Models for Action on Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)

Effectively Addressing School Indoor Environment Quality Incidents


When teachers or students (or their parents) complain that something about their school building is making them feel unwell the challenges are many. Most noticeable is the gap between current workplace industrial exposure standards and what is needed to protect more vulnerable workers and children. Even the residential standards for emissions are sometimes not enough protection. In schools, using “controls” rather than “standards” is a good alternative. Controls include choosing low-emission, less-toxic materials, practicing good isolation techniques, and scheduling cleaning or construction work for off-hours. Practising these controls instead of relying on testing or industry standards can avoid many problems. (See CASLE’s article Air Quality Testing and Other Challenges to Building Evaluations.)

The Nova Scotia Department of Education in conjunction with CASLE (Canadians for A Safe Learning Environment) developed a successful model for addressing Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) problems which has been used many times since the mid-1990s in Nova Scotia schools. Here is a brief description:

#1 Common Model (the old way):

1. Occupants complaining


2. Focus on proof of health impact claims (do standard tests, seek alternative causes of symptoms, cite industrial workplace standards and assure everyone there is no proof of any serious problem, and at least appear to walk away)


3. Increased and compounded problems

Costs of Model #1:

  1. Workers/students miss work or under perform
  2. Rifts occur at work (“It’s all in their heads.” “It is not my problem.”…)
  3. More visits to doctors and medical tests
  4. Private and public insurance costs
  5. Families thrown into stress
  6. Patchwork or “band aid” repairs (more expensive in the long run)
  7. Some people become disabled and use sick days and pensions. Often, long term legal and Worker’s Comp struggles follow
  8. Some people leave careers for other work (causing disruption to workplace staffing, retraining costs, etc.)
  9. Trust breaks down and anger increases
  10. The media may become involved
  11. It sometimes becomes a political issue

Plus these costs if school/community efforts succeed in getting changes:

  1. Cost of evaluating the building
  2. Cost of repair or replacement
  3. Disruption of school during evaluation, construction or repair

The ripple effects can go on in private lives, in the workplace and in government, all because in a perfect world we expect medical proof required by model #1. Medical “proof” is expensive, time consuming, mostly unobtainable in specific cases. It is also difficult for one government department to disregard another department’s authority.

School officials and Education professionals saw and believed the buildings were affecting these people, but also enough people who were feeling unwell were not prepared to continue that way. Something had to be done.

A new model was tried:

#2 New Model:

1. Occupants complaining


2. Focus on the building (use health complaints as clues, use current building science, take precautions during remediation)


3. Problems resolved

Other IMPORTANT Aspects of the Nova Scotia School Model #2:

  1. Include stakeholders and transparent communication
    • Reduces fears and develops trust
    • Helps identify building issues
  2. The NS Department of Education hired a full time IAQ consultant to handle:

A. Complaint-driven component:

– Assists school boards to identify problem and solutions

– Ensures that remediation is well done and does not put school occupants at further risk

B. Proactive Component for existing and new schools (see below)

This consultant recognizes that the developing bodies of children are uniquely vulnerable to many IAQ risks, that many IAQ tests and workplace standards do not apply to children, and that schools house a cross section of society’s health conditions from asthmatics to special needs students. Also, he is aware of research that shows that healthy buildings are cost effective.

3. Partnership:

When school boards have neither the expertise nor the funds to fix the problem properly, the Department of Education assists with expertise and extra funds.

Examples of proactive actions for existing schools:

  • Monthly seminar for all maintenance managers for the eight school boards
  • IAQ training and conferences for school board staffs, principals, Public Works, contractors…
  • Low-emission, low-toxicity cleaning and maintenance materials
  • Removed carpets from schools across the province
  • All schools: Upgraded safety audits, fire audits, JOHSC audits and committee procedures, asbestos, mould removal, radon
  • Many more examples could be listed, each having benefits to health and learning

Examples of proactive actions for new schools:

  • “Benchmark” Healthy New School, Halifax West High School (2002)
  • Healthy Building Guidelines added to the province’s Design Requirements Manual for all new public buildings since 2004 (See Healthy School Design and Construction on CASLE’s website)
  • All new schools exceed ASHRAE 62 for indoor air quality
  • Building green schools with healthy school components. (There are some difficulties to overcome yet as “green” and “healthy” are not quite the same.)

Costs of Model #2, Nova Scotia School Model

  1. Cost of evaluation, repair or replacement
  2. Disruption of school during evaluation, construction or repair
  3. Lower medical insurance costs
  4. Transparency/PR work to keep stakeholders informed, allay fears, or respond to new or continuing loss of trust
  5. Cost of training building operators and staff

Eleven costs from Model #1 are eliminated. Costs 4 and 5 of Model #2 are additional expenses. However, each situation varies somewhat.

With effective use of Model #2, Nova Scotia has seen many benefits. There are still problems as not all school boards are equally skilled at using Model #2. However, as an indicator, school IAQ issues seldom reach media attention as problems are more effectively and swiftly improved.

Canadians for A Safe Learning Environment