Halifax District PTA IEQ and Schools – Archived presentation

Presentation to the Halifax District PTA

October 19, 1998

Citizens for A Safe Learning Environment (CASLE) is an information-based, non-profit Provincial organization which works hand in hand with parents, government, and school boards to improve the condition of school buildings and the products and practices used within, so that school children and school staffs have safe and healthy places to spend their days.

In the beginning, we were only working to make our own schools accessible to our own environmentally disabled children, but we were surprised and shocked to learn just how unsafe the schools were in general, regarding Indoor Environment Quality (IAQ), and that all of the children were at some risk, not only from the more newly recognized Environmental Health concerns, but also from well established and regulated Environmental Health & Safety concerns, like asbestos, moulds, silica, PCBs, pesticides, and more.

Although there were/are many individuals, committees, and departments each with partial responsibility for protection of some aspects of children’s health and protection, we found a lack of coordination between them, a lack of knowledge, and other factors were causing children’s health and safety to slip through significant gaps.

Primary responsibility for Environmental Health and Safety lies with the school boards, while primary responsibility on site rests with the Principal. But everyone has some degree of responsibility.

Parents tend to send their children to school each day believing that their needs are being taken care of in every way. How wrong we all were – and perhaps are.

We are pleased to note that improvements are now happening at all levels to close those gaps and eliminate school children’s workplace hazards, thanks to special efforts from the Department of Labour and the Department of Education and others.

We are learning that a safe, dry, temperate, place with plenty of clean, oxygenated air is as essential to the learning process as are a good curriculum and good teaching.

As a society we are always learning. Tuberculosis, Epilepsy, Syphilis, and Lyme Disease were all once thought to be of psychological origin. The recognition that asthma is an organic illness came as recently as the 1970s. Knowledge of a bacterial basis for stomach ulcers is still more recent. People suffering from Environmentally Induced Illnesses, Sick Building Syndrome, and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities have also endured accusations that their illness is not of organic origin. Fortunately, as time passes and more is learned, this too is changing.

Researchers for the Cutter Corporation assert that schools are particularly susceptible to Indoor Environment Quality (IAQ) problems:


(1) Cheap Construction. (We are learning from the schools built in the 50s and 60s that cheap construction is actually expensive in the long run.)

(2) Additional Space: (Making additions often works against the original building design and disrupts building function.)

(3) Energy Conservation Measures: (Quick fixes tried in the past to conserve energy have caused such things as reduced ventilation and increased indoor pollution.)

(4) Occupant Density: Schools house approximately four times as many occupants per square foot as do office buildings – and children’s bodies tend to be more vulnerable.

(5) Portable buildings: portable classrooms age relatively quickly, frequently develop leaks and often have inadequate ventilation. They tend to be made from materials such as particle board and other of the more toxic building materials.

(6) Multiple Systems: (Many schools have several different ventilation systems installed at various times and are in various states of disrepair.)

(7) Pollutant Sources: Classroom materials, art and science supplies, industrial arts areas, and gymnasiums all present particular pollutant problems not found in office buildings.

(8) Tight budget: Fiscal cutbacks lead to reduced maintenance. Long before school programs are put at risk from budget constraints, corners are cut on building maintenance. School maintenance had been a low priority for 25 years or more, but this too is slowly changing.

(9) Difficult political climates: The system is cumbersome and complex, and many decisions involve small-p politics. Often there is a lack of adequate information about IAQ concerns. There are also agendas which may not include safe buildings as a priority.


All of this has an impact on school children’s health and ability to learn.

the effects of building environments on health:

– Total Load theory

– Impact on health

– children’s vulnerability

– Impact on cognition/learning ability

Products Practices Conditions

School IAQ problems can be placed in three categories: Products, Practices, and the Condition of the Building.

1) the Products category includes everything from the building materials and floor waxes right through to the teacher’s aftershave and children’s felt markers.

2) Practices can include everything from the questionable practice of turning off air delivery systems after hours to the Safe Work Practices used by construction companies hired to do renovations. In our written presentation you will find examples of recent incidents involving potentially harmful products, practices, and conditions in Nova Scotian schools.

Here are some Examples:

– In some schools workers wearing protective suits removed asbestos while children sat unprotected nearby.

– In another, the brickwork of a school’s outer walls was to be repointed by a subcontractor. Teachers were warned to park their cars well away from the school building because the resulting dust could damage the paint jobs. The workers were well equipped with safety suits. Clouds of dust rose up, engulfing the school. Dust drifted into the classrooms through the open windows, covering every surface, and contaminating the breathing space. Floors were slippery from the layer of dust underfoot, and computers were reported to be “ruined”. Students were 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 change the situation, frustrated teachers and parents called on government officials. Then, the method of working was quietly altered to remove further risk of harm from inhaling the fine dust – silica dust. Parents, staff, and students were relieved that the “nuisance” dust had been stopped. No one was informed of the seriousness of the situation. Like asbestos, exposure to silica dust is closely controlled Health Officials because silicosis of the lungs can develop even after moderate exposure and often not until years after the exposure.

