Quebec must ensure standards for air quality in schools

The Suburban

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Later this month about 900,000 students will be returning to Quebec’s ageing elementary and secondary schools, whose average age is 50 years old. Consider that forty percent of theCommission scolaire de Montréal buildings were built more than 60 years ago, and Macdonald High, in the West Island, is over 100 years old.

That said, the last school year saw a fair amount of media coverage regarding the sensitive matter of indoor air quality (IAQ) in schools. Some schools, English and French, on and off-island, were affected with mould and were forced to either close, relocate or get cleaned up.

Let’s look at two major reports which deal with this health related matter that affects both learning and teaching.

Last November, Quebec’s acting Auditor-General, Michel Samson, put out a report criticizing school boards for failing to carry out inspections concerning air quality in schools. Part of the criticism was levelled at the Education Department for its negligence to issue guidelines to the boards because they “don’t understand what it is they are supposed to do.” The boards claim there are no air quality standards set by the government, and Education Minister Marie Malavoy, appears to be hoping that a new committee consisting of experts and public health specialists, in air quality and maintenance of buildings, would find solutions to the problem, via another unnecessary report.

Meanwhile, in February 2013, a Coalition for Healthy Schools was formed consisting of fed-up parents, teachers and support workers from the CSDM, who claimed they represent 120,00 people. They were seeking $100 million annually over ten years from the Quebec government to renovate and eradicate mould from the province’s schools. Why is this issue so important?

Most people are aware of the health risks of outdoor pollution but few realize that IAQ can also seriously affect health. Studies by Health Canada and its U.S. counterpart, suggest that, generally, indoor pollutants are higher than outdoor levels. Furthermore, most Quebecers spend 90 percent of their time indoors.

IAQ problems are usually the result of contaminants such as certain building materials, cleaning agents, pesticides, allergens, fungi, moulds, bacteria, viruses, radon, and lead. Well insulated buildings combined with poor ventilation systems also help reduce unacceptable IAQ, which affects the health and well-being of school occupants. Unfortunately, there are no directives concerning IAQ. School boards lack key IAQ management strategies, and, worse, there are pronounced differences between board policy and school-level practice.

Boards and schools, via governing boards, must work together to formalize testing for IAQ to make schools safer. In addition, as the aforementioned Coalition stated: “Parents and school staff should know in real time what is happening in their school.” Poor IAQ contributes to absences and poor concentration. Good IAQ is a key factor to the well-being of all, and certainly helps a school in its ‘core mission’: educating children.

The Quebec government should ensure all schools are given a clean Bill of Health to optimize conditions for teaching and learning.

Chris Eustace, Pierrefonds