The rented mini-van packed full of my son’s belongings, carefully selected to help keep him happy, healthy and safe at college, wound down the road towards the university dormitory building where he is to live for the next four years.
Due to wildfire, the golden California hills to the east were now charred and smoldering as helicopters flew overhead dropping water on the last burning embers. Suddenly, we all started coughing and our eyes became red and inflamed from the smoke. But once we passed the blackened slopes and neared the campus, I realized that a cloud of brown haze to the west I had mistakenly thought was smoke, was actually air pollution created by sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles. The landscape was quite a contrast from the arid desert surrounding our home in Reno, Nevada.
The college adventure had begun.
“Thank goodness I tucked fresh prescriptions for asthma medications into Cyrus’ medication box – he might need refills sooner than later,” I thought to myself, pondering the air quality.
My concern over his exposure to an unfamiliar living environment rose: Would there be mold lingering in the corners or in the closet of his dorm room? What if the room was old and musty? What if students are allowed to smoke inside the dorm building?
I worried I had not paid close enough attention to what our allergist had said in his accommodation directions to the college and that we wouldn’t be properly prepared to manage his allergies and asthma. “Cyrus is limited by his physical environment. Proper use of medications, avoidance of allergens and triggers, and proper control of his environment to the extent practicable will minimize disruption to his health,” the allergist had written to the university.
Before making the journey, although we were mildly worried about Cyrus’ asthma flaring up in a new living environment, the potential impact of hay fever or air quality on his breathing was barely on our minds. His asthma was under control thanks to his diligence in using his medicines and avoiding triggers, so when I read the words the allergist had written, I was thinking only of his food allergies and the potential for anaphylaxis.
It never occurred to me that things wouldn’t continue as they had been. It turns out that I could not have been more wrong.
When we visited this campus previously, the environment felt fine, and the blustery Santa Ana winds were not blowing pollens and allergy triggers around. As a result, despite hearing experiences from Arielle Davis, a junior at the college with food allergies and asthma who thankfully reached out to us to help Cyrus better understand the allergic landscape, we didn’t think his asthma would be a problem.
In her wise words of wisdom, Arielle had suggested we arrive a few days early to campus to help Cyrus acclimatize to the air quality. She shared her experience as a freshman, which had prompted me to update our travel plans and to get asthma prescriptions ready.
“Although my asthma was well-controlled when going off to college, I began to have problems when becoming active in the Los Angeles area,” Arielle said. “My episode, which sent me to the hospital, actually was at the gym. I wanted to exercise, but knew I couldn’t outside (due to bad air quality). I went to the gym and my chest was already tight. When I was on the elliptical, I got dizzy and saw my heart rate go up past 200, which is when I knew I needed to stop. I had a friend walk with me to my dorm.”
Once in her room, Arielle tried to use her nebulizer to inhale reliever medicine into her lungs, but it was too late. When she came back from the hospital two days later, she invested in a high quality HEPA filter to improve her breathing environment.
In his letter, our allergist had requested the college provide “a room that has the option to reduce respiratory risk exposure to environmental triggers and fluctuations in weather (heat, humidity, environmental allergens, dust) by providing purified air through the use of air conditioning and if available, HEPA filtration.”
The allergist had also explained to the college that Cyrus must have a room with controlled indoor air quality and avoid strong fragrances, odors, dust and mold. He also pointed out the importance of restricting food allergens within the confines of a small dorm room.
Thankfully, the school was able to provide a private dorm room in a fabulous LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold-certified building. The tradeoff of not attending a school with a stunning Harry Potter-like Hogwarts personality was this very green and environmentally friendly modern building that met my son’s asthma needs.
Cyrus’ room has an entry way and shared bathroom made of concrete floors incorporating recycled materials. The carpet, adhesives, paint and sealants are all made from low volatile organic compounds (VOC), with little off-gassing.
The air conditioning in the room works beautifully and upon arrival we used hand wipes to clean the furniture to remove dust without disturbing it and causing it to fly up into the air.
By official move-in day, we realized a few things.
The good doctor was right about controlling the impact of fluctuating outdoor weather systems in the as they affect mold and the level of outdoor dust seeping into the room. Altitude has an impact on asthma, and Cyrus’ lungs prefer the near sea level of the Los Angeles area. Since tree, grass and shrub pollens are different in Los Angeles compared to Reno, Cyrus is scheduling an appointment with a local allergist.
Even though the university has a smoke-free policy on campus and there are smoke-free buffer zones around buildings, students still attempt to smoke in dorm rooms, making a HEPA filter key to keeping dorm room air quality clean.
Students are required to clean their own living space, so we chose natural low VOC products for his use. Cyrus is now committed to dusting his room each week with a wet rag or hand wipes. He is also showering each night to remove outdoor dust and pollen from his body and hair to ensure uncongested sleeping.
As a parent, I chuckled that he is now required to clean his bathroom. I think I enjoyed buying him cleaning products more than he did!
We believe that Arielle’s previous food allergy and asthma experiences on campus also influenced the school’s room assignment decisions and we are grateful to her for blazing the trail to benefit new students. It really helped us avoid many potential pitfalls to speak to a student attending the same school.
Our first college care package has now been mailed to Cyrus, complete with extra inhalers, allergen friendly cookies and the mop we forgot to pack. Based on our family’s experience, I offer up a few tips for a successful transition to college:
- Discuss asthma control and potential environmental allergens with your allergist when you explore accommodation requirements.
- Research the local air quality (both pollution, pollen and outdoor allergens) to find a better understanding of what triggers may await you.
- Realistically evaluate housing options and if the need to live off campus or in newer quarters is needed.
- Schedule an appointment with a local allergist to establish the student as a patient and discuss local asthma triggers and environmental allergens.
- Speak to room or suite-mates regarding cleaning products to be used in shared living spaces prior to move-in day.
- A student can confidentially explain the need for clean air when classmates attempt to smoke in areas with a shared ventilation system.
- Avoid panic when sick, create a quick reference Health Care Cheat Sheet highlighting hours and contact numbers of the Student Health Clinic, after hours Urgent Care and the preferred local hospital, including any college specific protocol.
Now well-armed, Cyrus is off to a great start and we wish him much success.
Caroline Moassessi is Allergic Living’s products editor and a blogger known as @Gratefulfoodie. Visit her site here.