– In some schools parents who were frustrated over the lack of cleanliness in their school cleaned their children’s classrooms. In one, the curtains were so stiff from visible mould and dirt that they had to be stood upon to bend and force them into garbage bags. It took six washings before the fabric colour was evident. As the parents cleaned, compacted dirt floated down from the rafters in large black sections. The windows were believed to be aged, yellow plexiglass, but were discovered after much scrubbing, to be clear glass.

The Department of Health would like to see all schools cleaned from top to bottom at least once a year, but this is still generally not happening.

Incidentally, new curtains can contain numbers of chemicals, including anti-fungals and fire retardants, ready to off-gas into classroom air and significantly increase the Indoor Air Pollution. Metal blinds are a safer choice.

Also, there is a company in Nova Scotia specializing in less-toxic curtain cleaning and fire retarding. The Annapolis Valley school district has recognized the wisdom of hiring this company.

– Low-e windows and tinted windows are being placed in many schools in Halifax because they reduce the need for curtains, and they also help prevent heat loss. However, the Research Division of the CMHC does not recommend low-e windows for use in schools. In studies, healthy house plants died for lack of proper sunlight. CASLE encourages caution regarding installation of these windows in Halifax schools.

Much progress has been made, however. With the help of the article in your packages entitled:

Cleaning Chemicals in Schools, and with strong support from the custodial unions, less toxic cleaning supplies were made available to Halifax schools. The products previously used contained fragrances, carcinogens, teratogens, mutagens, sensitizers, and neurotoxins! Some schools are still using up old supplies of these more toxic materials. We encourage you to look into this in your school, and see that the less toxic Bebbington products are in active use.

More progress:

CASLE serves on the Building Environmental Management Committee which produced last year’s policy for dealing with anaphylactic responses, and this year’s Scent Policy which is still under review. Many schools have scent free programs and many are looking forward to the support of an official policy. There is strong opposition from the cosmetics industry. Letters and calls to school board members from PTAs and individuals would help put this into place, and we encourage you to take this message to your PTAs. We have enclosed in the resource package our presentation to the Board for your information.


Training and upgrading for all involved is essential. – from the government departments to the independent contractors, to the custodians and the parents. Parents have an important role to play.

One of CASLE’s contributions has been the activation of JOHSC’s in schools across the Province.

Under Labour Law every workplace is required to have such a committee, but many schools did not. Also, CASLE cleared the way for parents to sit on these committees. Both the employer and employee members of a committee must first agree if a parent is to join. Joining is a privilege, not a right.
If your PTA does not have a representative on this committee, consider requesting this. Please note that this committee’s mandate is to protect the adult workers, so parents should keep that in mind and be sure not to insist that children’s issues take precedence. The benefit is that much that protects the adults will also protect the children. Section 13 of the Act allows for protection of others on site. (Also, the D. of Labour has shown that in practice they will not close their eyes to the needs of the children.)
Department of Labour Officials have voiced being pleased with parental representation of these primarily staff committees. At a meeting this past summer one official stated that their job has been made much easier – that schools with parents on JOHSC’s tend to solve their problems without the Department or the Press having to become involved.

The Third Category:

(3) The Condition of Buildings refers to the issue of: Lighting, heating, ventilation, acoustics, leaks, physical security, life safety codes, mould, lead, PCBs, radon, electromagnetic fields, and more.

According to a survey by Honeywell, called Canadian Schoolhouse in the Red, “As many as 800,000 Canadian students may have difficulty learning because they are taught in aging and poorly built schools. 13 per cent of Atlantic Canada’s schools were said to be inadequate. The World Health Organization estimates close to 30% of our school buildings are suffering from “sick school syndrome”

EXAMPLES of risk from building conditions:


Mould overgrowth is a common problem in Nova Scotia Schools. Allergic reactions depend on the susceptibility of the individual. Once one becomes sensitive, very low exposure levels can cause even severe symptoms.

Moulds can, however, also adversely affect the health of non-allergic individuals. “Responses to inhalation may be mild and non-observable, may be acute and severe with flu-like symptoms, may cause irreversible change in lung functions after continuous chronic exposure, or may cause death.” (Significance of Fungi in Indoor Air, Health Canada, p.S9, 1987) “If there is mouldy odour in any indoor space, that is sufficient indication that mould is present, and that remediation should be done without regard to the kind of mould present. (Dr. Harriet Burge, Harvard University School of Public Health)

The most effective way to control moulds is to eliminate moisture. Repair leaks, remove damaged/contaminated plaster, wood etc., and clean and disinfect the remaining hard surfaces.


– Poor ventilation is another major health issue in schools. New standards for air delivery can not be reached in our old schools.

The common practice of turning systems off for weekends and overnight needs to be stopped. Also, many schools with systems have not had them cleaned for the entire life of the schools – 30 years or so! This must be addressed sooner rather than later. The dirt contained in the “lungs” of the building eventually winds up in the lungs of the children.

Nova Scotia’s Minister of Education has pledged to conduct full assessments of all Provincial Schools once the new schools have been built. Please ask your PTAs and individuals to send letters to the Department to thank them for progress to date and clearly encourage the Minister to proceed with upgrades of all schools.

