MINNEAPOLIS -- Is Chanel No. 5 poisoning the air we breathe? Could a whiff of secondhand Old Spice fog your mind and plunge you into acute respiratory distress? Should underarm deodorants have been listed in the crime bill as prohibited assault weapons? Is Irish Spring to humans what DDT was to the birds?

Or does this all sound like something for the birds, period?

People at the School of Social Work on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis can not only ask all of these questions with a straight face, they can also answer them in the affirmative. The school has prohibited all "scented personal care products" in its offices and classrooms in Ford Hall. No perfume. No cologne. No after-shave. No clothes fresh out of the dryer reeking of Bounce.

Turn up here smelling good and you'll be excused to go wash off the offending scent. If you can't get it off, you'll be told to leave. Twenty-five years ago, students who hadn't bathed for days clashed with police outside of Ford Hall over the war in Vietnam. Now the kids of those protesters might not get in the door of Ford Hall if they're sniffed out as being too clean.

The school quietly implemented the ban more than a year ago in response to complaints from two women -- a student and a receptionist -- who say they suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity, or MCS, a trendy new malady that also goes by such names as "environmental illness" and "20th century disease." A character on the popular TV show "Northern Exposure" has had MCS. It's an allergy-like condition generally regarded by the mainstream medical establishment with skepticism, though more people are reporting MCS symptoms all the time. MCS sufferers insist they're the first wave of a massive outbreak of the disease, which they believe is a result of pollution. Many researchers think MCS is more likely an outbreak of hysteria.

Donna Armstrong, the school's 45-year-old receptionist, thinks she's been poisoned. Sitting by an open window in a barren, chilly conference room in late November, Armstrong explains how she came down with MCS. Unlike most sufferers -- who generally report that their symptoms result from long-term exposure to low levels of common pollutants and food additives -- Armstrong knows exactly when she got sick. Six years ago, while working the 4-to-midnight shift on a janitorial crew at the university's medical school, Armstrong was exposed to an unknown airborne substance when a power outage caused vent hoods in a laboratory to fail. She says she and two other workers became disoriented. Their vision blurred, their voices changed as if they'd inhaled helium. Nauseated and dizzy, they struggled to make their way out of the building.

The two co-workers suffered only short-term after-effects, but Armstrong spent the next morning in the emergency room wracked with breathing difficulty, nausea and extreme exhaustion. It was the beginning of a long and largely inconclusive string of consultations with various doctors who she says keep insisting that "nobody has ever died of this," while being vague as to exactly what "this" is. Armstrong says her condition has been diagnosed as a combination of asthma and "hypersensitive airways." She says she has MCS.

Armstrong says everyday life has become a minefield of hazardous smells. She cannot spend more than one hour in a shopping mall, cannot attend a movie. She reacts to a wide range of man-made substances -- including perfumes and other scented personal products, plastics and most other petroleum-based items, chemicals used to treat fabrics and upholstery, photocopiers, ammonia and vinegar.

"One day this woman wearing Gloria Vanderbilt came up to the office," says Armstrong. "I could smell her before she hit the door. I was out of there fast."

Armstrong says she cannot clean a chalkboard or, because she reacts to cement, cannot stand by an open window near a construction site. She missed a week and a half of work after a new carpet was installed two offices down the hall from her own. She says she cannot walk down the soap aisle at the grocery store. She cannot be around anyone who has smoked a cigarette within the last half-hour -- one co-worker who smokes has to store his coat in a box when he gets to the office. "That is one of the most embarrassing things I ever had to ask somebody to do," she says.

But it's not just man-made substances that can lay Armstrong low. She also has problems with everything from common molds to the smell of cow manure -- an almost inescapable smell in the Minnesota countryside. "Put me in a room full of roses and I'll be on the floor in no time," says Armstrong.

The symptoms of an MCS attack can vary, she says. Often she is unaware of the onset of a reaction, becoming glassy-eyed and disoriented. She may then become flushed and start to breathe rapidly. On other occasions, an attack can provoke a more alarming respiratory shutdown. "My lungs and bronchial passages go into spasms," she says. "I can get to really rattling. It can actually hurt."

Armstrong says she uses a combination of inhalers and antihistamines daily, that her asthma has "stabilized" and that she also takes an anti-anxiety drug before going anywhere she thinks might trigger an attack.

"I never heard of this condition before I got it," says Armstrong. "People tend to think you're being overly dramatic. My own family doesn't get it. My mom, my sister -- who smokes -- they don't believe me. Regular people just don't think that somebody can actually smell the things that I do."

