The "sleeping giant" and
by K. Robinson
UPdate Fall 1999
In some circles,
Halifax West High School is known as "the Sleeping
Giant". The significance of its Indoor
Environment Quality and building structure problems has not yet become
public. A number of teachers and students report being very sick in the
school. The problems are serious enough that officials are examining
whether the school can be repaired or needs to be replaced. Community
members are organizing, and the Department of Education has made a commitment
to assess this school and other potential sleeping giants.
More and more
people are recognizing that clean air and a healthy
environment are as important to learning
as are a good curriculum and good teaching. There have been many
improvements in Nova Scotia schools, but the struggle to provide safe,
healthy places for school children is a daily one. Many schools still
have significant problems. Some school boards are more proactive
than others, and some
staff and principals have more knowledge
and commitment than others. The Nova Scotia Department of Education
has been taking strong action to try to improve the situation. CASLE
has been actively involved in helping this process.
Progress so far:
* In the fall of 1998, when roof repair
tar pots arrived at schools, one
principal evacuated the school, sending
the children home. In another school, students and staff were removed
far upwind while the
principal sent the workers away.
This is progress.
* Carpets are being routinely removed
* A less toxic paint is in use across
the province. In some boards there
is the mistaken belief that this paint
is safe to use while children are present. The Annapolis Valley Board
has a form signed by three
officials to ensure proper protection
of students and staff from exposure
* In Halifax, chlorine bleach is to
be used with permission from the
operations department, and only with
strict controls for exposure, and only for dealing with special mould problems.
(Some schools are
apparently still routinely using chlorine
cleaners. If yours is one, speak to your Principal and JOHSC.)
* Citrus (that lemony smell) cleaners
are not to be used in some boards'
jurisdictions. There are several
reasons for this, one being that limonene, or d'limonene, the primary citrus
ingredient, has been found by researchers to form formaldehyde when combined
with ozone. Ozone is a byproduct of many motors and is naturally
present in the air.
* Mop Oil is no longer supposed to
be used as the attractant for school
mops in the Halifax Region. In
its place are mop heads with special dirt-attracting qualities that are
* Bathroom deodorizers are not supposed
be used in some school regions.
* Floor waxing is happening after hours
in many schools. Floor stripping
is being done on weekends or vacations.
* Halifax Region and the Chignecto
Board have policies on Life Threatening Allergies and Anaphylaxis ... others
may as well.
* A directive was circulated that pesticides
are not to be used in Halifax
Region Schools. It is not yet
clear what alternatives are being used or planned, as pests are still a
* Schools are having photocopier rooms
vented, on request
in some boards, proactively in others.
* About 80% of Halifax Region schools
have voluntary scent-free,
fragrance-free programs. A board
policy was written over a year ago, but has not yet been adopted. There
has been opposition from the
chemical/perfume industry and others
who do not understand that this is a health issue.
*Gymnasium floors are still occasionally
being refinished without adequate isolation or offgassing time before children
use the area. There has been improvement in this, but some serious
incidents did occur
this past year. One of these
may result in a court case, as a child was
* In the Halifax Region, the new Superintendent
has shown an interest in
improving Indoor Environment Quality
and in upgrading schools that are in poor condition. Also, PTA presidents
in one area of Halifax
recently noted the condition of school
buildings as their #1 education
Some steps backward:
* Furnace fume leaks or oil spills often
require prompt evacuation of the
school. Principals need to be aware
that exposing children or staff to such fumes can worsen existing health
problems or create onset
of illness or sensitivities.
* In HRM schools new curtains will
be supplied where needed, but CASLE is concerned that the replacement curtains
chosen are fire-retardant polyester curtains that were not evaluated for
chemical off-gassing. Are new curtains coming to your school?
There are less toxic curtains, less toxic fire retardants and less toxic
cleaning processes commercially available.
Planning For Healthier Schools :
has come as the result of several government departments and school boards
being willing to learn more about and share information about Indoor Environment
Quality in schools.
* The summer of 1997 saw the first
Provincial Indoor Air Quality
Conference on Schools, sponsored by
the Department of Education. CASLE made the opening address to "set
the tone" for the two days.
* Health Inspectors and Regional Officers
of Health are working closely
with the regional school boards.
* The Departments of Education, Health
and Environment have begun an
interdepartmental library on children
and environmental health & safety.
* CASLE executive wrote a report on
the new Horton School (near Wolfville) from an environmental health viewpoint.
The report was widely circulated through the province by the Department
* CASLE is working with the Departments
of Education and Public Works to help ensure that the province's many new
schools are environmentally healthy. In 1998, CASLE made several presentations,
at the request of the Department of Education, to the Nova Scotia School
Boards Association, the maintenance managers for the seven provincial school
boards, Labour and Health Inspectors and the construction consortiums that
will be building our new schools. CASLE's report on ventilation systems
was instrumental in the Department's
decision to require full ventilation
systems rather than less effective
rooftop package units. The Department of Education has also made
a commitment that new schools will have no carpeting, no recirculated air,
use less toxic materials whenever possible and will be evaluated for good
air quality before the schools are put into use. The Department has
indicated a plan to provide at least one ECO classroom in each district
to serve students and staff affected by environmental sensitivities.
* CASLE has been working with the Atlantic
Health Promotion Research
Centre on a National project on school
Indoor Air Quality and guideline development. CASLE is also a key contributor
to a three year project being done by Pollution Probe in Ottawa.
As well as providing
information to parents, school staffs,
boards and government departments over the past year, CASLE provided information
media pieces, including CBC TV's Midday
and Marketplace, The National, CBC Radio News and special programs, The
Globe & Mail, Wall Street Journal and local media.
Occupational Health and Parents:
There has been
confusion in some districts over whether parents may serve on school Joint
Occupational Health and Safety Committees (JOHSC). CASLE received
a letter from the Department of Labour which
clears up the question. Essentially,
each on-site committee has control
over shaping itself to best fit the
particular worksite. If the committee members feel that non-employee,
non-employer members would benefit their committee, there is nothing to
prevent parents or others from being asked to serve as long as both employer
and employee sides agree. These members would technically occupy
employer seats, and the 50% employee rule must be adhered to. There
are no restrictions on voting rights imposed by the Department. Although
the primary purpose of the JOHSC is to protect worker health and safety,
Section 13 of the Health and Safety Act provides reasonable protection
for all those on or near the
worksite. Labour Department officials
agree that parents on JOHSCs tend to make the committees very effective.
Although it is a staff committee, much that protects the staff also protects
K. Robinson is President
of CASLE and also serves on the NSAEHA Board as Chair of the Treatment
For memberships, information
or donations, CASLE can be reached at CASLE, 287 Lacewood Drive, Unit 103,
Suite 178, Halifax, Nova Scotia, B3M 3Y7, 457-3002, 861-1851,
885-2395, [email protected]