– Renovations are activities that can cause significant health risks. See the article on Renovations in your resource packages. It helps when parents are informed and watching that things are done safely.

OVERHEAD: Correcting IAQ problems

What are some of the steps for correcting building-related IAQ problems?

– Correct identification of the problem by experts knowledgeable about the complex and interrelating factors of building remediation is crucial.

– Source Control:
– Choose low-emission products.
– Make sure workers use appropriate isolation techniques. Such as
(a) Safe Work Practices when products have unavoidable toxins, and/or
(b) SCHEDULING of work to off-hours and vacations and
(c) Flush-Out procedures or allowing sufficient time and ventilation for off- gassing before occupants re-enter the space.

Source Control Examples:

– Lead

Paints made prior to the mid ’70’s may contain LEAD, a very toxic substance, especially to children. When scraping, sanding, or renovating walls in schools it is wise to assume there is lead paint present, and take precautions. Reliable lead tests are available.

– Natural Gas/Propane should be avoided for indoor heating and appliances. In a recent study of 47,000 Environmentally Ill patients in the US, natural gas was found to be the #1 cause of onset of illness.

– Carpets: There are significant health risks from carpeting, and most school boards are actively removing carpets from all schools. In Kings county the work is almost completed, and also, the new Horton school was built with no carpeting at all.

– Less toxic Building Materials: See the CMHC book Building Materials for the Environmentally Hypersensitive for information on choosing less toxic building products. for homes as well as schools. Paint: Avoid oil-based paints and finishes. Painting even with the less toxic kinds should not be done with children unprotected from the fumes. Isolation, and flush-out techniques, can put rooms back into use often within a few days.

A local Doctor stated at a board committee meeting that he is “tired of his patients winding up in hospital for two or three days just because someone decided to paint the school.” In Halifax, and some other districts, less toxic paints are in use. That is step one, but painters still arrive at schools ready to paint. Some aware principals send the painters away, but others still put their children at risk. When CASLE asks why this goes on even now that the health effects are known about, we are told the Board has painters on staff whose jobs are union protected and they can’t sit around all day. Window caulking, roof tarring, floor stripping and waxing, and many more maintenance and custodial procedures need to be altered to prevent exposures to children and staff.

“Whenever any intervention is done at a school, an explicit and automatic question should be asked, ‘what effect will this have on the children?’ ” (Dr. Jeff Scott, N.S. Provincial Medical Officer of Health)

Professionals in building environment rely on much more than test results to evaluate what is usually a complex situation.

Often we hear of parents or staff demanding air quality testing. Such testing needs to be used with caution. There are many reasons for this, but here is one example: If the air quality test did not find the mould this is not a conclusive guarantee that mould is not the problem. Common mould tests measure only live spores. If the colony is in a dormant part of the life cycle, live spores will not be in production, and not likely found. If the moisture levels are down, or if air circulation is up, or any of several other factors are present or absent, the tests may not find mould even though mould contamination may still be present. This is an oversimplification, but a very important point. Air quality tests for moulds, chemicals, CO2, and more is only one tool for diagnosing building health.


Many of the issues are the same for older schools as for the building of new schools. Some are specific to new schools.

This past summer CASLE made a presentation to several government departments on the topic of building healthy new schools. The Department of Education requested and arranged several followup presentations to the NS School Boards Association, the Provincial Health Inspectors, The Regional Occupational Hygienists for the Dept of Labour, the maintenance managers for the 7 school boards, and the building consortiums that have been hired to build the 31 new schools across our Province.

Control of design and construction from start to end is most important.

We often hear concerns that building safer buildings and upgrading old ones will be too costly. CASLE speaks with an engineering consultant in Austin Texas, Mary Oetzel, who specializes in building environmentally safe schools. I asked what she might like to be sure is heard. She said, “The most important message I could send is this:

During this presentation we have mentioned the considerable progress that is being made on all levels.

Recent signs of progress this Fall are seen in the school where the painters arrived and the principal chose children’s health over the state of the schools walls. He asked them to return on the Friday of a long weekend or a vacation. In another, workers arrived to tar the roof and the principal removed the children from the school – took them to the far end of the field, until the workers could be persuaded to return when children are not present.

This is encouraging.

There is still much to be done.

What can parents do?

Examples of Resources

a) Indoor Air Quality: Tools for Schools, the US EPA’s Action Kit on indoor air quality in schools

b) Report to the New York State Board of Regents on the Environmental Quality of Schools, New York State Education Department, Albany, NY, 1994.

c) The Texas Department of Health Voluntary Indoor Air Quality Guidelines for Public Schools, 1998.

d) Indoor Air Quality in Schools, Dr. D. Schmidt Etkin, The Cutter Corporation. (and several other publications)

e) Building Materials for the Environmentally Hypersensitive, the CMHC (and other publications)

f) The Healthy School Handbook, National Education Association, USA, 1995.

g) Is This Your Child’s World? Dr. D. Rapp, 1996.

CASLE hopes that tonight’s presentation helps you better know how the Products, Practices and Condition of the schools affect the well-being of school children, and also see better the role that parents can play to assist the officials in providing safe places to educate our children.

Thank You