Scent-Free Healthy Schools

Scent-Free Healthy Schools (Updated September 2008)

“There are two kinds of scents, Common Sense and Perfume Scents.” With those words, another scent-free program is launched. It’s the first day of school and the several hundred Junior High students are gathered in the gym for a few words from the principal. He has talked of academic achievement, respect for others, and more – words designed to set the tone for the following months together under one roof. “We are learning much about the effects on health from such things as perfumed soaps and hair spray, scented gels and deodorants. We are also learning that these scents can affect the concentration and learning abilities of anyone, not just the health of those who are environmentally sensitive. There are, though, people in our school who feel sick, sometimes very sick, when they breathe even small amounts of fragrance chemicals. So, it makes sense to keep such things out of our breathing space. Common sense tells us to stop using perfumed scents.”

Scent-Free programs are operating in educational institutions, to varying degrees of success, all over the continent. I asked for some tips from local parents who had helped initiate successful Scent-Free programs in their schools. One said, “Take it slowly. Some people are very attached to their brand name products for things like detergent. They will resent your intrusion on their lives if they don’t really accept the need. Start with ‘better’ products and work up to ‘best’.” Another advised, “Go all the way right from the beginning. If you don’t, they will think you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Another said, “It takes two years to really get a scent free environment, and don’t be disappointed if it takes even longer.” Laying the ground work – educating those involved – is what usually takes the most time and effort. Once people understand the issue, actually implementing a scent-free program can be relatively swift.

They all agreed that a voluntary scent-free program tends to be more successful than an imposed one. However, sometimes the voluntary program can take things just so far. Then, with the support of that majority who have agreed to be scent free, an enforcement program is put in place to bring the “stragglers” along. In some school newsletters it is clearly stated that persons entering the building wearing scents will be asked to leave or to take a shower. One newsletter said, “Any student wearing scented products after three warnings will be disciplined as for the breach of any other school policy.”

One would think that the high schools might be the toughest challenge, but from reports which have been coming to me, that is not necessarily the case. Having the information well understood seems to be crucial. One junior high school has a high number of newly arrived immigrants. With over forty different ethnic groups, it was expected to be a particular challenge. School newsletters were sent home with translations into the more common languages, and, once again, given good information, almost everyone in school was honoring the scent ban just weeks into the program.

In another junior high school the scent-free program quickly gained the support of students and staff. Unfortunately, it happened after one student died from a nut allergy and another collapsed and was taken from the school by paramedics after a serious reaction to a scented product. This seems too high a price to pay. Yet, human nature tends to resist change. Actually witnessing terrible suffering, and recognizing the cause, is sometimes the impetus to change.

Obviously, every “climate” is somewhat unique. What works in one school may not work in another. It does help to have the support of the administration or a group like the PTA, or the school’s Labour Safety committee. Of equal importance are information and good quality, cost effective, readily accessible alternatives.


Information is becoming much more widely available. In some provinces there are groups and professionals who conduct inservices and lectures on all aspects of Environmental Health, including Scent-Free programs. Contact CASLE, or the Environmental Health Association or Lung Association for possible names. See for product options and information.

CASLE’s website has a sample newsletter for launching a school’s first-phase Scent-Free program. What do I mean by First-Phase?

First-Phase and Second-Phase Scent-Free Programs

Fragrance chemicals are mostly Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) which contribute to indoor air pollution. The first phase is to eliminate the use of fragranced personal products, scented cleaning materials, smelly markers, and the like. The second phase is to eliminate, or reduce as much as possible, toxic chemicals and VOCs from other sources. Educators must realize that all chemicals that gas into the air from sources such as building materials, furnishings, cleaning materials, classroom materials, office equipment, and pesticides, can affect indoor air quality and ultimately the health, behaviour, and learning abilities of school children. It should also be noted that moulds give off natural VOCs, and that mould overgrowth in a building can pollute the indoor air even if the moulds present are not among the more dangerous species.

The two phases go hand in hand, and sometimes can be accomplished together. Both need to be part of a complete Scent-Free program.

Once a Phase-One Scent Free program is in place, the challenge is to maintain it. Some schools send a brief reminder in each school newsletter. Some have a separate newsletter on environmental issues, often from the school’s Environment Committee. A contest for scent free posters and signs was organized by teachers in an elementary school. The idea was to keep the idea fresh in people’s minds by changing the posters throughout the school year.

The Phase-Two Chemical-Reduced program may be harder to put into place, partly because it requires cooperation from the administrative body which controls such things as School Board policies, the purchasing of products, hiring of sub-contractors, and general custodial and maintenance decisions. Please refer to articles in previous AEHA UPdates for help with Phase-Two concerns. After a scent-free/less-toxic inservice, a junior high guidance staff member suggested the benefits of giving students’ Science or Health classes projects to examine their own particular school’s indoor air quality issues. This could be a valuable and practical education experience.


Finding acceptable alternative products can be a hindrance to setting up workable scent-free programs. However, there are many more choices of less-toxic and fragrance-free products becoming available. It would be helpful if a copy of the new AEHA guide to less toxic products could be sent to each school library, as is being done in Halifax. The CMHC’s resource book, Building Materials for the Environmentally Hypersensitive, provides practical product information that can benefit not just those who are already environmentally sensitive. By protecting our most sensitive, we protect all.

Airborne Chemicals and Children’s Health

Since 1975 the incidence of asthma has increased 200%. Where there was one person suffering from asthma, now there are three. Cancer rates, and autoimmune diseases are also on the increase, as is hyperactivity. In 1950 there was an average of one hyperactive child per school classroom. By 1990 the average rose to seven or eight per class (Is This Your Child’s World, Rapp, 1996). Is there a connection between these and the prevalence of airborne chemical pollution? Indications of links are being found. We know of children’s vulnerability. Is it not reasonable that they would be showing signs of effects from increases in toxins in the environment?

The authors of The Report to the New York State Board of Regents on the Environmental Quality of Schools (New York State Education Department, Albany, New York, 1994) state that “The effects of poor indoor air quality can be so subtle that they go unnoticed or are dismissed or attributed to common allergies, flu, the common cold, or stress. Some air pollutants may trigger or aggravate medical conditions. The symptoms of individuals with respiratory problems (such as asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema) can be aggravated by indoor air irritants. There is growing evidence that poor indoor air quality can produce verbal, perceptual, motor, and behavioural disabilities in children, as well as hearing impairments, irritability, and delayed physical and neurobehavioural development.”

The U.S. National Education Association’s Healthy School Handbook tells us that, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 70% of all asthmatics develop respiratory symptoms when exposed to perfumes.

A Halifax physician was overheard voicing support for the inclusion of non-fragrance volatiles in scent-free programs. He said, “VOCs are VOCs. I am fed up with having my patients land in hospital for several days with asthma just because someone decided to paint the school.”

Scent-Free programs, Phase-One and Phase-Two, can play an important part in the quality of health and education in our schools.