Jean Quam, director of the School of Social Work, says the school responded to Armstrong's situation because she is a good employee and because school officials have become convinced that MCS is a real disability, one that is likely to increase dramatically in the near future as more people recognize they suffer from some form of it. She says a handful of other students have already begun to complain of MCS-like symptoms.

"Donna is the point person for the school," says Quam. "And we had some real concern about the fact that she has to meet everyone who comes in the door. I'd never heard of this condition before. But the faculty and staff have really rallied around to protect her. The whole function of social work is to ask how we can create environments for people to live and work in in the best possible way. So we've tried to shape this whole issue in those terms.

"If there's been any problem with the way we've addressed it within the school, I haven't heard about it."

The Road to Wellness

Of course, something like this had to happen. And where else but in Minnesota? In 1975, Minnesota became the first state to pass a comprehensive Clean Indoor Air Act, which prohibited smoking in all public places except for isolated and specifically designated areas. This is the very cradle of respiratory liberation.

And where else, too, but at the School of Social Work? A graduate program with some 300 students, faculty and staff in the College of Human Ecology -- it used to be called Home Economics -- the school has as a core part of its mission a goal to make the world more accessible to the disabled. In implementing its ban, the school cited the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) as its authority for making a "reasonable accommodation" for the two women -- a position that has subsequently not been supported by university officials.

Nor has it sat well with students from other departments who attend classes in Ford Hall. In late October the campus newspaper, the Minnesota Daily, published an exchange of messages in its electronic mail column that began with a strong complaint. "How far will this movement of intolerance be allowed to go?" demanded one angry writer. The writer went on to contemplate a guerrilla campaign against the ban, suggesting she might attend class in Ford Hall wearing "a heavy dose of perfume" and carrying an open copy of fragrance-laden Cosmopolitan magazine. The Daily later received letters more supportive of the policy, but it was too late to contain the outrage over the school's once quiet initiative.

In early November a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an ambiguous but somewhat disparaging piece on the policy. Then the Associated Press picked up the story and within days all the local TV stations had joined in the fray. Next came interview requests from all over, including many from overtly hostile talk radio programs. Amy Unger-Weiss, a graduate student who is the school's other officially recognized MCS sufferer, has stopped talking to reporters.

Clinical Ecology

The American Medical Association does not recognize MCS as a medical condition -- though it acknowledges that many patients claim to have its myriad symptoms and that a controversial medical sub-specialty called "clinical ecology" has caught on with some doctors who believe MCS is real. The AMA remains pointedly skeptical -- of both MCS and of so-called clinical ecologists. The AMA says neither the diagnosis nor the treatment of MCS by doctors who call themselves clinical ecologists can be proven to be effective. The association also notes that significant evidence exists that a "majority" of MCS sufferers "have a definite psychosomatic disorder which could be responsible" for their symptoms.

"What you're dealing with here are two belief systems," says Carroll Brodsky, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. "Some people believe MCS is real. Some people don't. The hard evidence is that it is not an allergic reaction of any kind, and academic medicine, by and large, does not accept MCS as a diagnosis of a physical ailment."

Brodsky, who has studied MCS and the clinical ecology phenomenon extensively, is one of the researchers who think MCS is more likely a mental disorder. But as it is one that nobody seems to know how to treat, he's sympathetic toward patients who've turned to clinical ecologists for help.

"From my point of view," says Brodsky, "there's no evidence of a biological condition you could call MCS. But the real question then is, do people believe they have this sickness? And the answer to that is yes. So what do we do for them? Think of the horror of having a disease that prevents you from going out in public -- and in the absence of any diagnosis of what is actually wrong with you. I think it may be reasonable to categorize this as a disability. But the problem then becomes what is reasonable to ask of other people as an accommodation of that disability."

There's your problem right there, says Mark Rotenberg, general counsel to the University of Minnesota. Rotenberg is one of several university officials vexed by what has happened at the School of Social Work.

"I have interpreted their position as being simply an administrative instruction requesting voluntary, informal accommodation for students they say have a disability," says Rotenberg. "Well, whatever reasonable, informal policy people want to work out among themselves is to be encouraged. But the implication that anybody could be expelled from class or prevented from working in Ford Hall I can tell you is definitely not university policy. Any person deprived of an opportunity to attend class in Ford Hall because he or she is wearing after-shave or perfume, or did their laundry with a sheet of fabric softener, could certainly file a grievance."

