The "sleeping giant" and other schools

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 from schools.
* 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
to fumes.
* 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 less toxic.
* 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 problem.
* 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
seriously affected.
* 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
concern.

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 :

     Much progress 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 of Education.
*  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 for several
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 children.
 

K. Robinson is President of CASLE and also serves on the NSAEHA Board as Chair of the Treatment Committee.

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]