Kamilah Mirza/ The Mainstream
Lisa Clark is a student at UCC with chemical sensitivities and asthma.

The Prevalence of chemical sensitivities and asthma among students

For most students, perfume is just an accessory. For others it’s a nightmare.

When a student with chemical sensitivities arrives to class and prepares to take out their textbook and pen, they can easily be hit with a strong scent of perfume. They may gather their belongings and move to the back of the class. Although they moved away from the scent, a migraine may still start and begin to sink in, however. They may also start to feel a deep mental fog roll in.

Many college students and staff members go through this struggle silently despite the toll this issue takes on their daily living and ability to maintain focus in the classroom.

College and University campuses across the nation are adapting fragrance-free policies and promoting fragrance free events in an attempt to reduce this harm among students and staff members with chemical sensitivities and asthma.

UCC currently does not have a policy regarding the issue of fragrances and toxic chemicals on campus, however the Human Resources department does send out notifications among staff to be aware of students’ allergies to fragrances and other chemicals that may be present in the classroom.

The reaction to perfume is more common than many people recognize. 

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, MCS, is prevalent among 25 percent or more of the population, according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine which conducted a 2018 study that concluded 25.9 percent of the population reported chemical sensitivity and 12.8 percent reported to be medically diagnosed with MCS. “Of those with MCS, 86.2 percent experience health problems, such as migraine headaches, when exposed to fragranced consumer products; 71 percent are asthmatic; 70.3 percent cannot access places that use fragranced products such as air fresheners; and 60.7 percent lost workdays or a job in the past year due to fragranced products in the workplace.”

The number of people in the population with allergies is also increasing. The American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology stated that allergies are increasing due to increasing use of antibiotics and acetaminophen, the rise of obesity and increasing vitamin D deficiencies. 

Symptoms vary from person to person but can range from migraines, headaches, trouble concentrating, fatigue, confusion, breaking out in a rash and possible asthmatic reaction requiring an inhaler to breathe.

Triggers can be perfumes, paints, scented candles, scented lotions and hand sanitizers, cologne or mold, mildew, or the presence of harsh cleaning chemicals in the environment.

Asthmatic Students

Students on campus living with asthma may also have compromised learning environments. A study conducted by the Center for Disease Control reported that one in thirteen people have asthma. “Asthma accounts for 9.8 million doctor’s office visits, 188,968 discharges from hospital inpatient care and 1.8 million emergency department visits each year. Each day, ten Americans die from asthma, and in 2017, 3,564 people died from asthma. Many of these deaths are avoidable with proper treatment and care.”

Asthma affects more than just the way we breathe. Respiratory Care Journal released a 2015 article stating, “College students with asthma face reduced psychological and academic functioning, reduced social functioning and quality of life, and increased risk taking and depression compared with their healthy counterparts.”

A student’s experience 

Full time student Lisa Clark has both chemical sensitivities and asthma. Because of her condition she always carries a mask in her purse and always has her inhaler within reach. “I went to a state agency and saw a sign that said “Fragrance Free Area: People here are Sensitive to Fragrances” and I was like, ‘hey this affects other people too!’ Seeing that made me feel like it isn’t just me.” Lisa has yet to see a “Fragrance Free Area” sign on campus. “When I smelt dry-erase marker in class I just stayed where I was because I didn’t want to be a disruption, although I ended up with a migraine that day. I think it would be great if there were some type of policy for campus being fragrance free. It would be nice if I could come to school and not end up leaving with a headache.”

Contact me at: