NBTA ad hoc Committee
Environmental Health in Schools
No single factor is more important to a living organism than the environment in which it
is placed. All functions of the organism are completely dependent on its ability to cope
successfully with the physical environment, its resources, and its irritants.
What follows is a brief overview of some of the issues facing school children and their
teachers as they strive to function effectively in the particular environments of our
classrooms and schools.
The classroom environment is a unique "place of work" in that the "employee to
workplace" ratio is relatively small (usually 1 teacher per classroom) while the number
of persons per workplace space is relatively large (as many as 33 students per class in
some cases). The age of persons involved ranges from students 4 years old through
teens to adults. These factors alone create unique stresses on the physical
The NBTA, in response to increasing concerns expressed by its members on issues
regarding air quality, emergency response, and overall increase in respiratory
difficulties of students and teachers, established the ad hoc Committee on
Environmental Health in Schools. To ensure a good cross section of information and
resources available, the committee included representatives from the Department of
Education and WHSCC. Committee members were as follows:
Fred Estabrooks, Branch 1610, Chair
Norm Bowen, Branch 1826
Katherine McGuire Easter, Branch 1228
Nancy Tingley, Branch 0417
Tom Burley, Branch 0820, Director
Ron Breau, Department of Education
Tim O'Connor, Department of Education
Lee O'Blenis, WHSCC
The terms of reference were established as follows:
1. Meet at the call of the Chairperson.
2. Review the literature relevant to the topic.
3. Gather opinions, case histories, and other relevant data on reported cases of
environmentally induced illnesses in teachers and/or students.
4. Review relevant policies, protocols, and practices of various government agencies
with respect to health and safety in schools.
5. Review policies of other teacher organizations and other jurisdictions in Canada.
6. Review relevant policies and legislation regarding health and safety in the private
7. Develop prototype policy and protocol to address safety and environmental health
issues in schools.
8. Present an interim report to the January 1997 Board of Directors.
9. Present a final report and recommendations, including policy and protocols above
to the April '97 Board.
The Committee would like to thank those teachers who have provided detailed
information to committee members and to NBTA staff for their candid and constructive
In addition, it would like to express its appreciation to Germaine Burns, NBTF
Resource Centre Supervisor, who has developed an extensive collection of reference
material from jurisdictions throughout North America. This 'file' has been useful in
indicating the range of issues, and the potential for response. Much more can be done
in the areas of teaching/learning environments and there has been established a solid
base of research on which to build.
What Are The Issues
The Committee established five major groupings of issues:
1) Environmental sensitivity
3) Protocols and Procedures
4) Prevention vs. Response
5) Rights and Responsibilities
The focus throughout discussion was on the importance of providing a safe, secure,
and irritant-free environment wherer students can learn and teachers can teach.
There is anecdotal evidence that increasing numbers of people in all walks of life are
becoming more environmentally sensitive. In most cases, these individuals can avoid
many of the circumstances where these sensitivities may be disabling. Students and
teachers on the other hand, have little control over their own environments for the
majority of the school day. Therefore, they must rely on policy, practice and legislation
to ensure the quality of air, the safety, and the comfort of their working environment is
Arguably the most rapidly increasing concern among students and teachers regarding
the environment is the issue of individuals with environmental sensitivities. While it
would be impractical to guarantee an irritant-free environment, there are a number of
issues raised which can contribute to the overall improvement of the environment for
sensitive individuals. Issues such as declaring "scent-free environments", ensuring
the absence of second-hand smoke, and choosing cleaning agents and instructional
supplies with consideration of their environmental impact, particularly their off-gassing
characteristics, will reduce the overall levels of irritants.
Many of these issues arise simply from a lack of awareness among those fortunate to
be relatively insensitive to the irritants. It is incumbent on all involved to raise the
awareness of students, teachers and other school staffs and officials to the issues of
Therefore, the Committee recommends that:
1. NBTA in conjunction with the Department of Education and WHSCC develop a
series of public awareness projects to publicize the issue of environmental
sensitivities, and the concerns about second-hand smoke and various scents.
2. Strict enforcement of smoking restrictions be exercised to ensure that all smoking
environments are completely isolated from the rest of the building . (Currently all
provincially-owned property has been designated non-smoking so this should not
be a major issue.)
3. Maintenance personnel and teaching staffs be made aware of low scent or less
volatile alternatives for cleaners, and instructional aids, including laboratory
A combination of pressures which reduced building and system upkeep, the increased
pressure to reduce energy consumption, and the aging process of many of our schools
has increased the pressure on maintenance funds forcing the budget process to
prioritize building repairs. Ironically, much of the expense for retrofitting has been
incurred in buildings of 15-25 years of age. Many of these facilities were built in a time
when construction guidelines demanded high energy conservation with lower air
exchange rates. The majority of these systems have had to be completely replaced,
further reducing available funds for preventative maintenance.
