivities. For these folks someone’s perfume, the chemicals used to clean the building or freshen the bathroom, or even candle fumes can make them sick.

Helen Bishop, chair of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA’s) Accessibilities Committee, held a first-ever workshop on this topic at General Assembly this past year. The issue is complex, she said, because products affect people differently and there is no single list of offensive products. “It’s a great issue for congregations to be looking at,” says Bishop. “It’s so complicated there’s not going to be a quick fix. There has been an exponential increase in childhood asthma since the 1960s for no clear reason. And more and more adults are developing allergic reactions.”

What can congregations do?

Some have set aside a “fragrance-free zone” marked by signs on Sunday mornings. The First Unitarian Church of Oakland, CA (304 members), has had such a section for years in its 400-seat sanctuary.

First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Columbus, OH (568), established a scent-free section recently when choir members said their singing was impaired by strong scents. “And now other people are telling us they appreciate it too,” says Rev. Mark Belletini.

Establishing such a zone is a greater challenge for congregations with small spaces. A small Midwestern congregation recently created such a zone at a member’s request, but worries that with no absolute standards on what’s offensive, other members won’t know if they can sit there. With a full house every Sunday, that’s a concern.

What products cause problems for people with allergies? Perfumes, colognes, aftershaves, hairspray, and scented shampoos top the list. Scented laundry soaps and dry cleaning chemicals can leave residues on clothing. Choose unscented soaps and air out dry-cleaned garments.

A fragrance-free zone should be near a side door, if possible, so those with allergies can avoid people-filled corridors. Some say that’s the worst part about coming to church.

Other ways to help:

  • If windows will open, ventilate the area prior to a service.
  • Select unscented cleaning products, then air out the building. Omit scented hand soap, potpourri, and candles in the bathrooms and worship space.
  • In children’s classrooms replace scented markers.
  • Some people can have seizures if a cell phone or pager rings, so ask people to turn them off in church. Others react to fluorescent lighting.

If you’re in doubt whether something might offend, ask someone who has environmental allergies. Look for the people who sit apart from others and leave immediately after the service.

Judy Freespirit has multiple sensitivities. She and others led a campaign to raise awareness in her Oakland congregation. The fragrance-free section helps, but is not a complete solution, she says. “The good news is that because of the campaign people are wearing fewer scented products,” she says. “The level has decreased significantly, but I still never know for sure when I go to a church event whether I’ll get sick and have to leave.”

Responding to allergies requires cooperation between sufferers and congregational leaders, says Bishop. “We need to look for places where we can make a difference. We all need to work from our best possible motives on this one. Our faith community is impoverished whenever people are unable to participate.”