Halifax West: Lessons
from a sick school
Once upon a
time there was a sick school. Teachers were sick. Students were sick.
Experts were called in to look at the school. They scratched their heads.
They were concerned. They did a little this and a little that. But they
didn't see that the
From the day Halifax West opened, in 1958, the stage was set for the school to develop building related health problems. It was designed with flat "butterfly" roofs that work well enough in California weather, but deteriorate relatively rapidly in the tough Nova Scotia climate. And although the architect's original designs had called for insulation of the exterior walls and proper grading of the grounds to drain rainwater away from the building, somehow the insulation was not installed (causing condensation and wetness within the walls) and the grading carried groundwater toward the building. As early as 1977, there are reports of roof leaks. When it rained puddles would appear in classrooms.
years, the school was nicknamed the Sleeping Giant. Staff and members
of the community knew that something about the school was making people
sick. Some people were only sick while they were in the building,
but for others, mostly teachers, the problems persisted even when they
were at home. For
Records of written complaints of health problems began in March 1990 and persisted until the closure of the school in August 2000. When the school was evaluated in July of 1999, Professor Tang Lee wrote "From September of 1993 to May 2000, 276 known complaints of air quality were reported by students and teachers of Halifax West High School. The complaints include odours and illness symptoms that may be attributed to the environmental conditions of the school" ( Lee report, July 99).
Robinson is a healthy schools advocate. She is co-founder and president
of Citizens for a Safe Learning Environment (CASLE). CASLE is a province
wide, non-profit organization dedicated to improving environmental health
most schools, Halifax West did not have any established way for indoor
air quality complaints to be made or investigated. In fact, although
health problems had been identified for over ten years, and five different
studies were done, no one ever surveyed the school population of teachers,
staff and students to find out how extensive the problems were. Now that
the school has been closed, more parents have been speaking openly about
illnesses their children suffered while at Halifax
without a survey, the history of health complaints at Halifax West reads
like a textbook description of Sick Building Syndrome. Students and teachers
reported respiratory problems and infections, fatigue, headaches, asthma
attacks, skin rashes, migraines, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath,
the past 40 years the practice of deferred maintenance compounded the bad
beginning. Leaks were not repaired adequately. Corners were cut on
replacement or repair of aging or defective materials. At some point drainage
areas of windows and brick walls were caulked, preventing moisture from
By 1994, with a growing awareness in the community about air quality issues, the Halifax District School Board conducted a study of air quality within its schools. Twenty four of the forty seven schools tested contained fungal species that are notorious mycotoxin producers. The study labeled them "unacceptable occupants of indoor air". Today, when mycotoxin producing moulds are found, an area is immediately closed off. But in 1994, the general approach to dealing with moulds was to clean the area with javex and then, more often than not, build a false ceiling or wall to cover up the problem area. Eliminating the source of moisture, to prevent the mould from regrowing, was seldom done. And it was even less common to remove materials contaminated with dead moulds, even though dead moulds, especially those with mycotoxins, can create serious health problems.
At Halifax West, the 1994 assessment found mycotoxin producing moulds and other less toxic but still potentially harmful moulds. The report stated that these moulds grow in places that are "chronically wet from condensation or water infiltration,problems. The presence of yeast and bacteria in the samples suggest that they have been recently wetted." But parents and staff were not informed of the test results or their implications. Children and staff continued to use the contaminated areas. The,same thing happened at other Halifax schools.
the factors which contributed to this situation is the lack of legislated
standards for indoor air quality in schools and,offices. The Education
Act has no teeth when it comes to school health and safety issues. The
Department of Labour has legislation to cover health and safety of workers
on the job, but these standards are designed to cover hazards found in
industrial settings. Also, they are designed to apply to healthy, 175 pound
males, not the typical high school teacher, secretary
health and safety issues are usually dealt with by an occupational health
and safety commttee (JOHSC) made up of employer and employee representatives.
