Wellness, School Renovations and New School Construction

It was the first day of school and the community was celebrating the opening of the new school. It had been a long time coming and the day had finally come. Within hours, however, some students and staff began having headaches, nose bleeds, sore eyes, brain fog and asthma attacks. In the following days and weeks some developed rashes and some were nauseous while at school. One had to be rushed to hospital after collapsing. Were these symptoms related to the new school? Unfortunately, yes.

One of the most common mistakes is putting new schools into use too soon after, or even during, construction. New paints, caulks and other building materials gas off volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) at a high rate and cause indoor air pollution that can put occupants at risk of health problems. CASLE’s website has a recommended pre-occupancy review procedure but unfortunately builders and also communities and officials do not seem to see this as a high priority. The failure of builders to complete buildings on schedule and gas off the building early, combined with the need to “get the school into use by September 1” causes students and staff to suffer short term and even long term loss of health.

Renovations pose similar hazards, but also have other common potential causes of poor indoor air quality, such as:

  1. Demolition that releases toxic materials (ie: lead, mould, asbestos, breathable particles, chemicals…)
  2. Construction dust and fumes (solvents, crack fill, sawdust, tar…)
  3. Designs that interfere with ventilation (changing room sizes without adjusting ventilation…)

Avoid health problems when renovation or building:

  1. Learn about the potential sources of poor indoor air quality during renovations or with new construction. CASLE has a section on this topic on their website, plus a list of resources for becoming informed. See Healthy School Design and Construction.
  2. Choose Least Toxic Building Materials to minimize exposures.

Dust, particulate, and airborne chemical fumes from building materials can be reduced by choosing products carefully. For example, avoid fibreglass linings in air pipes. Ceiling tiles move with air pressure, etc, and dust is generated. Special clamps can prevent this, or using heavy, low-particle, low-emission tiles. Look for the least-toxic caulks, sealants, paints, glues, solvents, resins, binders, etc.

Formaldehyde can be contained in many construction materials, such as paints, finishes, and particle board. It can gas off over a long time, and is a known sensitizer (can cause a spreading of health intolerance to a wide number of ordinary substances, even foods, and can lead to illness.) Builders of Nova Scotia’s new schools now work to eliminate products containing formaldehyde. However, there are many more chemicals that need to be eliminated or removed before schools open. For more information on this, see The National Research Council’s IA-Quest at http://irc.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/ie/iaq/iaquest_e.html.

Limit the use of, and seal all sides of, particle board shelving, cupboards, etc.

Carpets should not be installed in schools for several reasons. See CASLE’s article on carpet. Issues include chemical off-gassing, difficulty to keep clean, and potential for microbial growth.

Room dividers, curtains, and furnishings also need careful selection for their offgassing properties.

  1. Encapsulate: For some hazardous materials, such as some asbestos in old buildings, experts recommend securely enclosing the materials rather than disturbing them by removal.
  2. Timing and other isolation techniques:

Most renovations are best done when students and staff are not present. Some can be done on weekends or after hours, but others, like refinishing gym floors, tarring roofs, and paving driveways should be put off until vacation time. The gasses from such processes can send asthmatics to hospital or even cause serious illness in previously healthy individuals. If renovations must happen during the school year, make sure that isolation techniques appropriate to the type and size of renovation are used. This will likely include isolation of students and staff from fumes, dust, noise, and other hazards. Perhaps plastic sheeting and portable fans can create negative air space inside the work area, but possibly the school body may be better off in another location until work is done. Prevent dust and fumes from reaching occupants through open windows, doors, or through the ventilation system. Take care not to contaminate the ventilation system. Ensure old or hazardous materials are removal from the site and disposed of properly.

A thorough clean up using least toxic materials and methods should be done before the area is returned to use.

  1. Flush-out Procedure: 

    To drive off the unstable VOCs in a new building material, combine the highest practical levels of heat, ventilation and time. Humidity also aids the process, but take care not to damage new gyproc or to encourage fungal growth.

    1. Remove all porous materials possible so VOCs are not reabsorbed. (fabric, books…)
    2. Non-porous furniture and equipment is best included in this flush-out. Plastic chairs, MDF tables and more will benefit. Open cabinet doors, leave blinds and screens down and leave computers and other equipment turned on.
    3. Combine fans and open windows with an increase in the in-house ventilation system so air movement can be felt. Continue 24 hours a day with ventilation on full, for as long as it is necessary to clear the air. The length of time depends on the material, amount of material, heat, humidity, and ventilation. For latex paint it can be a few days, but for a gym floor coated with oil based urethane it may take weeks or even months. Ventilation is the priority, not heat.Caution: With new caulks or filled gyproc, heat and too vigorous a flush-out may cause cracks or damage.

Some Tips:

  • Companies now produce low-VOC acrylic paints, but painting even with the less toxic kinds should be done with children protected from the fumes. Less toxic choices, isolation, and flush-out techniques can put rooms back into use often within a few days. Avoid oil-based paints and finishes unless there is ample time to flush-out.
  • Test for lead before removal or sanding/scraping of old paint. Follow appropriate precautions for removal and disposal of materials containing lead-based paint.
  • Seek professional advice for removal of mould or fungal contaminated materials. Some moulds are more toxic than others, but any moulds may produce health effects and should be removed from occupied buildings. Seek professional advice as Safe Work Practices may be required to protect both the workers and the building occupants. Remove moisture sources to prevent regrowth.
  • When renovating, be sure to have the ventilation system assessed and adjusted by an expert to fit the needs of the renovation.

Informing the school community of the pending renovation, risks, and the protective plan will not only help identify individuals with greater need of protection, but also can provide assurance that all is in good hands.

Remember, children are not small adults. They tend to be more vulnerable to toxins and require more protection from construction and renovation materials and processes.

The Department Of Labour Occupational Health and Safety Division and the CMHC have information and guidelines for handling of asbestos, lead, moulds, and hazards such as silica dust, and more. The CMHC has information on choosing less toxic materials and designing safe buildings. Also see CASLE’s website at www.casle.ca for extensive information on design, construction, and operation of healthy schools.

K. Robinson
for CASLE (Canadians for A Safe Learning Environment)

Health, behaviour and performance are affected by the condition of school buildings, and by the practices and products used within the buildings. CASLE has been working for many successful years, and asks you to join in making safe schools a high priority.