Woman Quits School Due to Chemical Sensitivities

Kathryn Treat over at allergictolifemybattle has bought this newspaper article to my attention. It’s about a woman in London who has severe allergic reactions to mould, dust, pollen and other allergens (it seems most of the natural ones, as apposed, to mine being the human made ones). Her story is deeply saddening, and if I’d read this mid 2012 while going through the anxiety of wondering if I’d still be able to study and continue going to my beloved classes at Victoria University, I may have freaked out, realising I was doomed, while doubting that I could ever continue. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to be able to stay on my studiously gold paved path; and, I’ve almost completed my Diploma in Professional Writing and Editing. But, weirdly and wrongly, this is not the case for Kirsty Ashman.

More from NY Daily News:

‘After trying to study at two universities, Kirsty has been forced to give up her dream of becoming an English teacher.

Kirsty, from Haverhill, Suffolk, said: “I was desperate to get a degree and finish my studies, but I had to put my health first.

“My allergies grew so bad that I lived in fear of libraries and common rooms, as even a small inhalation of dust could bring on an asthma attack which would completely shut down my airways.’

I cannot imagine having to deal with a situation like this; well, I can and I have, but my issues were resolved (all while my health was at it’s worse).

You see, at Victoria University (VU), in the library, we have ‘The Adaptive Technology Room’, which is also doubles as a ‘Perfume Free Room‘; it’s set aside for students (not just me) who have sensitivities/allergies to the chemical irritants in perfumes, fragrances and (spray type) deodorants.

This room is my safe place. It’s a sure thing.

Especially, if I am not well. I know that I can go here, flop down in a chair next to the Blue Air Purifier (which runs all day, and has its carbon HEPA filter changed every six months–all like cliched clockwork!), and within an hour or so I, usually, start to feel better. Even if I don’t fully recover, I can sit in peace and quiet, focusing on my health and my studies. I’ve completed assignments in there, when not well. I’ve worked on class projects with other students, when well. And I’ve even (once) fallen asleep in there (until I felt well enough to drive home), when totally not well at all. Figuratively speaking, it’s literally like a bubble of fresh air hidden amongst clouds of perfume!

Last year, I even borrowed a book from there: Christos Tsiolkas’s, Jesus Man. It had that old book smell (old pages, well thumbed (thankfully not by fragrance wearer’s thumbs)), as opposed to the new book smell (petrochemical inks). That was my milestone for the year, borrowing a real book that didn’t make me ill (It’s not the smell; it’s the chemicals emitted. You need to know that.). Excitingly, I even told my teacher about it; I thanked her for helping me avoid petrochemicals by placing my worksheets behind plastic; because that kind act, and the one I do for myself where I use my iPad to take photos of documents, rather than trying to air them out at home, surely has helped me avoid exposure to petrochemicals. (Note: I don’t walk between the shelves of books. If I want a book, I ask one of the librarians to get it for me; and if I’m feeling particularly brave and assertive, I ask them if they’d mind sniffing it to see if smells of fragrance (In some situations, when asking people to sniff things, I get weird looks, questions, and perplexing reactions, but not here, in this library!). If it does have fragrance on it, I don’t even bother with the book. I’m proactive about my approach. I wear a mask, and I try to use logic, critical thinking, and my gut instinct, rather than relying on my sense of smell. Sniffing things means possibly breathing in chemicals that can make me sick. That’s why I often ask others, “Hey, does this smell of perfume…?”)

Kirsty’s immunological problems are the opposite to mine:

‘In two years at university Kirsty suffered over fifteen life-threatening asthma attacks brought on by various dust, grass, pollens, animals and mold.

Kirsty said: “The toilets and the canteen were always dangerous because the cleaning products could bring on an attack and mean another visit to hospital.”

Kirsty suffered hay fever as a child but her more severe symptoms began at the age of 18 when a chest infection heightened her allergic reactions.

She said: “It’s really hard, I have to battle so much just to achieve normal things.’

Well, yeh, I get it with the cleaning products. But why not ask the school to consider changing to fragrance free products? The leverage for them to do this? The chances of other people having physical reactions to fragrance cleaning chemicals are high; the chances of other people having the same happen with low-toxic products are extremely low.) However, I, too, avoid the canteen as much as I can. When there were evening classes, it was okay to go in there, but during the day, it’s a nightmare. And, I’m much better off bringing my own coffee and lunch, anyway.

As for the books, if I had to use something that a person wearing spray-type fragrance had just touched, I could be sick for days. The same with printed worksheets that are fresh off the printer; these cause my eyes, nose lining and airways to become inflamed; and if I don’t avoid them, it just gets worse. This issue has been solved by using an iPad. I photograph worksheets so I can read them immediately; and I download books so I can read them, not having to air them. And the iPad also has the advantage of letting me add them to the class notes on my computer. For some classes we use Dropbox. This enables students to swap documents, teachers to drop work in, and me to submit my assignments, all without touching or breathing in any ink fumes. (Otherwise we just whack them in plastic covers. Simple, once you get the hang of it. Just don’t go leaving them in a hot car!)

Disadvantageously, Kirsty has not been so lucky:

“One day I was studying, I’d got my friends to get the books off the shelves in the library as that is normally a danger area for me.

“As I got the book out of my bag and opened it, it must have wafted a cloud of dust into my face because I felt my airways closing and was struggling to breathe.

“It was a terrible reaction and I ended up back in the hospital.”

