A Report on Schools – archived article

The following article, A Report on Schools, was first written in 1995. It was the first article in a series which attempted to point out the deficiencies in the protective system with regard to school children. It was quite widely published in Nova Scotia and beyond and helped serve as a catalyst for many changes that followed.

February, 1997

There are conditions, products and practices in schools which can and do affect the health, behaviour, and performance of school children and staff. Many of us who are struggling to encourage improvements in school environments have been surprised and dismayed to find that even long-known Occupational Health & Safety issues are often not being handled well. Examples include common renovations involving lead, PCBs, asbestos and other hazards which have been highly regulated for years.

Here is an example: A crew arrives at a school with little or no warning, removes and replaces ceiling tiles or floor tiles in an area, and is gone without anyone realizing that the tiles removed may have contained breathable asbestos fibres. Even though wearing protective gear for potentially hazardous activities is required by the Department of Labour (DoL), the workers may only be encouraged, not required, by their employers to wear the gear. The children and teachers are put at risk without even being aware of it. The health effects of asbestos exposure only reveal themselves years later.

A second example is: The brickwork of a school’s outer walls is to be repointed, and a subcontractor is hired. Teachers are warned to park their cars well away from the school building because the resulting dust could damage the paint jobs, and work begins. The workers are well equipped with safety suits and breathing protectors. As work progresses, clouds of dust rise up, engulfing the school. Since the school windows are open, the dust drifts into the classrooms, covering every surface and contaminating the breathing space. Floors are slippery from the layer of dust underfoot. Students are seen entering and leaving the school with their coats pulled over their heads. In this case, after nearly two weeks of trying to have school officials and maintenance managers change the situation, frustrated teachers and parents call in government officials. Then, the method of working is quietly altered to remove further risk of harm from inhaling the fine dust – which almost certainly contains silica. Parents, staff, and students are relieved that the “nuisance” dust has been stopped. No one is informed of the true nature of the exposure, or of the seriousness of the situation. As with asbestos, exposure to silica dust is closely controlled by the DoL and Health Officials. In this case, because of the known risk of silicosis of the lungs developing even after moderate exposures and often not until years after the exposure. These examples of recent incidents in the Halifax School system are not isolated examples. It is common to see work being done in the schools in this way, although it varies from district to district. These examples show the need for protection of not only the workers, but of the staff and students as well. I call them “Hit and Run” renovations.

In addition to the long-known hazards, other Environmental Health Issues, including the risks posed by long-term low-level chemical exposures, are gradually being recognized as hazards to human health. Children who have already developed a condition called Chemical Sensitivity are particularly hard hit. However, it is not widely understood that everyone is affected to some degree when exposed to these and other contaminants. Health, behaviour, learning abilities, and more can be subtly or not so subtly affected without anyone’s suspecting the cause.1,2,3,4

Combine the ignorance and neglect of the long known hazards, and lack of knowledge about the more newly recognized hazards with our natural human tendencies toward denial of the existence of problems, resistance to change, and protection of personal agendas, and we can see why things may not change as quickly as we may hope. We can also see there is potential for significant harm to come to children and staff in our schools.

Let me outline of the factors which, in my view, combine to put the children’s health at risk. They may vary somewhat between schools and districts – some districts actively seek improvements in the way they do things and the products they use. I base my comments on my belief that no one means to do harm, but that a combination of deficiencies or gaps in the protection system often allows health and safety issues (including children’s health) to slip through the cracks:

