And thus I clothe my naked villany

Okay, now they’ve gone too far! It’s one thing to accuse my car exhaust of pollution, or my habit of using gasoline for fuel as contributing to climate problems, but I’m trying to change all that. Since I’ve retired, I bicycle most places that are too far to walk -or, in a pinch, take public transit to minimize my footprints. I’m not an eco-terrorist. Honest.

But now, despite my best efforts, I’m being blamed for something far more subtly miscreative: I’m making myself more socially presentable. You have to do that when you’ve reached a certain age, or people will think you’re incontinent and move to another seat on the bus; they might even phone Social Services. So you can understand my concern when I discovered that I was being as irresponsible as someone commuting in their car every day from Surrey to Vancouver. It’s not fair.

And all this because I choose to shower every morning as if I were going into work. I mean, even at Tim Hortons somebody would notice if I didn’t. They’d probably also comment on my hair if it didn’t smell like a freshly washed pear. Let’s face it, the way we smell influences how the world decides to interact with us. So, in the coffee line in Starbucks, when all I should be doing is hunting in my pocket for my credit card, I find I am distracted if the person in front is unusually pungent. On occasion it has even made me choose the wrong kind of breakfast sandwich -a double-smoked bacon, say, instead of my usual sausage, egg and cheese on an English muffin. To think that there are no consequences to faulty grooming, is to sadly underestimate the importance of an orderly Weltanschauung.

I had always assumed it was easily achieved: that not only was I capable of appropriate comportment, but that I could do it well within the bounds of acceptable climatic manners. Alas, like many of those quotidial things we are wont to take for granted, I was sadly mistaken. I find myself questioning the cultural practices that have sustained me since my mother insisted on scolding me for not using enough Odorono on my underarms whenever I overslept for breakfast.

Even though I should have guessed that things move on whether I choose to read about them or not, it came as a shock when I discovered my unwitting contribution to the eventual downfall of my oft-maligned species. It was a chance encounter with an article that I suspect will come to be regarded as the Malleus Maleficarum of our time -a report on a study of the malevolence of our personal care products and their secret undermining of the Paris Climate Accord. Forget polluting industries and their ever-taller, smoking chimneys tossing chemicals willy-nilly into the stratosphere; forget coal and the grimy faces of those who mine it; forget, even, the Beijing smog that spawned a burgeoning face-mask industry… Enter shampoos! Skin lotions! Even, yes, deodorants! I mean what’s the world coming to? This was the most unkindest cut of all.

‘Over the course of the day, compounds in deodorants, lotions, hair gels and perfumes evaporate from our skin and eventually make their way outdoors. Now there’s new evidence to suggest that these products are major sources of air pollution in urban areas.’

The author, Matthew Coggan, who is a research scientist at the University of Colorado, analyzed urban air in two centers, Boulder Colorado, and Toronto Ontario. ‘For decades,’ he writes, ‘motor vehicles were considered the primary source of air pollutants in major U.S. cities. Vehicle exhaust contains multiple pollutants that worsen air quality, including nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – a group of reactive gases that contribute to smog formation. Thanks to advances in catalytic converters and improvements in fuel economy, combined emissions of common pollutants from cars have decreased by 65 percent since the 1970s. Air pollution is still a problem in urban areas like Los Angeles, but only a fraction of it can be attributed to vehicles. Today, scientists are finding that other non-combustion sources – including common household products – are also major contributors.’

How, you might ask, could they possibly know that? Well, it turns out that these products leave a distinct fingerprint. They noticed ‘a signal that stood out unexpectedly from all the other data. This compound, which we identified as decamethylcyclopentasiloxane (or D5 siloxane), contains silicon, which uniquely differs from the organic compounds we normally detect. By reviewing scientific literature, we learned that pure D5 siloxane is produced mainly as an additive for deodorants and hair care products.’

And, more worrisome for those of us who hope to disguise our feral odours, this study supports another from Los Angeles ‘which showed that personal care product VOC emissions in Los Angeles now rival VOC emissions from gasoline and diesel exhaust.’

So what is an eco-hopeful pensioner to do who merely wants to be able to sit, unprovocatively, beside a stranger on a bus, or who wants to be able to interact with a fellow Homo fragrans outside the bounds of a public restroom? It is clearly complicated: to deodorize, or not to deodorize, that is the question. Should we risk the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or raise our arms and risk sitting by ourselves? Should we go back to wearing powdered wigs, or even linen shirts -they were reputed to absorb sweat and whatever- instead of polyester which doesn’t need ironing? And would they still leak D5 siloxane all over the place? What about catalytic converter hats?

I’m confused, but there are choices that probably have to be made. A makeup-less world wouldn’t be that bad -we’d all get used to seeing how sallow Caucasians actually are, and perhaps begin to covet skin tones that don’t need any help. Odours would help us to identify how unique each one of us is, and what the stranger sitting in the seat in front ate last night for dinner.  True, we wouldn’t smell like apples, or fields of wild flowers any more, but those scents didn’t really fool anybody, did they?

No, I think it’s about time we listened to our genes -well, at least the atavistic ones that allowed us to detect pheromones. The ones that enabled each us to find out what’s really going on around us.


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