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Disability Specific Adjustments: Multiple Chemical Sensitivity in the Education and Training Setting

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, or MCS, is a controversial condition, as evidenced by a discussion on the aust-ed email list in July 2015.

MCS is a chronic medical condition characterised by symptoms that people affected by MCS attribute to low-level chemical exposure.  Perfumed products are often listed as the most common trigger and this can be particularly challenging in an education or training setting because campuses are public places, often with thousands of visitors daily.  Other common triggers are pesticides, plastics, synthetic fabrics, smoke, petroleum products and paint fumes.  Symptoms are often vague and non-specific and may include nausea, fatigue, dizziness and headaches and specifically: inflammation of skin, joints, gastrointestinal tract and airways.  Because of the non-specific nature of the symptoms, diagnosis can take a long time and the process is often characterised by referrals for psychiatric treatment when medical causes cannot be found and symptoms are sporadic.  As a result, depression and anxiety as well as mistrust of being believed or thought mentally ill often accompanies MCS.

Regardless of the cause of the person’s response, those with severe symptoms are disabled as a result of their symptoms and are thus covered by Sections 4a and 4g of the Disability Discrimination Act (1992).  Despite a degree of scepticism from some medical practitioners regarding the legitimacy of MCS as a medical condition, a 2005 SA Parliamentary Enquiry1 found that the symptoms were nevertheless real. 

Australia is well behind the rest of the developed world in addressing MCS in the education and training setting.  For example, in the US, more than a dozen states have MCS Awareness Months and the disorder is recognised in the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Further, a growing number of school districts have developed policies regarding the use of MDF, painting during term time and ‘offgassing’ of floor coverings before installation in education settings.

In other countries2, legislation and legal precedent has been framed around successful tort law related to exposure to chemicals, and scented products in particular, in the workplace.  Canada has legislated amendments to its Occupational Health and Safety Act3 in an attempt to reduce incidences of MCS.  As a result, universities in Canada, including the one of the nation’s largest, the University of Toronto 4, have developed Guidelines to minimise chemical exposure on campus for staff and students.  In Australia, detailed plans, policies and guidelines have largely been developed by departments of heath, particularly in Queensland and South Australia 5.  While successful compensation cases 6 have been brought overseas regarding exposure to scents in the workplace, the only case in Australia 7 to reach court was unsuccessful.  As at 2015, a case is being investigated by SA Health and SafeWork SA regarding staff in a hospital being made ill by incorrect use of a floor cleaner correctly and this may better inform policy in the future.

In most cases, students (or staff) affected by scents would be most concerned about the use of perfumed products in the bathrooms, with aerosol air fresheners 8 being of most concern.  The second greatest concern most likely to be cited would be the risk of people spraying personal products in the bathrooms and corridors, which is a far more difficult issue to resolve.

Education and training institutions are public places.  Individuals have rights and the Disability Discrimination Act speaks to equity of rights - that the rights of one person cannot require unfair impositions on another’s.  Institutions should make it clear that it is not possible to control individuals’ grooming practices.  Cooperation can be requested from people the student might have close contact with; reminders and strategies to reduce risk can be provided, but the risk cannot be entirely eliminated.  When this information is provided with clarity, students will be better able to make informed choices about how to approach their study, including whether full campus immersion is suitable or even possible.

Given that education and training institutions must make reasonable adjustments for students who present with evidence of MCS – and in particular a sensitivity to scents, what can be done in an essentially public space without breaching the rights of other campus users?  Advice from ME/CFS Australia and the Austed listerv group includes:

For the Institution’s Disability Action Plan:

  • Work with procurement officers to switch to non-perfumed cleaning products and work with cleaning staff/contractors on how to limit chemical exposure.
  • Work with procurement officers to switch personal hygiene products such as hand soap to non-scented products in campus bathrooms.
  • Work with procurement and facilities officers to, wherever possible, remove ‘air freshener’ sprayers from bathrooms.
  • Work with facilities officers to place signage in bathrooms to request that people not use aerosols while on campus –or at least inside buildings.
  • If it is not possible to make all bathroom facilities fragrance free, then work with facilities officers to designate certain facilities and make them known to all students via signage and information provision when developing Access Plans.
  • Work with facilities officers to ensure that notice is given of when painting, laying of floor covering and weed spraying will occur and that this information is provided to all students as well as carried out after business hours or during term breaks if at all possible.
  • Work with the Institution’s executives to declare the campus as non-smoking or designate smoking areas that are outside and away from doorways and common paths.

To accommodate individual students:

  • Ensure the student understands the limitations of what can be provided in a public space and the rights of other students and staff; that the Disability Service can make requests of others, but not enforce rules regarding use of scented personal products. Through the development of the student’s Access Plan, gain their acknowledgement that they understand that while efforts will be made to reduce exposure, risk cannot be completely eliminated.
  • Work with the student to minimise time and exposure to scented products etc on campus through use of online learning, blended learning and by taking advantage of flipped classroom programs where available. With planning, the number of staff and students in class spaces who would be inconvenienced by being requested to minimise use of fragranced products can be minimised.
  • Where a student only attends campus sporadically because they use flexible study modes, encourage them to give notice of attendance so that risk can be minimised if possible.
  • Allow affected students to undertake exams in alternative exam venues as part of their Access Plans and request that other students refrain from wearing perfumes and aerosol fragrances to exams.
  • Request assistance and support from fellow students to limit their use of perfumed products in classes were the affected student is enrolled.
  • Install additional exhaust fan in rooms where student takes classes.
  • Install additional exhaust fans in bathrooms where aerosol air fresheners are removed.
  • Encourage the student to sit near a door or window where they can get fresh air if needed and are more distant from others who may be wearing scented products.
  • Accommodate ‘flare-ups’ in the student’s condition in the same way that other episodic disabilities/chronic medical conditions are managed.

What you can do personally for the person regarding their MCS:

  • Treat them with respect and civility and use attending behaviours.
  • Ensure that they understand the limitations of your influence and that personal grooming products cannot be banned from campus, but that you are willing to talk to classmates and request their support.
  • Ask them to describe their health effects, what makes the problem better or worse, and the actions they are taking to deal with it.
  • Request their help in devising strategies to address their issues that are within your sphere of influence.

*this article is an abridged version of a longer article, which can be found at www.dlmsolutions.org/our-work/

References

1. 2005 SA Parliamentary Enquiry sacfs.asn.au/download/mcs_inquiry_summary.pdf
2. Other countries legislation and legal precedent mcs-america.org/index_files/MCSRecognition.htm
3. Occupational Health and Safety Act ccohs.ca/oshanswers/hsprograms/scent_free.html 

4. University of Toronto ehs.utoronto.ca/resources/HSGuide/Scent.htm
5. South Australia sacfs.asn.au/download/MCSHospitalGuidelines-peh-sahealth-1005.pdf
6. Successful compensation cases   sacfs.asn.au/news/2013/05/05_16_city_of_portland_sued_over_workplace_fragrances.htm
7. Court case in Australia sacfs.asn.au/news/2014/10/10_04_employee_loses_case_claiming_her_colleagues_perfume_caused_impairment.htm
8. Aerosol air fresheners drsteinemann.com/Resources/Air%20Freshener%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf