Canadian Human Rights
Accomodating the environmentally sensitive protects everyone
UPdate Summer 2007
“People’s responses to factors in their environment vary enormously. For instance, we all know that blue-eyed red-heads are sensitive to sunshine, burning more readily than dark-skinned people. What may be less well known is that some people have debilitating reactions to other aspects of their environment, such as chemicals or electromagnetic phenomena.”
So begins The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities, a report commissioned by the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) research program. The groundbreaking document, written by Dr. Meg Sears, validates the existence of chemical sensitivity. It notes that chemical sensitivity is a disability which deserves and requires public accommodation. The report goes even further and argues, “There are high costs to society of not caring for people with sensitivities. .... Accommodation of people with environmental sensitivities is an opportunity to improve environmental quality and workers’ performance, and to prevent the development of sensitivities in others...”
Eric Slone, President of the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia (EHANS) applauds the report because it takes the rights of people with environmental illness very seriously. “We live in an age where people with disabilities are increasingly being granted the legal right to participate more fully in society, rather than being forced to sit on the sidelines,” Slone noted. “Society has to back up that invitation to participate with concrete behavioural and attitudinal changes that actually make it possible."
Approximately 3% of Canadians have been diagnosed with environmental sensitivities. According to the report, a major difference between accommodating people who are chemically and electrically sensitive, and accommodating people with other types of disabilities, is that “unlike ‘built’ accommodations such as ramps, accommodating people with sensitivities actively involves many people, such as employers, co-workers, others in the school or workplace, neighbours, etc. ... Some of the most important accommodations involve behaviour changes. These include the use of least-toxic cleaning and pest control practices, and avoidance of scented products.”
Addressing a common misconception that Canadian building standards are sufficient, the reports notes that building standards deal with issues such as structural strength, not indoor air quality which affects the health of people working in a building. The report recommends, “Construction, renovation, repair and maintenance should be conducted to minimize the introduction of pollutants. Finishing, furnishings and equipment should contain low toxicity materials, have virtually no emissions, and be low-maintenance. Problems with structural dampness and moulds may be minimized with good design and construction. These considerations are increasingly important given the desire to conserve energy by reducing ventilation.”
Charles Theroux, CHRC director of research says, “The protection [for chemically sensitive workers] is there. What has been missing is for people to know that the protection is there, to recognize chemical sensitivity as a disability and offer proper accommodation.”
The CHRC hopes that The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities, along with a soon to be released companion report on legal issues and a CHRC policy statement, will play a role in preventing problems for chemically sensitive employees by making it clear that reasonable accommodation is their right. Theroux says the CHRC receives calls from managers who don’t know what to do when they have chemically sensitive employees. “The mere fact that this report is out there is a huge step in educating people and preventing future complaints,” Theroux comments. “If the issue is taken seriously, then proper solutions can be found before people have to make a complaint to the Commission.”
Charlotte Hutchinson lost her job in 1997 when her employer, Environment Canada, failed to accommodate her environmental sensitivities. Hutchinson is pleased to see the CHRC report, and hopes the report reflects an improved understanding of environmental sensitivities within the CHRC itself. “I was failed twice,” Hutchinson recalls, “first, by my employer who refused to accommodate me in the workplace, and later by the Canadian Human Rights Commission which did not conduct an adequate investigation of my complaint and did not seem to understand how the special needs arising from my environmental sensitivities could be accommodated.”
Dr. Lynn Marshall represented the Ontario College of Family Physicians’ Environmental Health Committee which collaborated in developing the report. "I was impressed with the thoroughness of the scientific review by Dr. Sears, which should be of major help in guiding physicians, other health professionals, employers, insurers, and governments to take accelerated action to serve the urgent needs of this largely overlooked population of patients," Dr. Marshall commented.
The report recognizes both chemical sensitivity and the even less understood phenomena of electrical sensitivity. In the age of cell phone towers, wireless Internet zones and other technological changes which increase exposure to electric fields, recognition of electrical sensitivity is an important reflection of a growing problem.
The full report is available at