Taking Action: Indoor Environment Concerns In Your School
School Indoor Air Quality may be a cause of health symptoms and learning difficulties.
This article will use the term IEQ, or Indoor Environment Quality, rather than IAQ, Indoor Air Quality, because related aspects of the indoor environment can impact health and well-being.
Individual concerns: A child who is anaphylactic to peanuts, or has asthma or sensitivities to chalk or scented products may need accommodation while at school.
Wider concerns: IEQ problems from mould growth, oil or gas fumes, and many other conditions in schools are wider in scope, affecting many individuals. Discomfort may also come from other factors such as lighting, noise, overcrowding, thermal comfort, or high or low humidity.
Who is in charge? It is primarily the principal’s responsibility to ensure the safety of everyone in his or her building. Concerned parents or students should speak with the teacher and/or principal first. Once a concern is registered, it is the responsibility of the principal to investigate it or have it investigated by the appropriate person or expert. He or she must determine if there is an emergency or not, and whether protective action is required for one student, a few, or the entire school body. Most school boards have protocols to follow for individual and group hazards. Sometimes IEQ problems can be dealt with by the teacher or custodian, but often the principal has to call on other assistance.
Immediate evacuation may be necessary in some cases such as a hazardous chemical spill, roof tarring, oil spill or leak, combustion gas leak, sewer gas leak, or if renovations were done that have resulted in off-gassing of paints or caulks, etc.
In some cases there may not be clear evidence of a hazard but there may be evidence of widespread symptoms such as breathing difficulties, chest tightness, and respiratory irritation.
For carbon monoxide, symptoms of poisoning such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, and drowsiness may be the only obvious indication of the existence of a hazard.
With extreme or widespread symptoms, evacuation may be the wise choice even before the cause of the hazard has been determined. Err on the side of caution.
ARE THE SYMPTOMS IEQ-RELATED?
The following clues can often help to determine if the problems are related to indoor environment quality:
– Often IEQ-related symptoms may be mistaken for the flu, cold or allergies. Children/adults may appear pale and may have dark circles under their eyes, or have non-specific symptoms such as: eye, nose, ear, throat, skin, and lung irritation, headache, fatigue, sinus congestion, coughing, dizziness, and nausea.
– Children and adults may also exhibit behavioral symptoms such as mood swings or drowsiness, irritability, aggression, short attention span, short term memory loss, hyperactivity, restlessness, and depression.
– Individuals who may be particularly susceptible to poor IEQ are children, people with heart disease, asthma or other respiratory diseases, those with allergies or weakened immune systems, and contact lens wearers.
WHAT DO I LOOK FOR?
Look for symptoms that disappear when your child leaves the school building for evenings, weekends or vacations. Dr. Claudia Miller’s QUEESI Test at http://familymed.uthscsa.edu/qeesi.pdf can help. It is scientifically verified and has even been used in US court cases.
Keep a detailed journal of the types of symptoms, time of day, day of week, particular locations in the building, activities that your child is involved in, and if possible, activities that are nearby (such as chemistry or art class activities, a delivery van outside the window, or custodial activities). Look for a pattern. If your child is not old enough to participate in the journal activity, enlist the help of your child’s teacher while he or she is at school.
FOR SCHOOL OFFICIALS LOOKING FOR CLUES
Are there widespread symptoms that affect several, or many, building occupants? This may make solving the problem easier, but even if only one child is experiencing symptoms, the situation warrants examination and correction. An occupant survey is a good method to estimate the number of students affected and the type of symptoms. Again, the QUEESI test can be useful. Look for recently diagnosed cases of asthma and allergies and Environmental Sensitivity among the school’s occupants. New illness onset can give clues to what is going on in the building.
Look for the time the symptoms occurred to see if they coincided with recent activities such as renovations, maintenance cleaning or the introduction of a new cleaner, a pesticide application, recent painting or varnishing, an animal being introduced into a classroom, and so on.
Look for widespread symptoms that could indicate a problem with the heating or ventilation system such as mould contamination, pollutants entering the building through air intakes, or insufficient air exchange.
Look for a location pattern. Is the teacher’s or child’s class near a pollutant source such as a photocopy room, auto body shop or furnace room? What type of cleaner is used in the classroom? Are teachers and custodians using only the board approved cleaning materials?
POTENTIALLY HAZARDOUS MAINTENANCE ACTIVITIES
There are no laws in Nova Scotia to require isolation or Safe Work Practices for children’s protection. However, this province and its school boards have been leading North America for over twenty years in protection of school occupants from possible IEQ hazards. While standards that exist are designed to protect healthy adult males in the workplace, not children, the Departments of Labour and Education actively protect children and will not close their eyes to apparent risks to children. The Draft Indoor Air Quality Regulations http://novascotia.ca/lae/healthandsafety/docs/IndoorAirQualityRegsDraft.pdf are actively used. Ask your school principal for the safety guidelines set by the school or school board. For example, Nova Scotia school boards have protocols which prohibit even some routine work from happening during school hours.
