Allergic to School?

Classroom chemicals can be a potential mine-field, awareness for all is the biggest lesson!

Starting school is a big deal for all little 5 yr olds, for a chemically sensitive child I think it is one of the biggest challenges for them and you but also for the school and fellow classmates.   Up until that point they’ve been with you most of the time, you’ve been able to observe and avoid potential triggers but once at school it’s a new playing field where they’re on their own and you have little, to no control. AWARENESS is paramount for both school, teachers and friends – below are some of the obstacles we have faced along the way and how best to tackle them.

Firstly, what and how does a reaction happen:

  • Triggering of symptoms can happen by inhaling, ingesting, or by contact and can occur in two stages which may not be obvious:
  • One big sudden exposure eg: cleaning products or perfume sprayed nearby, or
  • Ongoing, low to moderate exposure over a period of time eg: school uniform
  • Symptoms may clear as soon as the trigger is removed or may continue for hours & days.

The following gives an idea of common symptoms experienced within different body systems, several may happen at the same time.

Central Nervous System Stronger sense of smell than others, feeling spacey, dull or groggy, difficulty concentrating & remembering, headaches, restlessness, fatigue (sounds like most school kids!)
Upper Respiratory Red, watery, swollen, eyes, stuffy nose, blocked ears
Lower Respiratory Cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, heavy chest 
Gastrointestinal  Heartburn, nausea, bloating, constipation, diarrhea
Skin Hives, rashes, dermatitis, itching


Mass produced using synthetic (affordable, easy-care) fabrics and dyes, uniforms offer a considerable toxic build-up over time.  Synthetic fibres like polyester originate from petrochemcials, combining with equally heavy-weight chemicals along the way to give us, durable poly-blends uniforms and synthetic nylon sportswear.   Together with heat, friction and perspiration, fabric chemicals can be released and absorbed directly into the skin - for those who are sensitive this means skin irritation and an overall burden on toxins.

Solution – sourcing uniform alternatives made from natural fibres where possible (especially items which are in direct skin contact, eg shirts/PE kit and having the schools’ emblem/crest embroidered or printed on. Another option maybe to buy 2nd hand to avoid the many 'new' chemicals - sniffing for fragranced laundry detergents first! 

For more on Toxic Textiles


Having a teacher wearing perfume or strong-smelling spray deodorant can be a toxic overload - emitting 1000’s of volatile airborne chemicals, perfume & fragrance is akin to second-hand cigarette smoke and as potentially harmful.  A classroom full of ‘anti-pongo’ teenagers is a ticking time bomb. 

Solution – to implement a scent-wise awareness programme to avoid fragrances/scented personal care products worn by staff and students alike.


Cleaning products and protocol for both classroom & bathrooms can be difficult.  Most schools have outsourced cleaning companies and the products used are often a hospital/school grade mix of synthetic chemical solvents and surfactants to satisfactorily eradicate dirt, germs & bacteria. Cleaning generally takes place after school hours so chemicals have had time to dissipate, lowering the risk of exposure.  If however, cleaning takes place prior or during a class – exposure is a much higher risk. Eg; Science, Food Tech classes washing up detergent and surface cleaning spray.

Solution -  to use safer, less toxic, fragrance-free products surface cleaners in and around class time, eg ecostore, vinegar or water and to use gloves when necessary.  Ventilation is key.


From memory, school bathrooms were never a pleasant experience, so whether your child will actually wash their hands is a lottery, and using soap the bonus ball!  Most dispenser soaps and hand sanitizers contain all the no-no’s that a chemically sensitive person should avoid – fragrance, SLS/SLES (sodium lauryl sulphate), parabens, triclosan and many, many more. 

Solution – have a fragrance-free, ‘safe’ soap to use eg, ecostore goat milk soap


Sitting quietly at 'mat time' can be battle depending what the mat’s made of, or what else is on and under the mat....  Classrooms are high traffic, with dust, dirt and mould traipsed in daily – to counteract, carpets & flooring are often a combination of polyester fibres and coatings to help protect and repel the dirt, stains etc.  Synthetic latex rubber underlays can also be a problem. ‘Portable’ classrooms may also be mouldy exacerbating compromised immune systems and increasing the toxic burden.

Solution – avoid the mat and sit on a chair. Ventilation!


From playground chip bark, astro-turf to grass - chemicals are either added to or sprayed to maintain grounds and prevent the build-up of moulds, algae and weeds. 

Solution – communication of when spraying is taking place so areas can be avoided. Don't leave bags or clothing on sprayed surfaces.


From paint, carpeting, wall linings and furniture, ‘NEW’ is synonymous with potential VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and the off-gassing of chemicals.

Autex Polyester (PET) wall coverings are found in schools around the country, according to their website, “Autex Composition is manufactured from 100% PET (polyester fibres; polyethylene terephthalate) and does not contain formaldehyde binders. Autex polyester fibres support safer indoor air quality and will not become a potential airborne pollutant.” 

Good to know, however for those who are sensitive, walking into a room or womb of PET (with or without the formaldehyde binders), is not a benign toxic-free environment - synthetically chemically dyed, with flame retardants and being a Phthalate, PET dust could also be a potential risk. 

Solution – avoid ‘new’ classrooms where possible, ventilation and airflow is essential.

Further reading on PET  - PET & Antimony  - PET and our health


Many glue sticks are labelled non-toxic which is great but when a class of nearly 30 get out their glue sticks all at once – that can be enough to create an exposure overload.  

Generic white board makers and their cleaners contain Xylene; one of the three aromatic hydrocarbon petrochemicals (benzenetoluene and xylene), a colourless liquid with a strong sweet smell – commonly associated with marker pens and also used to make glues, chemical cleaners, pesticides, dyes and ink.  Xylene can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled and is irritating to the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract, to a feeling of “high” and slowed reaction time. 

Interestingly, Xylene is a principal component in the making of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyester clothing. Woodwork or Multi Materials Tech classes using solvents may be a problem.

Solution – purchase xylene-free whiteboard and marker pens for the class to use, avoid fragranced, solvent cleaners. Ventilation and airflow is essential.


From glues, acrylic paints, laminating, copying & printing, cleaners, photography chemicals, inks even paper – the potential list goes on.

Solution – awareness and ventilation, avoidance if symptoms occur.


A schools’ ‘indoor environment’ can have an impact on the overall health and learning ability of students. Considering the following:

  • Air quality and ventilation.  Pollutants and toxins.  
  • Children are more vulnerable to toxins due to their surface area: body weight ratio, skin density (5 x thinner than adults’) hand to mouth and floor time eg, putting things in their mouth, playing, sitting.
  • Teenagers are vulnerable to toxins due to the amount of personal body care products they use!

Before you start looking into Home Schooling or buying a ventilation mask, remember AWARENESS and knowing WHAT, WHERE & HOW to navigate potential hazards is key for a safer, happier learning environment with your buddies – surely that’s the best place to be. 

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