A second issue with respect to maintenance is related to timing of repairs, particularly
those projects which have a probability of disruption of the learning environment due
to noise, dust or vapors.
The Committee recommends that:
4. All repairs be scheduled so students and teachers are not effected by abnormal
noise, dust or vapors.
5. In cases where emergency repairs must be done, every consideration, including
closure of parts or all of the building must be given to ensure students and staff
are not exposed to construction irritants.
6. Each building should have a maintenance schedule established which is based
on manufacturers' recommendations, and a 'work completed chart' established to
ensure the schedule is maintained.
7. All maintenance personnel must be trained in proper storage and use of cleaning
materials and other solvents, and must be made aware of the importance of
minimizing the presence of scents in the school environment.
8. All instruction personnel must have proper WHMIS training.
Protocols and Procedures
It was obvious from the anecdotal reports of members that much can be done to
improve the overall communication and procedural aspects of environmental impact
issues. More needs to be done to make students, teachers, and parents aware of
acceptable limits for environmental variables.
To this end, the Committee has established the School Environmental Health
Investigation Protocol (Appendix A) and the document titled "School Emergency
Procedure Elements" (Appendix B).
The Committee recommends that:
9. The NBTA accept the School Environmental Health Investigation Protocol.
10. The School Emergency Procedure Elements be distributed in an appropriate
form to all schools.
11. NBTA request that NBTF Resource Centre continue to collect pertinent data
regarding environmental issues.
Prevention vs. Response
It is the opinion of many NBTA members that much of the difficulty faced in schools,
particularly newer facilities, can be traced to design and construction issues. The
challenge facing today's facilities is achieving a balance between system operation,
personal comfort, and environmental quality. Systems should be as user friendly as
possible for both clients and operators, yet maintain the fundamental limits for human
comfort and energy conservation. All construction, both renovations and new, should
be monitored carefully to ensure the above issues are achievable in any new or
The Committee therefore recommends:
12. A commissioning process be in place for all new construction and renovation
work to ensure construction specifications are met.
13. That special consideration be given to ventilation and storage space location for
lab chemicals, custodial supplies, and instruction areas such as shops and home
14. That all staff be provided with basic instructions on the operation principles and
procedures of various environmental systems.
Rights and Responsibilities
The Committee spent a significant amount of time discussing relevant legislation,
regulations, policies, and authorities with respect to health and safety in schools.
All public buildings are regulated by the same legislation which controls private
industry and are monitored by the same health and safety authorities (WHSCC and
the District and Provincial Medical Health officials).
In addition, there are numerous protocols and emergency plans (Appendix C, D)
currently available which detail the requirements and procedures for such things as
fire safety, maintenance, air quality measurements and responses, and construction
The Committee is of the opinion, that while current legislation responds only to health
and safety issues, there is a good deal of concern about "comfort" issues such as
ambient temperature, light levels, noise levels and other distractions. The Committee,
however, recognizes that it would not be practical to legislate rigid "comfort"
parameters. To do so would enormously limit the flexibility of activity in the classroom.
It is expected that improved communications between teachers and providers of
maintenance services will reduce many of the concerns expressed about "comfort"
The success in applying various policies and regulations rests largely in the
knowledge of their existence. Many recently developed protocols have yet to be
distributed. Finally, the medical profession must be encouraged be become more
involved in research of environmental illnesses.
The committee recommends that:
15. NBTA representatives meet regularly with Department of Education and WHSCC
personnel to maintain updated information about pertinent documents, policies
16. NBTA provide regular updates through NBTA News or other means regarding
school environmental issues.
17. NBTA communicate with the NB Medical Association to express its interest in
participating in making information regarding environmental illness more readily
available in schools.
18. NBTA continue to monitor complaints from members regarding possible
violations of current legislation, as well as concerns regarding "comfort" level
issues in classrooms.
The issues surrounding environmental health have come under increased scrutiny in
recent years. The NBTA ad hoc Committee on Environmental Health in Schools has
tried to deal with the issues as objectively as possible.
As in the case with all issues which affect individual health and well-being, the
perception of the response depends substantially on the circumstances of the
Those who are most affected by environmental irritants will be the best judges of the
ultimate success of the system in dealing with issues. It may be impossible to remove
all irritants from the teaching environment, but it must be the objective to approach an
irritant-free environment in our schools for the health and safety of our students and
One of our main mandates is to raise the awareness of all persons to the issues of
environmental impact, and to provide those most affected with sources of information
and procedures to find help.
The NBTA ad hoc Committee on Environmental Health in Schools hopes that this
report will be a contributing component in the progress toward recognizing the
implication of environmental illness as a growing concern in our schools.
We must continue to expand our knowledge about the impact of environmental
conditions on the learning environment, and seek ways to respond effectively to that