Since nobody has formally complained to Rotenberg's office yet, he won't speculate on what the outcome might be of such a grievance. But he concedes the Ford Hall policy looks dubious. "Even assuming the university determined this was a disability, you'd still have to decide what constitutes a reasonable accommodation for it."

Sue Kroeger, the university's director of disability services, is also miffed over the school's freelance designation of MCS as a disability. The law does not list MCS -- or any other disability -- by name. "I think they may be softening the policy a bit," she says of the social work administrators. "The problem is that this is a public university and the public is everywhere.

"This condition may exist, but right now the incidence seems to be very low," says Kroeger. "What can we ask the university as a whole to do in response to one or two people? We can't just have somebody say they have MCS and then we all jump. You've got to be concerned that this could negatively color the whole question of dealing with disabilities."

As November wore on, the School of Social Work seemed to be back-pedaling, or at least soft-pedaling the scent ban. Although the notices posted throughout Ford Hall clearly include the whole building, school officials now say that the ban -- which they prefer to call a policy, or even "an educational process" -- applies only to the school's own offices on the fourth floor and to certain of its classrooms on other floors. "It's really only about 25 percent of Ford Hall," says Nancy Johnston, the school's associate director and principal architect of the ban. "And it doesn't technically apply to students in other classes who may use one of our rooms."

This is different from the actual no-nonsense language of the ban, which says simply that "persons who wear scented products in classrooms and other relatively small enclosures will be asked to leave." But Johnston says that wording is now under review and will "probably be revised in the future to downplay the confrontational tone." Still, Johnston, who says she has had to give up wearing perfume at work, insists that "it's pretty clear" that MCS is a disability covered by the Disabilities Act.

"We're not talking about somebody with a runny nose," she says. "This is a life-threatening condition. And once people understand how serious it is, they're pretty cooperative. After all, you wouldn't blow smoke at a baby with asthma when you know that it could send that baby to the hospital."

Since implementing the ban, the school has yet to kick anybody out of Ford -- though Johnston says there have been one or two instances where people have been asked to wash off an offending scent.

Indeed, apart from one professor who took a long time to be dissuaded from wearing his favorite Gray Flannel cologne ("Pure poison," says Armstrong), the only glitch until this fall had been a concern by some male faculty members as to how they might approach a female student about the way she smelled without being charged with sexual harassment.

Is Chanel No. 5 poisoning the air we breathe? Could a whiff of secondhand Old Spice fog your mind and plunge you into acute respiratory distress? Should underarm deodorants have been listed in the crime bill as prohibited assault weapons? Is Irish Spring to humans what DDT was to the birds?

Or does this all sound like something for the birds, period?

People at the School of Social Work on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis can not only ask all of these questions with a straight face, they can also answer them in the affirmative. The school has prohibited all "scented personal care products" in its offices and classrooms in Ford Hall. No perfume. No cologne. No after-shave. No clothes fresh out of the dryer reeking of Bounce.

Turn up here smelling good and you'll be excused to go wash off the offending scent. If you can't get it off, you'll be told to leave. Twenty-five years ago, students who hadn't bathed for days clashed with police outside of Ford Hall over the war in Vietnam. Now the kids of those protesters might not get in the door of Ford Hall if they're sniffed out as being too clean.

The school quietly implemented the ban more than a year ago in response to complaints from two women -- a student and a receptionist -- who say they suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity, or MCS, a trendy new malady that also goes by such names as "environmental illness" and "20th century disease." A character on the popular TV show "Northern Exposure" has had MCS. It's an allergy-like condition generally regarded by the mainstream medical establishment with skepticism, though more people are reporting MCS symptoms all the time. MCS sufferers insist they're the first wave of a massive outbreak of the disease, which they believe is a result of pollution. Many researchers think MCS is more likely an outbreak of hysteria.

Donna Armstrong, the school's 45-year-old receptionist, thinks she's been poisoned. Sitting by an open window in a barren, chilly conference room in late November, Armstrong explains how she came down with MCS. Unlike most sufferers -- who generally report that their symptoms result from long-term exposure to low levels of common pollutants and food additives -- Armstrong knows exactly when she got sick. Six years ago, while working the 4-to-midnight shift on a janitorial crew at the university's medical school, Armstrong was exposed to an unknown airborne substance when a power outage caused vent hoods in a laboratory to fail. She says she and two other workers became disoriented. Their vision blurred, their voices changed as if they'd inhaled helium. Nauseated and dizzy, they struggled to make their way out of the building.

