Scents don’t make sense in schools

Published in the October 2015 NJEA Review

by Adrienne Markowitz and Eileen Senn

ScentsWhat school employee hasn’t walked into a classroom and smelled that pine smell, walked into a restroom and smelled that “lemon-fresh” smell, worked near someone splashed with perfume, or uncapped a marker to find it had a color-appropriate scent? Most assume such experiences to be harmless or even pleasant – and better than smelling body odors or chemical odors. 

The reality is that fragrances don’t destroy other odors but merely cover them up. Only good ventilation that brings in plenty of outdoor air can dilute and remove odors and result in truly “fresh” air. 

Even worse, fragrances are actually toxic chemicals, most derived from petroleum and coal tar, which we breathe in and absorb through our skin. It is estimated that one in five people in the U.S. is adversely affected by exposure to fragrances. Many experience chemical injury and intolerance and must make drastic lifestyle and even job changes to try to avoid fragrances.  Because of the heavy use of chemicals in our society there are now many people with multiple chemical sensitivities. See the box for health effects caused by exposure to fragrances. Look under “For more information” for a website with detailed information about chemical injury.

Fragrances are everywhere and linger

Fragrances have become an important aspect of marketing products found everywhere in schools:

  • Air “fresheners” and deodorizers such as sprays, plug-ins, urinal and toilet blocks and liquids, potpourri, essential oil diffusers and candles.
  • Building cleaning products for floors, walls, furniture, kitchens and bathrooms.
  • Dish and dishwasher detergent.
  • Scented pens, markers, crayons and art supplies.
  • Hand soap and sanitizer
  • Personal care products, whether applied at home or at school, including cosmetics, hand and body lotion, hair products, deodorant, and perfume or after-shave.

Health EffectsFinally, fragrances are also carried into school from home on clothing treated with scented laundry detergent, fabric softener and dryer sheets.
Some 4,000 chemicals are used to mask offensive or chemical odors and give a pleasant smell to a product. Fragrances are designed to linger in the air and dissipate slowly, long after actual use. This extends exposure over longer periods of time to more people. After being exposed to a fragrance for long periods of time, we lose the ability to perceive the odor, but will still experience the harmful effects.

Labels may provide information

It is now fairly easy to purchase personal care and detergent products labeled “fragrance-free,” “unscented” or “free and clear”. Double-check that “fragrance added” does not appear in the list of ingredients.
Finding fragrance-free commercial products is more challenging. Trade-secret ingredients do not have to be listed on the label, which makes determining if the some product contains a fragrance or not extremely difficult. Words like “fragrance-added” and “trade-secret” should raise suspicions that the product contains fragrance. It is best to go to a trusted source to check ingredients, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website listed under “For more information”. The EPA’s Safer Choice Fragrance-Free label is used on some cleaning products. Check for details.

A formal policy is best

Chemically injured persons cannot and should not be expected to protect themselves from fragrances by themselves. The reality is that fragrances create unnecessary chemical exposures that harm everyone at school, whether or not they are currently intolerant to them.
The best approach is for a school to adopt a formal, written, fragrance-free policy. Such a policy will be far more protective than special treatment of individuals. A written policy should help keep those most vulnerable to fragrances from becoming targets of discrimination or retaliation. 

Role of the local association

Local associations should work with their UniServ representative to:

  • Engage the district in a joint process to develop and implement a fragrance-free policy. A link to a model policy that can be customized for a specific school can be found under “For more information.”
  • Educate staff, students, parents and families and the community at large about why scents don’t make sense in schools and encourage them to use safer alternatives.
  • Assist local association members who are experiencing problems with fragrances.
  • Emphasize the need for good ventilation in every part of the school to provide truly fresh air. Ensure the school is in compliance with the Public Employee Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH) Indoor Air Quality Standard using the NJEA publication “Organizing for Better Indoor Air Quality,” listed under “For more information.”
  • Emphasize the need for the district to adopt green cleaning and good buying practices to purchase least-toxic, unscented cleaning products. Cleaning with soap and water, followed by rinsing, is the best way to clean classroom surfaces, such as desks, tables, chairs and floors. Chemicals are often not necessary. If products with a strong odor must be used, they should be used when the school is not in session and the area aired out before staff and students re-enter.

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