Wisconsin DOT Implements Fragrance-Free Rest Stops

Advocates Applaud WI Department of Transportation

As documentaries like “STINK!”  highlight dangerous chemicals present in everyday products due to the “fragrance loophole,” and as public demand for more transparency on product packaging and stricter regulation on chemical usage increases, the state of Wisconsin is taking progressive steps to improve customer experience for travelers of their interstate system.

“Based on visitor feedback, the department began phasing out scented hand soaps about four years ago and phased out scented air fresheners over the past year, with some of those phase-outs coinciding with scheduled ventilation work at the facilities,” said David Hunt, Communications Manager, WisDOT Division of Transportation System Development.

All 29 WisDOT rest areas are now fragrance-free, a policy shift away from scented products being made in the interest of better serving the public.

Sign at WIS-DOT Portage Rest Stop

“In simplest terms, the public spoke and we were happy to listen,” said Hunt. “There is nothing more important than providing a safe experience for the thousands of daily visitors at WisDOT rest areas.”

Hunt said that the public feedback on scented products was eye-opening as to the magnitude of the problem for some in the traveling public.

“We heard about adverse reactions ranging from uncomfortable to physically sick,” he said. “We took this feedback seriously because our rest areas serve a core safety mission – they are meant to accommodate anyone who needs a break from the road.”

Being a cost-neutral move for the department (where existing inventory was used or returned), the decision to go fragrance-free has been well received by the public.

Hunt added that the fragrance transition is just one example of how WisDOT strives to listen and respond to customer feedback.

“It’s not really WisDOT’s place to advise on what businesses should or shouldn’t do, but as a public agency we do hope to lead by example and demonstrate high standards for customer service,” said Hunt. “We work hard to be a good steward of public resources, and part of that stewardship role is to be a good listener to public feedback.”

The Dangers of Fragrance

Jon Whelan, an advocate for truthful product labeling and director of documentary “Stink!“, applauded the DOT for the change.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Whelan. “There are people who don’t want to leave their homes and go into public places because they really don’t have any assurances that someone won’t be wearing something or spraying something that they could react to.”

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“Stink!” (recently made available on Netflix) highlights the prevalence of toxic chemicals in everyday products, many of them not disclosed and thereby preventing consumers from making an informed choice. Whelan’s goal in producing the documentary was to bring this important issue to a mainstream audience.

“You’re seeing more people who have fragrance sensitivities and I think the scent-free movement is taking shape for that reason,” said Whelan.

Products that contain synthetic fragrance

He equates the issue to a food allergy. Most people are understanding of an allergy to peanuts, for example, and Whelan said that the same sensitivity should be applied to people who react to different scents.

Current awareness of the issue is relatively low, and most people that wear perfume or companies that spray air fresheners are simply ignorant of the problem. Whelan hopes to increase awareness through “Stink!”

Aside from fragrance allergies, the documentary also highlights the greater medical implications surrounding fragrances. Chemicals found in commonly-used synthetic fragrances have been linked to cancer, for example.

“People are more aware of what they are putting IN their body, and now it’s time to be more aware of what we’re putting ON our body – whether you’re rubbing it on your body or it’s in the air around your body,” said Whelan.

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“One of the points I tried to make in the documentary is there is a disconnect with what people think are in these scents because if you look at a product and it’s ‘lemon-scented,’ people assume there is actually lemon juice, but it’s not. It’s the cheapest chemistry they can use to mimic the scent of lemon,” he added. “People say that something smells clean, but what you’re actually smelling is a synthetic representation of something that actually exists in nature. We don’t think about what’s ‘actual clean’ versus the perception of clean.”

For those seeking to help implement a change to a more fragrance-free world, Whelan advises generating awareness and educating decision-makers that fragrances do harm people and need to be taken into account.

“People should care because they don’t want to hurt someone else. I think they also should care because when you peel back the onion, you see that there are some really nasty chemicals in some of these scented products and they are not disclosed,” he said. “If you want to rub something on your body and you know the risk, I guess that’s you’re right. But I think a lot of people have good common sense. If they have a choice to use Product A which has nasty chemicals and Product B which doesn’t, I think most people would choose Product B. If they don’t know what they don’t know, they aren’t going to be able to make the choice.”

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“I think it’s really cool what Wisconsin is doing. I hope it’s successful and I hope people steal the idea,” he said.

(Article By Breanna Butler)


Whelan, former co­CEO of Afternic.com, advisor to internet/media start­ups, and founding member of the New York Angels, currently advocates for truthful product labeling and is a full­time parent of two young daughters in Manhattan.

“Stink!” is an off-beat documentary about Whelan’s tenacious quest to uncover the source of a chemical scent in a brand-new pair of kids’ pajamas. Like most Americans, Whelan believed that if a product was on a store shelf, it was safe. Through his investigation, Whelan discovers a culture of secrecy surrounding carcinogens in everyday consumer products, a culture that begins in corporate boardrooms and permeates the halls of Congress. Find where to watch it here.