Archive for November, 2008

Burn baby burn

November 27, 2008

So there I was, meeting with neighborhood parents and a child development specialist on the topic “Etre parent aujourd’hui”. We were meeting in a room in the basement of the “Centre Social Arlequin” (in Grenoble’s Villeneuve area), just a few steps away from the public-funded Ludothèque, a great place where small kids come to play, accompanied by their parents. After about an hour of discussion, I smelled paper burning, with a perfumy edge to it. I asked the Center’s director (seated next to me) if she smelled something burning. Somebody burning incense, she said, as if that wasn’t a particularly odd thing in a public building. I went to investigate, as this is a neighborhood where kids set trash containers on fire for fun (not to mention cars). My first thoughts were with the children in the Ludothèque, but at the same time, I was having a bit of an asthmatic reaction to this peculiar combination of smells, so I decided to investigate. I tracked the smell through the corridors and up the stairs to a corner with some offices, one of whose door was closed. After asking questions of one employee, the closed door woman opened and asked if there was a problem. I replied that yes there was indeed, that her burning incense was giving me an asthma attack, one floor below. She said she’s put out her “Papiers d’Arménie” incense (paper imbibed with a hideous synthetic scent and meant to be burned), and that she’d been the victim herself of certain “unpleasant” odors (human one’s I guessed). Well, I told her that I was very, very bothered her incense. That was that, but I did tell the Director that I thought it was inappropriate first of all to be burning things in a public building, and that the woman’s burning incense bothered me much more than had she been smoking a cigarette, and secondly in a public service such as hers where children and perhaps other sensitive populations are likely to visit, such heavily perfumed odorizers should be avoided. She kindly said she would speak to the woman in question. I later felt vindicated to find that Que Choisir Magazine, in an article on the ill-effects of room “fresheners” and incenses, scored Papiers d’Arménie very poorly in terms of toxicity (Que Choisir, No. 421, December 2004); I gave the Director a copy of the article.

Not more than a week later, I took my kids to a Story Telling event organized by the neighborhood library, on the upper floor of the same building (“Le Patio”) housing the Centre Social. The story telling was great. Bravo to the Library staff and the “Mamas Conteuses”. At one point my toddler got fussy and I took him out of the room where the stories were being told. A few paces down the corridor there was a man stickiing his head out a window, smoking and reading an article. Of course, the smoke was blowing back into the corridor, and I was quite uncomfortable having my son breath that smoke. After a bit of uncertainty I said to the man, who likely worked in the offices there, you probably think you’re smoking outside, but the smoke is blowing back in, and there are children here (as if that matters). He replied “C’est bon” and put out his cigarette. I was so annoyed though that I couldn’t just let it be. You know, I said, smoking is strictly forbidden inside the building. Oh, but I wasn’t smoking inside, I was smoking out the window. Really, I said, your feet are inside, so it would seem to me you’re smoking inside. Blah, blah, blah. Pointless to bitch to him or this blog about it. The only thing to do is to complain to the Patio management. Once again, rules are more suggestions for good conduct than anything else.

Let me get this rant point out now, and it will be recurrent if I maintain this blog: If you are asthmatic and even more so chemically sensitive, do not come to France with the intention of staying for an extended period of time. While the French are smoking less and less and all public places are now (theoretically) smoke-free, at the same time they are wearing more and more hideous synthetic perfumes, even very young kids (the French asthma rate will certainly explode in coming years). Not to mention the absolutely overpowering perfumes found in the laundry detergents that people use here.  And then the constant burning: yard waste burning in spring, summer and fall, and moist wood burning in winter (often with chemical starters), and not just in the country but in big cities like Grenoble (apparently Paris is about the only place where burning is not allowed). While one shouldn’t generalize, my experience over 10 years is that the French love chemicals and will invariably choose a more toxic solution over a less toxic one. One very telling example:  If you’ve been to France you’ve probably found it quaint that the French homes and other buildings don’t have window screens. In fact it’s not quaint at all; they don’t have screens because the people are quite happy to spray their homes daily with Raid. And of course, there’s always an aesthetic argument for the toxic solution: Oh, window screens do spoil the view so very much.

Chemical starter -- Shut your windows fast

Chemical starter -- Shut your windows fast


CHU de Grenoble, Grenoble Hospital

November 8, 2008

I’ve been thinking for some time of starting this blog, but it took my experience yesterday at Grenoble’s Hopital Nord to get me really motivated. France is not a bad place, nor is the CHU Hospital. The pediatric surgery team was great, son’s surgery and recovery went very well. All in all a good experience. BUT, there were those few annoying and/or frightening details that seem to pop up on an almost daily basis. The first: When the (male) anesthiologist came to carry away our son, in his arms, to the operating block, I catch a whiff of musky perfume, the kind that gives me instant mild asthma and sometimes headaches. Now, it wasn’t horribly strong, just enough to make me uncomfortable in my breathing. But of course my thougts were with my son, who has “infantile asthma”, as we had declared to another anesthesiologist upon consultation prior to admission. Now, doctors should know that perfumes and asthma do not mix, so why in the hell would ANY doctor, let alone an anesthesiologist, wear perfume or cologne at the hosptial? Everything went OK for us, luckily, but suppose someone more sensitive than myself finds himself having an asthma attack moments before undergoing anesthesia, thanks to perfumed doctors? I haven’t complained to the hospital administration yet, but I plan to. (More to come on the problem of ubiquitous perfumes in France).

The second and more outrageous fact was the discovery of dozens of cigarettes butts (and smell of stale cigarette smoke) in one of the hospital stairwells that serve as emergency exits.  Having “time to kill” while my son was undergoing surgery, my wife and I decided to take the stairs down to the lobby (mind you, the hospital is 14 stories high, and with my wife and son spending 2 nights in the pedriatric ward on the 9th, we thought it might in fact be a good idea to see where the emergency stair exits were).  At each level as we descended we saw cigarette butts stamped out on the stairs or dunked in half-filled plastic cups of coffee or water bottles, and even tossed into black plastic trash bags with papers and and other trash (the bags apparently placed there by cleaning staff to try to contain the mess). On one level there was even an apparent “smoker’s seat”, a ratty old fabric seated chair, the back cushion of which appeared to have been burned or smoke damaged. Smoking is of course strictly forbidden in the hospital, and certainly none the less so in the emergency exit stairwell; and yet I sensed these were not patients or visitors that were sneaking smokes here. This hunch was confirmed when I saw the latex glove amidst the butts on one level, and the hospital mask amidst those on another. Here are a couple of photos:

Hospital emergency stairwell

Emergency stairwell

Smokering chair in Emergency Stairwell

Smoking chair in Emergency Stairwell

So what can I say? I’m not a fire expert and I don’t really know what would happen if a bag of trash or a lone upholstered chair happened to be ablaze when an emergency required a general evacuation via the stairs. But that’s just the point, we anglos tend to think safety first, better safe than sorry, rules are rules, etc. France is different though:  Safety is for others and generally speaking rules are seen more as “good practices” than mandatory, because there are rarely consequences for breaking them.