Published in the May 2015 NJEA Review
by Adrienne Markowitz and Eileen Senn
What 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 have become an important aspect of marketing products found everywhere in schools:
Finally, 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.
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 www2.epa.gov/saferchoice for details.
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.
Local associations should work with their UniServ representative to: