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  • Refers to sensitivity to a range of environmental conditions. Individuals may experience physiological, cognitive, or psychological reactions, or a combination of these, when exposed to certain chemicals, fragrances, moulds, or electromagnetic fields.
  • Repeated exposure can initiate or intensify symptoms. Repeated exposure to these environmental conditions can result in the initiation of symptoms or can intensify symptoms in affected individuals.
  • Symptoms can be physical and/or cognitive. Affected individuals may experience respiratory symptoms, inflammation, gastrointestinal symptoms, fatigue, brain fog/difficulties concentrating, or chronic pain. These symptoms can significantly impair their abilities to learn and demonstrate their knowledge. Experience of these physical and cognitive symptoms, and the barriers these create, can also lead to psychological symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Responding to Environmental Sensitivities often requires a commitment to cooperation by all community members. Unlike individual accommodation, removing harm-causing substances from an affected person’s environment requires cooperation by others that share their space. Examples include using scent free personal products when attending classes, mandating the use of scent free detergents in on-campus residence laundry facilities, and creating Wi-Fi-free zones on campus by providing hardwired facilities.
  • Working to understand implications in Educational settings. Many institutions are developing policies to recognize and respond to the impacts of environmental sensitivities, for example scent policies. At the same time, recognition of the impact of environmental sensitivities, providing accommodation, and removing barriers to access around these medical conditions is still emerging at many institutions.
  • Be informed. Inform themselves about related policies at your institution.
  • Be understanding. Recognize the impact of environmental factors on affected students and show openness regarding how instructors can help minimize these impacts.
  • Enforce related policies in your learning environment. Require that other students respect affected individuals needs. Refer problems with compliance to your School Chair if issues are not resolved. Instructors should act as role models and ensure they comply with policies, as well.
  • When unsure how to respond, seek support from campus resources. Understanding of environmental sensitivities and how to respond is in development at many institutions. As a result, you may be unclear on how to respond to student situations or requests. Seek resources and support from your School Chair or Accessibility Services office when you are uncertain of how to respond.
  • Preferential assignment in residence.
  • Enforcement of scent policy.
  • Relocating classrooms when possible.
  • Flexibility for assignment deadlines or potential for reduced course load to accommodate for flare-ups in symptoms that interfere with a student’s ability to complete course work.
  • Private exam writing rooms to limit scent exposures in group settings.
  • Electromagnetic sensitivity.
  • Fragrance or other chemical sensitivities.

Case Study

Emily is registered in first year science courses at her local college. She began the semester as a strong student. However over the past month, Emily often comes to classes late and leaves periodically without notice. Her focus and concentration are sometimes quite weak especially later in the week. In her program, laboratory sessions are scheduled on Thursdays and Fridays. Her instructors are concerned that her difficulties with attendance and concentration will impact her performance and skill acquisition for the lab requirements in particular and for her progress in her courses generally as well.

 One of Emily’s instructors decides to share her concerns with Emily.  Emily begins to cry and states that she has an environmental sensitivity to fragrances, but she feels embarrassed because many people have told her that she is “faking it”. She reports that two classmates wear strong cologne which gives her painful headaches and nausea in the mornings. Sometimes the headaches require lying down for several hours until they subside. As the week progresses, Emily describes feeling exhausted from the pain and stress of trying to catch up. She states that she has joked with her classmates that they should “lay off the cologne”, but they haven’t changed their habits.

The instructor refers Emily to the Disability Services Office for assistance.  Emily brings medical documentation from her physician and the Disability Services Coordinator offers support and education about the college’s responsibility to accommodate disabilities. The instructor begins her next class with a review of the college’s Scent-Safe Policy, which restricts the use of fragrances. She reminds students that consequences for breaking the policy, like other college policies, are linked to the Student Code of Conduct.  Emily obtains academic accommodations for a private space to write exams to minimize the possibility of fragrance exposures during exam situations. The Disability Services Advisor also advises Emily on the steps she can take when she encounters a strong fragrance, like discreetly reminding the person about the Scent Safe policy or contacting her instructor, the Occupational Health and Safety Coordinator or the Disability Services Advisor.

As her instructor reports that she is comfortable being a contact-person in the classroom, Emily keeps her posted on exposures in the classroom, which rapidly diminish. However, Emily continues to experience intermittent fragrance exposures outside of the classroom (eg., in the library, from industrial cleaning supplies at the college). The Disability Advisor suggests that they amend her academic accommodations to allow for flexible assignment deadlines to allow her to recover after exposures.  Emily’s attendance, productivity, and confidence improve in the classroom.

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