  1. SCHOOL BOARDS hire cleaning & maintenance managers and companies and often allow them to operate in a hands-off fashion.
  2. MAINTENANCE AND CUSTODIAL COMPANIES are not always up to date with research and regulations. Even then, they often subcontract work to other companies – some being more aware of health risks and Labour Law than others. Also, precautions cost money, and when money-making or money-saving are the motivations, there is temptation to cut corners.
  3. School JOINT OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH & SAFETY COMMITTEES (JOHSC) are often not aware of their functions, their rights and responsibilities. Under Labour Law every school should have one. Although this is primarily a staff committee, and Labour Law does not officially include children, parents can be full committee members if both the employer and employee sides agree. The committees are not permitted to take action on issues that affect students only. However, action to protect teachers and staff can indirectly protect the children, and Department of Labour (DoL) officials have shown they will not close their eyes to children at risk.5,6
  4. TEACHERS are often hesitant to speak their concerns, perhaps from lack of information or because past experience has shown them the system is often hard to move – or perhaps for fear of losing employment.
  5. PARENTS usually trust that school officials have everything under control.
  6. SCHOOL OFFICIALS do not always have full knowledge of Health and Safety issues. I understand that under Labour Law the Principal is responsible for the building occupant’s safety and welfare. If a principal is not sure that what is happening is safe, s/he should be asking questions. I also understand that anyone involved has some responsibility (in particular the school board), and that with a legal concept called Due Diligence, the courts can stop the buck at the school board, lower, or higher.5,6 This may be a deterrent, but it is primarily useful for placing blame after something terrible has happened. Prevention is a wiser course.
  7. The DEPARTMENTS of HEALTH, LABOUR, and ENVIRONMENT are largely reactive in nature, although the Department of Labour now has the authority to examine workplaces independently. However, people still have to know enough to recognize hazards and complain. If the public and school officials were generally better informed, prevention could be the common practice, and much harm could be prevented. A regular information newsletter, courses, or upgrading program needs to be designed to keep school officials informed and up-to-date in relevant Health and Safety issues.

Note: The Health Inspectors are now part of the Department of Environment. Also: The DoL is proposing inclusion of Indoor Air Quality issues in upcoming Labour regulations, but even now some action can be taken according to acceptable and enforceable guidelines already in place. For example, if a school room is suspected of affecting occupant’s health, this should be reported to the school’s JOHSC. Depending upon the nature of the risk, the occupants must be removed until it can be determined that the room is safe. It does not matter whether there are funds to fix it now, according to the DoL, it is not acceptable to leave people in a potentially unsafe area. If school authorities do not act to protect the room’s occupants the teacher can exercise the Right to Refuse to work. Refer to the N.S. Occupational Health and Safety Act, Section 22 (1). Getting a copy of the Act from the DoL, and asking questions of a DoL Officer would be a good idea. For various reasons, many hazards, including mould problems, may not be obvious during visual inspections, so input from regular building occupants as well as testing are useful. Once again, people have to be knowledgeable in order to point out deficiencies, make corrections, or call in the appropriate officials. Government Departments of Health, Labour, and Environment do not yet have full legislation on risks from such things as chemical fumes from paints, cleaning agents, in school Technical Shops, etc.

Overall, there is no department, no committee, no person, who is actively responsible for ensuring school children’s Health and Safety standards are up-to-date, in place, and enforced. The entire Department of Labour functions to protect adult workers. No one questions the importance of this, but ensuring the actual protection is still difficult to accomplish. Also, Labour standards are based on research on healthy, 170 lb. adult males, not children. There is no adequate protective legislation designed for school children’s more vulnerable bodies.
Combine the above factors with the following issues and we have a potentially serious situation:

Other Factors:

– Lack of funding has caused years of deferred maintenance resulting in many school buildings needing repair.
– Many of our buildings are old and contain building materials that were installed before controls were placed on many hazardous materials, including asbestos and lead paints.
– Many school buildings are leaking and have mould and fungal overgrowth.
– Ventilation systems are malfunctioning or dirty, and many have not been maintained according to manufacturer’s specifications (If at all).

– New building materials such as paints, caulking compounds, pressboard, and vinyl tiles off-gas solvents, Volatile Organic Compounds, formaldehyde, phenols, and other volatile and semi-volatile chemicals.
– There are roofs to be tarred, floors to be laid or varnished, furnace fume leaks to be tended to, windows to be caulked, walls to be painted, and much more. It is no longer acceptable to do these activities as casually as we may have done in the past. We know more now.
– In particular, we know that children’s bodies need more protection from contaminants than is needed for adult workers. The World Health Organization, The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Environmental Physicians, provide documentation of this fact.7,8 The wisdom of giving smaller doses of medications to children than to adults also illustrates this basic difference. It is important to recognize this difference when conducting any potentially hazardous maintenance activities in our schools, and indeed when establishing standards for the overall school environment.

Other Hazards:

The NS Department of Environment’s Health Inspectors have indicated the need for thoroughly cleaning classrooms at least once yearly – including walls, door and window frames, rafters, lights, shelving, library books, etc. Presently, this is not being thoroughly done in most schools.