At Halifax West, the school JOHSC only obtained a copy of the 1994 report
after the renovations health problems decreased, but in a short time health
complaints increased again. The school JOHSC refused to let the issue
drop. They pushed for yet another assessment of the school's air quality.
the first attempt at a total environmental assessment was was far from
total. Van Hiep, a ventillationengineer, visited the school briefly
on two occasions and did not conduct any air sampling. His report contradicted
Van Hiep went even further and concluded that "The complaints are more likely related to the tasks or the profession of the persons than the indoor environment." He claimed "It seems that this school witnesses the Hawthorne Effect according to which the more attention one gives to the people, the more people give back attention." In other words, the health complaints were a result of people believing themselves to be sick, because the school's air quality had been studied so much. Although he had no medical training, he questioned the competence of physicians who had stated that the symptoms people were experiencing were typical of Sick Building Syndrome. The report created both anger and despair within the school community.
the report did recommend upgrading the school's ventilation
system. The School Board decided to install an exhaust-only system.
Unfortunately, an exhaust-only system is a very bad choice for a building
with a history of mould in the
advice, the health and safety committee pointed this out to the School
Board and, when they would not listen, to the Department of Labour.
The Department of Labour agreed that this was a bad choice in this situation.
It was clear that the work was uncovering a serious mould problem. Yet installation of the ventilation system went ahead without any attempt to find or correct the source of the mould.
By this time five different companies had evaluated the building. Four
had concluded that moulds were an ongoing problem. So why was it
so difficult to get the problem fixed? In addition to the search for a
cheap solution, indoor air quality
were the parents? Until this point, parents had been concerned but
not organized. In 1999 that changed. Robinson had been providing
advice and information to several members of the JOHSC. On her recommendation,
Department of Education heard those voices, and decided to try a new approach
to deal with the school's air quality problems. They set up an action
team, involving every group that had a stake in the school's future. It
What was different about the action team's approach? They decided to look at the big picture. They analyzed the history of problems and actions taken. They looked at the legislated workplace standards - and the school passed with flying colours. They looked at the latest in health and building environment studies. There was arguement and debate. Is mould really a serious health hazard? Could people's illnesses really be related to the school? Finally, they decided not to settle for bandaid solutions and to err, if at all, on the side of caution. They would not wait until there was definitive proof on every issue or until legislation caught up with reality.
invited Professor Tang Lee to do a total environmental assessment of the
school. Lee is a Professor of Architecture at the University of Calgary
whose specialty is healthy building design. He has designed a course on
indoor air quality
provincial Department of Education, this assessment would serve a dual
purpose. It would try to solve the air quality problems at Halifax
West. At the same time, Lee would involve local engineering
and maintenance experts in the
When Lee and his team did their investigation, they found numbers of problems. They documented extensive mould grown within walls, ceilings and floors. They found many holes in walls and second-level ceilings that had been opened at various times over the years for access to pipes or wiring, but which were never resealed. In addition to allowing moulds and other pollutants to travel freely through the school, they created a serious fire hazard. Leakage not only created puddles, but also a danger of electrocution. A walkthrough investigation could not have picked up most of the problems. They were not apparent without some real digging.
result of the Lee report, Halifax West was closed in August of 2000
for significant repairs. The Minister of Education announced an initial
government commitment of 8 milliion dollars to repair the health
and safety deficiencies and to
of Halifax West is just beginning to unfold. Halifax West has become
a symbol of crumbling schools around Nova Scotia. The issue is now out
in the open, in the media and the Legislature. For the first
time, school boards and
The Halifax West Feeder School Group has become a symbol of the potential of parent power. MLA Marion McGrath calls them "the most hard working, dedicated parents I have ever had the privilege to know."
conditions that led to the problems at Halifax West still exist.
And other schools around the province are known to be sleeping giants of
the same type. Look out for names like Windsor Regional, Alderney, Chebucto
Heights, and Dutch
There are many lessons from Halifax West. That cutting corners on building maintence has high long term costs, both for a building and its inhabitants. That patterns of illness in a school should not be ignored. That pro-active methods for gathering information about health problems in schools need to be established, as do legislative standards for school air quality. That a multi-system, multi-expert approach to building health is more efficient in the long run than piecemeal solutions. That parents need to be involved where their children's health is at stake. And that building health cannot be underestimated either as a health issue or an education issue.
Time will tell who has learned their lessons.
The Healthy School Handbook: Conquering the Sick Building Syndrome and other Environmental Hazards in and around Your School, by Norma L. Miller, NEA Professsional Library, 1995
Indoor Air Quality: Tools for Schools Action Kit, U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1995
Is This Your Child: Discovering and
Treating Unrecognized Allergies in Children and Adults, by Doris
J. Rapp, M.D. (pediatric allergist), William Morrow and Company.
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