by Elizabeth Stutt and Leslirae Rotor 
AEHA Quarterly, Summer, 1994

Have you ever wondered about a child but just couldn’t put your finger on the problem?  Is this child learning disabled?  attention deficit?  hyperactive?  mentally disturbed?  or simply just a bad kid who wants to disrupt your class?  Perhaps the answer is that this child has environmental sensitivities, which are known to be the underlying cause of many learning, attention and behavioural problems.  Perhaps this child has been diagnosed...Perhaps not...

Very conservative estimates admit that at least 15 per cent of our population is adversely affected by environmental pollution.  A recent Health Promotion Survey (1990) by Health Canada indicates that 81 per cent of Canadians believe that their health has been adversely affected to some degree by pollution.1

Indoor air pollution is a serious environmental health problem since people spend an average of 90 percent of their time indoors.2  A Toronto study by R. W. Bell indicates that the level of contaminants indoors are at least two to five times higher than outdoors.3  The World Health Organization estimates that 30 per cent of homes and buildings today contain enough indoor pollutants to cause health affects that range from a sniffle to more serious health problems.

The benchmark used to assess indoor air quality in our schools - ASHRAE Standard 62 - 19894 - is based on the premise that 20 per cent of a healthy young adult male population will react unfavourably at the levels set by the standard.  This has implications not only for the adult population, particularly pregnant women, seniors and the infirm, but especially children who are known to be more affected by indoor air pollution.  To date, no standards have been developed to address the needs of children!

Children have a much higher body burden because they breathe a greater volume of air relative to their body weight, therefore, they absorb more toxic contaminants.5  In addition, their immature detoxification systems are much less able to eliminate these contaminants.

Many children are presently missing school days because of inadequate air quality in our schools.  Failing to provide air quality in our schools means that some children lack equal access to programs and services and many fail to learn to the potential.  If we fail to accommodate those with environmental sensitivities in our schools, we also isolate them socially.

What are Environmental Sensitivities?
Environmental sensitivities occur when some individuals become unable to tolerate exposure to common substances in their everyday surroundings or environment.

Some substances that may act as triggers:

Harmful substances, either naturally occurring or synthetic, in our air, water, food, personal and home care products, fabrics, furnishings; hospital, school and office equipment and supplies; building materials; and chemicals used or stored in the home, health care facilities, schools, workplaces, farms or industries and public transportation vehicles.

Natural substances such as pollens (grass, trees, plants and weeds), dusts, molds and animal dander.


The severity of symptoms can range from mild discomfort to total disability or chronic health problems.  Symptoms may develop suddenly or slowly.  Environmental sensitivities can develop in individuals or any age regardless of whether they have a past history of allergies.

Environmental sensitivities can be progressive.  Prevention, early detection and treatment are therefore of paramount importance.  Treatment of environmental sensitivities focuses on prudent avoidance of offending agents, appropriate nutrition, supportive counselling and other medical interventions.

Some of the behavioural signs of food and chemical sensitivities which can be observed in the classroom include:

Drowsiness and exhaustion
Poor concentration
Easy distractibility, distracting others
Inconsistent performance in speech, writing and coordination
Difficulty problem-solving
Mood and personality changes
Recurrent absences from school
Sources of Indoor Air Pollution
Many sources of contaminants in our indoor environments are found in schools as well as homes.  Efforts must be made to avoid - or at the very least, reduce - exposure to toxic substances, particularly those containing volatile organic compounds.  These include:
Synthetic materials, especially carpeting and underpadding
Cleaning products (except those which are non-toxic, environmentally 
     friendly  and free of volatile organic compounds)
Bactericides, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides
Petrochemical (including exhaust) fumes
Humidification systems
Humid and wet environments
Heating and cooling systems
Computer terminals and printers (particularly bubble-jet and laser)
Photocopy machines
Laminating machines
Arts and crafts supplies6
Scented products (including scent-laden clothing)
Tobacco smoke (including smoke-laden clothing)
Currently, the special precautions taken in chemistry and biology labs, auto mechanics, metalworking and woodworking shops are simply inadequate.