Environmental Health Physicians have strongly recommended not using carpeting of any kind in schools because of the chemicals which off-gas for years, the fact that carpets are “sinks” for all manner of contaminants from danders to microbials, because they are hard to keep clean, and if there is any dampness source they are perfect havens for mould overgrowth. Research has found that rooms containing even clean carpeting contain up to 10 times the breathable dust compared to rooms with hard floors.

The daily use of chemical cleaning agents, which are usually also scented, increases the daily detoxification load on children’s bodies. Photocopy machines, art supplies, new building materials, personal care products, and much more, contribute to the overall indoor air pollution. Those already suffering from allergies, respiratory ailments, and related illnesses are more seriously affected than their healthier counterparts. However, as mentioned earlier, research is showing that exposure to common indoor air chemicals affects health, behaviour, and learning abilities of even normal people.

Buildings built before 1977 very probably contain lead-painted walls. Paints produced in the 1940’s contained as much as 50% lead by weight.9 Sanding, scraping, or renovating walls is a very harmful potential risk to children in particular.10 A simple wall patch test is available locally. Ask the CMHC for their booklet Renovation: Lead in Your Home, and the DoL for their Guidelines.

Some products claim to be “environmentally friendly ” or ” earthwise”, etc. This usually indicates that they biodegrade completely and relatively quickly, thereby posing reduced risk to the natural environment. This is important for the global environment and ultimately for the welfare of humanity, however the products may still be very harmful. For example, many new pesticides are biodegradable over days or weeks, but they are still extremely toxic poisons designed to kill before they break down.

Pesticide use in schools is a particularly potent risk to children, especially to those with health conditions including Asthma, Diabetes, heart problems, Allergies, and Chemical Sensitivity.11 There are less-toxic alternatives available and being used successfully in schools in North America and Europe. For example, by 1995 every school system in Texas is required to have a functioning Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Program with a coordinator to oversee the program. Research conducted on the Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, IPM program showed reduced costs over previous years of 90%. Absenteeism was reduced, while productivity was increased. $32,000.00 were saved in the first year alone.12


Standards and controls for lower concentration chemical emissions including Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) hazards are expected to be addressed in the new DoL Indoor Air Quality Regulations. Other new Labour legislation requires any business with 20 or more employees to have a written Health and Safety manual which includes protocols and practices for anything deemed hazardous by the DoL.13 As mentioned, the DoL’s mandate covers only the protection of adult workers. It is essential that school officials recognize the importance of including in these manuals protection designed particularly for children’s bodies.

Progress is being made. Examples can be found scattered across our school boards, and with amalgamation we are seeing more advanced districts helping to bring their amalgamated counterparts up to speed. One county removed over two acres of carpeting from schools in the past year. Another has taken the proactive approach of attempting to identify potential environmental health hazards and conditions that may affect learning, and is working to correct them in advance of complaints. Some districts are testing less toxic cleaning and maintenance products. Some principals are asking maintenance crews to return in the summer to do potentially hazardous work. They are notifying parents of unavoidable work, risks, and precautions, are encouraging scent-free policies, and much more. Some maintenance managers have taken the N.S. Construction Safety Association’s Safety Basics Course. (This is a valuable course for upgrading Health and Safety knowledge for builders and maintenance companies. This, or a similar course which includes children’s health risks, would be a valuable requirement for all maintenance/custodial managers and sub-contractors working in schools.)

From district to district there are differences in awareness of the issues, availability of information, funds allotted, and levels of commitment, and many areas are lagging far, far behind. Even those committed to improvements are struggling to find the information they need and, of course, the money to make things happen. However, work is beginning to help improvements happen in a less haphazard and uncoordinated way. The inter-departmental Indoor Air Quality Committee which wrote the Bulletin of 1994 has been reactivated. The Province’s maintenance managers are expected to begin meeting to share information and perhaps take joint actions. The Departments of Education, Health, Environment, Finance, Labour, and Public Works met in January with Citizens for A Safe Learning Environment (CASLE) to discuss ways of working within their mandates to help improve the situation. Several suggestions are being followed up, including suggestion of creating a library of information on school environment issues and perhaps requiring certification of all contractors planning to do work in schools.

Yes, progress is being made, but there is much still to be done. Excellent resources are The Healthy School Handbook published by the U.S. National Education Association Professional Library, Washington, 1995, and the US EPA’s Tools for Schools kit.