Some examples of hazardous activities where students are protected are: lead removal, asbestos removal, creation of silica dust, use of ozone, asphalt tarring, and mould removal, including carpet removal, painting, and renovations. Areas being renovated are isolated to prevent occupant exposure to the dust and chemicals and to new building material off-gassing. Floor waxing and stripping are carried out over vacations or long weekends because even the less-toxic waxes and strippers tend to contain some hazardous ingredients. In fact the list is very long.
The primary action routes for teachers and parents are through the principal and the Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee. Depending on the action taken by the principal, teachers or parents may need to provide their concerns to the school’s Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee (JOHSC) in writing.
CAN CHILDREN BE PROTECTED BY THE LABOUR ACT?
In Nova Scotia, the Occupational Health and Safety Act (Department of Labour) requires any workplace of 20 employees or more to have a JOHSC, and any workplace with five or more employees to have a representative who can deal with these issues. Although the mandate for the Act is primarily to protect worker health and safety, under Section 13(1) the Act does state, “Every employer shall take every precaution that is reasonable in the circumstances to ensure the health and safety of persons at or near the workplace.” That includes children and visitors. The committee is made up of employee and employer representatives and is expected to work as a team and in an advisory capacity, to see that the complaints are adequately dealt with by the administration or its representatives. The committee can participate in the investigation, oversee the action taken, and follow up with all parties.
Many schools have found it beneficial to have parent representatives serve on the JOHSC. The NS Department of Labour’s Occupational Health and Safety Division does not frown upon this. In fact it has been observed that schools with a parent representative on the JOHSC have their concerns dealt with more quickly and more often without intervention by the Department.
The principal or JOHSC establishes a system for recording complaints. This can be in the form of occupant questionnaires and/or interviews, health complaint forms, incident logs, or occupant diaries. This type of documentation could include: symptoms occurring, area of building where complaints have originated, time of day and date(s), and any evidence of odours.
If several individuals have registered complaints, then the principal and the JOHSC may have all the building occupants complete an occupant questionnaire to see if there is a widespread problem.
Inspections or walk-throughs of the building, in addition to the routine walk-throughs, may be warranted. Health Canada’s Tools for Schools IAQ Action Kit is an excellent tool for identifying IAQ issues and also as a preventive tool. See CASLE’s website section for a simplified version www.casle.ca, and Health Canada’s site for the entire kit at www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/pubs/air/tools_school-outils_ecoles/index_e.html
Assist your school to implement this Kit.
The principal and the JOHSC should maintain files that include all IEQ complaints, surveys, complaint forms, corrective action, test results, reports, minutes of the JOHSC meetings and any related correspondence. Each member of the JOHSC should have a binder where they keep their copies of all documentation. This could include contact information on key people involved, remedial action taken, change in activities or change in location of complainant, and change and/or recurrence of symptoms of complainant.
Ongoing communication between the complainant and the JOHSC and/or principal is advisable throughout all stages of the project.
Nova Scotia’s Department of Labour advises that parents be notified and provided with testing and action being taken. This is not a requirement, but is a wise and appropriate thing to do because “transparency” tends to solve more problems than it causes.
If corrective actions did not solve the problem, then it is the responsibility of the principal to persevere, most likely by asking the school board staff to continue the investigation with in-house staff and/or professional consultants.
PARENTS: WHEN NORMAL PROCEDURE FAILS
Some schools have formed environment committees, often (but not always) as part of the PTA, to discuss IEQ problems and, through letter writing or meetings with officials, have encouraged and overseen corrective action.
Parents have contacted their School Advisory Committee.
Parents or parent groups have enlisted the help of their school board members to intercede on their behalf.
Parents or parent groups have made presentations to their school board about school IEQ issues.
Parents or parent groups have written to the school board’s superintendent outlining their concerns, and have asked for meetings to voice those concerns and to discuss solutions to the problem.
Some have contacted the board’s head building operations manager.
Some have contacted the Regional Occupational Hygienist from the Department of Labour to discuss their concerns.
Some have contacted the Department of Education’s Facilities Division.
In other cases the Regional Officers of Health have become successfully involved in corrective action.
In some cases MLAs or MPs have become involved in requesting action.
Many have found it wise to send copies of all correspondence to the superintendent, the board member/s, board chair, principal, PTA, JOHSC, board maintenance management, the Minister of Education, and any other person involved as this raises the awareness level, helps communication and helps ensure success.
In some cases parents or parent groups have spoken to the media in hopes of raising the awareness of the need for action.
A FEW THINGS TO REMEMBER
(1) Things tend to work better when all involved take some form of “ownership” of their school and each other’s welfare. It is not “someone else’s job.”
(2) If there is reason to believe that there may be a health hazard (one that cannot quickly be removed or handled), the first priority has to be to remove or isolate the children and staff from the perceived hazard until it can be (a) repaired or (b) proven to be of no risk. Sometimes this means temporarily closing all or part of a school.
(3) For parents: The most important thing to remember is this: Even though there are others who are technically responsible for your child’s welfare during the school day, the final responsibility for your child’s health and welfare lies with you, the parent or guardian. If you believe or suspect that the school is possibly unsafe for your child, then you must take appropriate action to protect your child. Sometimes you may be faced with the choice of keeping him or her home from school until safety is assured.