The two co-workers suffered only short-term after-effects, but Armstrong spent the next morning in the emergency room wracked with breathing difficulty, nausea and extreme exhaustion. It was the beginning of a long and largely inconclusive string of consultations with various doctors who she says keep insisting that "nobody has ever died of this," while being vague as to exactly what "this" is. Armstrong says her condition has been diagnosed as a combination of asthma and "hypersensitive airways." She says she has MCS.

Armstrong says everyday life has become a minefield of hazardous smells. She cannot spend more than one hour in a shopping mall, cannot attend a movie. She reacts to a wide range of man-made substances -- including perfumes and other scented personal products, plastics and most other petroleum-based items, chemicals used to treat fabrics and upholstery, photocopiers, ammonia and vinegar.

"One day this woman wearing Gloria Vanderbilt came up to the office," says Armstrong. "I could smell her before she hit the door. I was out of there fast."

Armstrong says she cannot clean a chalkboard or, because she reacts to cement, cannot stand by an open window near a construction site. She missed a week and a half of work after a new carpet was installed two offices down the hall from her own. She says she cannot walk down the soap aisle at the grocery store. She cannot be around anyone who has smoked a cigarette within the last half-hour -- one co-worker who smokes has to store his coat in a box when he gets to the office. "That is one of the most embarrassing things I ever had to ask somebody to do," she says.

But it's not just man-made substances that can lay Armstrong low. She also has problems with everything from common molds to the smell of cow manure -- an almost inescapable smell in the Minnesota countryside. "Put me in a room full of roses and I'll be on the floor in no time," says Armstrong.

The symptoms of an MCS attack can vary, she says. Often she is unaware of the onset of a reaction, becoming glassy-eyed and disoriented. She may then become flushed and start to breathe rapidly. On other occasions, an attack can provoke a more alarming respiratory shutdown. "My lungs and bronchial passages go into spasms," she says. "I can get to really rattling. It can actually hurt."

Armstrong says she uses a combination of inhalers and antihistamines daily, that her asthma has "stabilized" and that she also takes an anti-anxiety drug before going anywhere she thinks might trigger an attack.

"I never heard of this condition before I got it," says Armstrong. "People tend to think you're being overly dramatic. My own family doesn't get it. My mom, my sister -- who smokes -- they don't believe me. Regular people just don't think that somebody can actually smell the things that I do."

Jean Quam, director of the School of Social Work, says the school responded to Armstrong's situation because she is a good employee and because school officials have become convinced that MCS is a real disability, one that is likely to increase dramatically in the near future as more people recognize they suffer from some form of it. She says a handful of other students have already begun to complain of MCS-like symptoms.

"Donna is the point person for the school," says Quam. "And we had some real concern about the fact that she has to meet everyone who comes in the door. I'd never heard of this condition before. But the faculty and staff have really rallied around to protect her. The whole function of social work is to ask how we can create environments for people to live and work in in the best possible way. So we've tried to shape this whole issue in those terms.

"If there's been any problem with the way we've addressed it within the school, I haven't heard about it."

The Road to Wellness

Of course, something like this had to happen. And where else but in Minnesota? In 1975, Minnesota became the first state to pass a comprehensive Clean Indoor Air Act, which prohibited smoking in all public places except for isolated and specifically designated areas. This is the very cradle of respiratory liberation.

And where else, too, but at the School of Social Work? A graduate program with some 300 students, faculty and staff in the College of Human Ecology -- it used to be called Home Economics -- the school has as a core part of its mission a goal to make the world more accessible to the disabled. In implementing its ban, the school cited the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) as its authority for making a "reasonable accommodation" for the two women -- a position that has subsequently not been supported by university officials.

Nor has it sat well with students from other departments who attend classes in Ford Hall. In late October the campus newspaper, the Minnesota Daily, published an exchange of messages in its electronic mail column that began with a strong complaint. "How far will this movement of intolerance be allowed to go?" demanded one angry writer. The writer went on to contemplate a guerrilla campaign against the ban, suggesting she might attend class in Ford Hall wearing "a heavy dose of perfume" and carrying an open copy of fragrance-laden Cosmopolitan magazine. The Daily later received letters more supportive of the policy, but it was too late to contain the outrage over the school's once quiet initiative.

In early November a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an ambiguous but somewhat disparaging piece on the policy. Then the Associated Press picked up the story and within days all the local TV stations had joined in the fray. Next came interview requests from all over, including many from overtly hostile talk radio programs. Amy Unger-Weiss, a graduate student who is the school's other officially recognized MCS sufferer, has stopped talking to reporters.