If you know of or suspect a Health and Safety or Environmental Health risk in your school, here are some options for making changes:

+ Use the Department of Education’s Indoor Air Quality Committee’s Bulletin on Indoor Air Quality and accompanying Protocol for Responding to School Indoor Air Quality Complaints,June’94. ( It seems not all schools have copies of this.)

+ Start with your principal in case simple solutions can be found at this level.

+ If not, your school’s JOHSC is required to investigate all complaints that affect teachers. For example, a playground safety issue that affects children only would not be under JOHSC jurisdiction.

+ Some schools have Environment committees (for recycling, etc.) and some have Environmental Health committees, often as part of their PTAs, who may also be of help. (You may want to help get one started.)

+ For more serious problems, contact your school board member. The school board should also be notified in writing, but be sure to state you would like it addressed by the appropriate committee or staff member, and request a written reply by a certain date. Send copies to all interested parties, possibly including MLA’s, cleaning & maintenance company, JOHSC, PTA, Dept. of Environment Health Inspectors, Dept. of Education, etc., and ask for their assistance where appropriate. The JOHSC and/or School Board should take action according to the Protocol mentioned above.

+ In worst case scenarios, when immediate action is needed, it may be necessary to “Red Flag” the incident. This might mean calling in the Health Inspectors or the Department of Labour to Stop Work and possibly evacuate the area.

In the meantime, the Nova Scotia Government needs to hear clearly from citizens that school children are in need of more protection from Environmental Health and Safety hazards. To quote a Supreme Court of Canada ruling of June 22,1981, from Myers vs. Peel Co. Board of Education, “The standard of care to be exercised by school authorities in providing for the supervision and protection of students for whom they are responsible is that of the careful and prudent parent.”

Action needs to be taken by all levels. An organized system with (1)adequate legislation; one which (2)educates both the public and school officials and which (3)continually monitors for compliance, is needed to eliminate the present gaps or deficiencies that are allowing too many school children’s and staff’s Health and Safety issues to slip through the cracks. We cannot afford to go on simply learning as we go, with each harmful incident that manages to be discovered after the fact. By then it is too late – children or staff have already been harmed. It is important to develop an effective, Province-wide school Environmental Health and Safety System based on prevention — for the sake of the children.

K Robinson
Healthy Schools Editor, National AEHA.UPdate,


  1. Lorig, TS et al. Human EEG and Odor Response. Progress in Neurobiology, Vol. 33, 1989, p. 387-398.
  2. Kjaergaard, S. Human Reactions to a Mixture of Indoor Air Volatile Organic Compounds. Atmospheric Environment, Vol. 25A, No. 8, 1991, p.1417-1426.
  3. Morrow,LA, et al. Alterations in Cognitive and Psychological Functioning after Organic Solvent Exposure. Journal of Occupational Medicine. 1990, Vol. 32, #5, p.444-450.
  4. Rapp, Doris J. M.D. Is This Your Child? William Morrow and Company, N.Y., 1991.
  5. Nova Scotia Occupational Health and Safety Act, N.S. Dept. of Labour.
  6. Taking Responsibility, Proposed Changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, N.S. Dept. of Labour, 1995, p.21,31,33,&34.
  7. Thorndyke Greenspan, Nancy, Infants, Toddlers, and Indoor Air Pollution. Zero to Three, June, 1991.
  8. The Healthy School Handbook, Conquering the Sick Building Syndrome and other hazards around your school, Norma L. Miller, ed. National Education Association Professional Library, Washington, 1995.
  9. Renovation: Lead in Your Home, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
  10. Needleman, H.L. et al. Low-Level Lead Exposure and the IQ of Children, JAMA, Feb.2, 1990, vol.263, #5. p.673-678.
  11. I.W.K. Poison Control, and U.S. National PEST-Line.
  12. Wilkenfeld, Irene, Prescription Environments: Solutions to the Sick Building Syndrome. Environmental Learning Centre, Goshen, Indiana, 1994.
  13. Taking Responsibility, Proposed Changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, N.S. Dept. of Labour, 1995.
  14. From Canadian Schoolhouse in the Red, a survey done for the Ontario Association of School Business Officials. October, 1993.
  15. Report to the New York State Board of Regents on the Environmental Quality of Schools, New York State Education Department, Albany, New York 12234, 1994.