I blame her school; well, not the actual school, but the lack of awareness at the school. Kirsty’s not the only one reacting to allergens and chemicals (Dust absorbs chemical Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCS), and it’s the perfect food (cellulose) for mould to adhere to: vacuuming a high traffic area is of the uppermost importance for everyone’s health.); she’s just the only one physically reacting to these things at this level. I’m sure there are other people who get blocked sinuses, mild to severe headaches, and other symptoms but they just don’t say anything because they don’t want to be a bother!

Most of the things that make attending VU successful for me, were thought up and implemented by Victoria University Disability (VUDS) Staff. Never would I have thought to ask the school to lend me an brand new iPad. Are you kidding? But when I was offered one, I had no idea just how easy it would make studying. Here, before the iPad, I posted about how I had to air my books before use. It was just something I had to do. (Second hand books with mould, smoke or fragrance would have faded away to an unreadable quality before ever airing out!) This article has made me feel even more grateful for the experience that I’ve had at my learning institution. But it’s many things together that make it possible for me to get this education that I live and breathe:

  • A Blueair High-efficiency particulate absorption (HEPA) air-filter in the class
  • A HEPA air-fitler in the library’s perfume free study room
  • The HEPA inner filters are changed every six months
  • Students and staff who go fragrance free—not just for me but also the increasing amount of other students whose health are impacted on via fragrance chemicals (and, as some have pointed out, their own health too!)
  • Teachers who help me avoid breathing in and having contact with petrochemical based inks
  • Library staff who help me find online sources of reading material
  • Amazingly compassionate disability officers
  • Signs, pamphlets, documents, and a brief note in the Student Handbook about students who have chemical allergies/sensitivities, and what we all need to do to help accommodate them
  • Fragrance free hand soap in some of the toilets (hopefully, it will be all of them soon)
  • The fact that I wear a mask when I know that I’m going to be in ‘high-density’ exposure areas
  • Strategies that help me to know if an area is safe for me to stay in (I’ll elaborate more on this in another post soon)

I urge all students to ask for the accommodations that they need. It’s not a selfish act. Rather, it’s almost selfless; in that, although it can be anxiety producing to ask for help, by pushing through this, people will be paving the way for others who are in the same eczema-producing/petrochemical-outgassing shoes!

Michellina Van Loder is a Professional Writer, Journalist and Blogger. This is where she shares her tales about trail blazing her way out of the Labyrinth of Chemical Sensitivities and Mould. This is also where you will find the latest Research on related topics.

About Michellina van Loder


  1. Kirsty Ashman says:

    I’ve just read your blog and I wanted to let you know that as usual the daily mail has failed to report a piece in a way which accurately reflects the true story.

    I don’t have an allergy to books, like they very wrongly reported. I have severe asthma, which is triggered by dust mites amongst other things such as pollens,(during the spring and summer I have to stay in the house when the count is high) moulds and various chemicals. I also develop different allergies at different times so I can be fine with things one day and not another.

    My asthma is also triggered strongly by viruses, during my time at uni I had two admissions to intensive care and three to high dependancy because I picked up a virus which turned into an infection.

    Because I’ve had so many severe attacks in the past, and infections have damaged my lungs I have damage to my lungs. This means my lung function is only about 50%. So I am always breathless and when allergens set me off I don’t have much in the way of reserves!

    I also have various other illnesses caused by the medication I am on for my asthma such as diabetes, brittle bones and a condition called steroid myopathy which causes my muscles to break down.

    I only left uni partially because my allergies were made worse by the environment. I didn’t use the library that much, cause of the dust, and used a kindle instead, but when I did need the library it did make me unwell. The main reasons I left were to do with the fact that I am dealing with multiple illnesses now, all of which made life hard, and the risk of me picking up a virus or infection was too high.

    My want to get a degree couldn’t overtake the importance of my health, and there were too many things which were outside of my control at such a large university.

  2. Wow! I’m so glad your university has made so many accommodations. No one should be deprived of an education! What you have done for your university and for other students is amazing!

  3. Reading that illustrates what an accomplishment you made by pushing your school to be chemically safe for you.

    • I agree MCS Gal. This is a huge accomplishment.

    • Michellina van Loder says:

      I know. Reading it back brings tears to my eyes. The school was accepting of my condition from the start but if I hadn’t of spoke up about my needs, especially as my condition worsened, I would have had to leave. It’s easier to suffer in silence than speak up because by speaking up, in some circles, you alienate yourself socially. (Must have that chip missing in my brain. You know the one that makes you feel like you have to run with the pack to survive?)

  4. I think it is so wonderful that you have been fortunate enough and tenacious enough to get your university to accommodate your sensitivities and those of others. So many are either afraid to ask for help for fear of being branded “crazy” and others are just unaware of what they can do or how to go about it. I am so happy that you are sharing this information with others. I will be sharing this post on my blog for my readers.

    • Michellina van Loder says:

      I’ve had good role models. Since I first became sick, 10 years ago, I met many people who, although, cautious when tackling social situations, were very empowered when protecting their own health. I also refused to ever brand myself crazy (over chemical sensitivities/allergies), probably because, like you, I’ve had great medical help who have helped me understand (somewhat) and manage my own condition.

      Meeting you, and reading your book, just adds to my list of positive role models, too :)

      Thanks for sharing x


  1. […] dear friend and fellow blogger, Michellina,  from the-labyrinth is a student at Victoria University in Australia.  Despite having similar allergies and […]

Information, products and views presented by guest bloggers @The Labyrinth are not necessarily the same as those held by this blog's author, Michellina van Loder. Reviews are my own personal opinions (unless stated otherwise); and satire is used throughout personal posts. Any health topics discussed are not to be taken as medical advice. Seek out medical attention if needed and do your own research; however, you're welcome to use mine as a start.
Translate »