Clinical Ecology

The American Medical Association does not recognize MCS as a medical condition -- though it acknowledges that many patients claim to have its myriad symptoms and that a controversial medical sub-specialty called "clinical ecology" has caught on with some doctors who believe MCS is real. The AMA remains pointedly skeptical -- of both MCS and of so-called clinical ecologists. The AMA says neither the diagnosis nor the treatment of MCS by doctors who call themselves clinical ecologists can be proven to be effective. The association also notes that significant evidence exists that a "majority" of MCS sufferers "have a definite psychosomatic disorder which could be responsible" for their symptoms.

"What you're dealing with here are two belief systems," says Carroll Brodsky, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. "Some people believe MCS is real. Some people don't. The hard evidence is that it is not an allergic reaction of any kind, and academic medicine, by and large, does not accept MCS as a diagnosis of a physical ailment."

Brodsky, who has studied MCS and the clinical ecology phenomenon extensively, is one of the researchers who think MCS is more likely a mental disorder. But as it is one that nobody seems to know how to treat, he's sympathetic toward patients who've turned to clinical ecologists for help.

"From my point of view," says Brodsky, "there's no evidence of a biological condition you could call MCS. But the real question then is, do people believe they have this sickness? And the answer to that is yes. So what do we do for them? Think of the horror of having a disease that prevents you from going out in public -- and in the absence of any diagnosis of what is actually wrong with you. I think it may be reasonable to categorize this as a disability. But the problem then becomes what is reasonable to ask of other people as an accommodation of that disability."

There's your problem right there, says Mark Rotenberg, general counsel to the University of Minnesota. Rotenberg is one of several university officials vexed by what has happened at the School of Social Work.

"I have interpreted their position as being simply an administrative instruction requesting voluntary, informal accommodation for students they say have a disability," says Rotenberg. "Well, whatever reasonable, informal policy people want to work out among themselves is to be encouraged. But the implication that anybody could be expelled from class or prevented from working in Ford Hall I can tell you is definitely not university policy. Any person deprived of an opportunity to attend class in Ford Hall because he or she is wearing after-shave or perfume, or did their laundry with a sheet of fabric softener, could certainly file a grievance."

Since nobody has formally complained to Rotenberg's office yet, he won't speculate on what the outcome might be of such a grievance. But he concedes the Ford Hall policy looks dubious. "Even assuming the university determined this was a disability, you'd still have to decide what constitutes a reasonable accommodation for it."

Sue Kroeger, the university's director of disability services, is also miffed over the school's freelance designation of MCS as a disability. The law does not list MCS -- or any other disability -- by name. "I think they may be softening the policy a bit," she says of the social work administrators. "The problem is that this is a public university and the public is everywhere.

"This condition may exist, but right now the incidence seems to be very low," says Kroeger. "What can we ask the university as a whole to do in response to one or two people? We can't just have somebody say they have MCS and then we all jump. You've got to be concerned that this could negatively color the whole question of dealing with disabilities."

As November wore on, the School of Social Work seemed to be back-pedaling, or at least soft-pedaling the scent ban. Although the notices posted throughout Ford Hall clearly include the whole building, school officials now say that the ban -- which they prefer to call a policy, or even "an educational process" -- applies only to the school's own offices on the fourth floor and to certain of its classrooms on other floors. "It's really only about 25 percent of Ford Hall," says Nancy Johnston, the school's associate director and principal architect of the ban. "And it doesn't technically apply to students in other classes who may use one of our rooms."

This is different from the actual no-nonsense language of the ban, which says simply that "persons who wear scented products in classrooms and other relatively small enclosures will be asked to leave." But Johnston says that wording is now under review and will "probably be revised in the future to downplay the confrontational tone." Still, Johnston, who says she has had to give up wearing perfume at work, insists that "it's pretty clear" that MCS is a disability covered by the Disabilities Act.

"We're not talking about somebody with a runny nose," she says. "This is a life-threatening condition. And once people understand how serious it is, they're pretty cooperative. After all, you wouldn't blow smoke at a baby with asthma when you know that it could send that baby to the hospital."

Since implementing the ban, the school has yet to kick anybody out of Ford -- though Johnston says there have been one or two instances where people have been asked to wash off an offending scent.

Indeed, apart from one professor who took a long time to be dissuaded from wearing his favorite Gray Flannel cologne ("Pure poison," says Armstrong), the only glitch until this fall had been a concern by some male faculty members as to how they might approach a female student about the way she smelled without being charged with sexual harassment.