Open Letter: Perfumes Contaminate Our Classrooms


A perfume power-struggle is being played out in schools across the country. Some students and teachers believe it is their civil right to be able to drench themselves in an assortment of scented products. Another equally passionate group reports experiencing adverse health effects on exposure to perfumes and they are requesting scent-free accommodations. They claim that perfumes contain many of the hazardous ingredients we typically associate with cigarette smoke. Is it possible to satisfy both these vying factions? Education is the answer.

The nose is a chemical receptor. When you detect an odor, you are really detecting the chemicals that make up that odor. You might be surprised to learn that as many as 600 separate chemicals may be used in a single fragrance formulation. The majority of these chemicals have had minimal or no toxicity testing (84%), according to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1989, from a list of 2,983 chemicals used in the fragrance industry, the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) recognized 884 toxic substances. Some of these are capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders, allergic respiratory reactions, skin and eye irritations and provoking chemical sensitivities. Approximately 95% of these fragrance ingredients are synthetic, in this instance meaning that they are derived from petrochemicals (a class of chemicals very often implicated in hypersensitivity reactions). These include benzene derivatives, aldehydes, acetone, ethanol, methylene chloride, and many other toxic and sensitizing agents. In a 1991 US EPA report, toluene was detected in every fragrance sample collected and tested. Toluene is a potent solvent used in gasoline, furniture wax, tires, ink, glue and paints.

In a study reported on in the American Journal of Medicine (January 1986), 72% of asthma patients had adverse reactions to perfumes (pulmonary function tests dropped from between 18% and 58% below baseline).  In a Louisiana study (November 1993) 25% of asthmatics exposed for only 5 seconds to scent strips, showed a decline of 10% or more, in their breathing function.

According to a perfume survey conducted by the Candida Research & Information Foundation in the winter of 1989-90, the following scent-provoked symptoms were reported: watery or dry eyes, double vision, sneezing, nasal congestion, sinusitis, tinnitus, ear pain, dizziness, vertigo, coughing, bronchitis, difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, asthma, anaphylaxis, headaches, seizures, fatigue, confusion, disorientation, incoherence, short-term memory loss, inability to concentrate, nausea, lethargy, anxiety, irritability, depression, mood swings, restlessness, rashes, hives, eczema, facial flushing, muscle and joint pain, muscle weakness, irregular heart beat, hypertension, swollen lymph glands and more!! Even just a brief look at these reactions would lead a reasonable person to conclude that scents have no place in school.

And even the U. S. Food and Drug Administration acknowledges that the incidence of adverse reactions to perfume products appears to be increasing, as a result of the rising popularity of stronger, and sweeter fragrances. Additionally, the chemicals are being manipulated to increase “hang time,” so that the scent will linger in the air longer.

Let me introduce you to Tracey, a bright, seven-year-old, environmentally hypersensitive child in Australia who had to contend with asthma, tachycardia, multiple food and chemical sensitivities, hyperactivity and learning difficulties. Tracey was labeled a non-reader at her school until her mother requested perfume and solvent accommodations. Two weeks after her classroom teacher stopped wearing perfume and banned solvent-based marking pens, Tracey began to read fluently!!

Judy Sanderson, a chemically sensitive Culver City high school biology teacher (20 years), reported having been the victim of “fragrance assaults” by some of her students on more than 90 occasions from 1993-1997. In November 1997, she won some precedent-setting accommodations after a collective bargaining agreement was issued by arbitrator, Ronald Hoh (California State Mediation and Conciliation Service Case # 96-3-740). In this landmark decision, student pranksters caught dousing the teacher or her classroom with fragrance-based products will be punished as they would be for any other physical assault on an instructor. And the school was directed to install oscillating surveillance cameras both inside and outside of Ms.Sanderson’s classroom to deter students from engaging in further assaults.

James Cone, M.D. M.P.H., a Berkeley based indoor air quality consultant and former Chief of the Occupational Health Clinic at San Francisco General Hospital, describes fragrance chemicals as one of five major contributors to indoor air pollution. He suggests a regulation be adopted to govern IAQ saying: “no person shall discharge from any source whatsoever such quantities of air contaminants or other material which cause injury, detriment, nuisance or annoyance to any considerable number of persons or to the public, or which endanger the comfort, repose, health or safety of any such persons or the public, or which cause, or have a natural tendency to cause, injury or damage to business or property.”

When students and teachers complain of reactions to perfume, they are often dismissed as hypochondriacs, ignored, demeaned and ridiculed. All this evidence makes it hard to understand the general lack of appreciation regarding the undeniably strong association between perfumes and illness. At a time when schools everywhere are struggling to improve the Indoor Air Quality in their facilities, it is important that they not overlook the fact that perfumes pollute.

An endorsement for perfume accommodation has arrived from a most unlikely source - Nancy Tuckerman, co-author of The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette. In an interview with the editor of the Heart Institute of Wisconsin Newsletter (October 1997), Ms. Tuckerman is quoted as having said: “It is no longer considered considerate or ‘correct’ to wear perfume, cologne, or after-shave to the office, move theaters, religious services, meetings, or social events where people with fragrance sensitivity / allergies may be present.” Isn’t it time we add SCHOOLS to this list?

School-based perfume accommodations are working successfully in Upper Musquodoboit, Nova Scotia and Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, Canada; at the Challenge Charter School in Phoenix, Arizona; and at the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work. I think it is time to ban scents from schools nationwide. We just might be stunned by the improvements in behavior, academic achievement, attendance and occupant health!

Let’s clear the air in our classrooms....
Irene Wilkenfeld