School ventilation systems often fail to exhaust and dilute unavoidable contaminants and to deliver good quality air to the breathing zone.  Moreover, many air intakes for school buildings bring in contaminated outdoor air from avoidable sources such as tarred roofs, bus bays, ventilation outlets, etc.7  With reduced operating budgets, many school boards are deliberately lowering the air exchange rate in our schools, especially during the winter months to save energy and money.  These actions are inexcusable.  The result is lost days due to sickness on the part of staff and students and a decreased ability to learn in an increasingly polluted indoor environment.

How Teachers Can Help:

Recognize that sensitivities are highly individual.  What one sensitive individual tolerates, another may not.  Also recognize that the same individual’s tolerances will vary according to exposure to other substances to which the individual is sensitive.

Check with the student and the student’s parents before bringing new substances into the classroom.

Promote open communication with parents and students.

Review the student’s health needs as presented by both the parents and the student’s physician.

Learn the necessary emergency procedures for your student’s reactions (to such things as bee stings, foods, chemical vapours, etc.)

Respect the need for special diets (no food rewards, or have alternative food rewards available).

Recognize that foods and even food aromas can trigger health and emotional stresses for children with environmental sensitivities.

Avoid wearing perfume or after-shave, scented personal toiletries, cosmetics, hair sprays or gels, freshly dry-cleaned clothes and clothing laundered with scented laundry detergent, bleach and fabric softener.

Use unscented laundry detergent and avoid all fabric softeners.

Be aware that smoke-laden clothing may cause problems for some sensitive students.

Avoid the use of materials that emit solvent or other aromatic chemical vapours, such as felt markers, certain art materials and typing correction fluid.

Avoid the use of open containers of volatile organic compounds, such as alcohol.

Avoid the use of dittos.

Use water-based markers, where tolerated.

Seat sensitive students near a window for natural light (and fresh air in non-pressurized schools).

Avoid having composters or vermicomposters inside the classroom.

Provide suitable textbooks, neither brand new because of volatile organic compounds from ink, paper or glue, nor too old because of molds and/or dust.

Respect the need for alternative learning environments for subjects such as chemistry, biology, industrial arts and auto mechanics.

It is essential that parents and schools work together to find the best possible environment for the individual student with environmental sensitivities.

Teachers have a voice through unions and can help to negotiate better working conditions through employment contracts.  Teachers will benefit and so will students.  Children have no such voice since most school boards do not encourage “meaningful” parental involvement!  Please speak for the children and for yourselves.


If you are interested in picking up this challenge, the Allergy and Environmental Health Association (AEHA) have developed an advocacy package entitled “Accommodating the Needs of Students with Environmental Sensitivities”.  This information package includes:

(1) a report documenting the effects of indoor air pollution on children’s learning, behaviour and health, with guidelines for the prevention and/or reduction of indoor air quality problems; (
2) a brochure, and 
(3) the text for a five-minute oral presentation suitable for copying on transparencies.  
The package is available at a cost of $10.00 from AEHA Ottawa Branch, Attn:  Education Committee, P.O. Box 33023, Nepean, Ontario  K2C 3Y9.

1. Premier’s Council on Health, Well-being and Social Justice, Wealth and Health, Health and Wealth, (Toronto:  May 1994), p 34.

2. United States Environmental Protection Agency:  op.cit.

3. Ibid and R. W. Bell, et al.  The 1990 Toronto Personal Exposure Pilot (PEP) Study:  (Toronto:  Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 1991), p 11.

4. American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Inc., ASHRAE STANDARD 62-1989:  Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality (1971 Tullie Circle, NE, Atlanta, GA, 30329).

5. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Hazards in Your School:  A Resource Handbook (Publication #2DT - 2001, October 1990)  (Washing, DC 20460), pp 12-14

6. Health and Welfare Canada, The Safer Arts:  The Health Hazards of Arts and Crafts Materials (Ottawa 1990).

7. United States Environmental Protection Agency, op cit.