Indoor Air Regulations Not Good Enough
Open Letter to the Minister  
UPdate Fall 2001

This letter was sent by the Nova Scotia Allergy and Environmental Health
Association to the Minister of Environment and Labour for Nova Scotia.

November 1, 2001
To the Honorable David Morse
Minister of Environment and Labour

We are writing to express our concern with the latest draft of the Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Regulations circulated by the Occupational Health and Safety Division of the N.S. Department of Environment and Labour.  Although the regulations have been "in progress" since November 1994 and much work has gone into them, the latest draft would not go very far to provide non-industrial workers the protection of a healthy working environment. Sections 1-9 cover issues including ventilation standards, new building design, access to information including past IAQ complaints, use of "odor producing products", control of microbial (mould) contamination, and air quality during renovations in a very general way.  They form an appropriate generalized preamble to a set of regulations, but they provide little in the way of specifics. 

In many areas the draft regulations are scattered with phrases like "where reasonably practicable" which leave significant loopholes in their protective ability.  Standards for acceptable levels of total volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including scents, formaldahydes and other products which off gas into the air, particulates and carbon dioxide have been omitted altogether. Low levels of these substances are important indicators of building health. VOCs are emitted by many things including photocopiers, printers and new furnishings. By omitting measurable standards in indoor air quality, the regulations will remain virtually unenforceable, and have little protective effect. 

The section on control of tobacco smoke exempts workers in many public places including bars, restaurants, arenas and theatres from full protection. We disagree with this exemption, and refer you to a recent BC Workers' Compensation Board decision, which provides for a smoke-free environment for all employees.
The section on use of "odorous building maintenance materials" states only that they are to be used following manufacturers' specifications.  There is a later section which states that "where reasonably practical, the employer shall ensure ... substitution of [an] airborne hazardous substance with an equivalent that is less harmful."   The requirement to use the least hazardous substance is positive, and the section on control of exposure to these substances is a helpful guideline, but without clear, enforceable standards to establish how much is too much, non-industrial workers will remain at risk. 

We note that nowhere in the most recent draft is there an overall approach to minimize the use of scented products by employers, building occupants and visitors.  Chemical scents can be significant contributors to poor indoor air quality and occupant health problems.

We are glad to see a section which recognizes microbial growth as a health hazard and which recommends action to prevent mould growth.  We hope the need to guard against mould contamination such as that which has led to closures of schools, daycare centres and even an area of the Legislature in recent years will soon be reflected in these regulations.  We are also glad to see the section "Controls for Specific Activities" which recognizes that certain activities, including use of pesticides and some types of renovations and activities like stripping floors require particular procedures and controls as well as adequate ventilation.  We hope that final regulations would include information on, and encourage use of, non-toxic pest control methods wherever possible.  We also note the need for standards on storage, as well as use, of hazardous materials. 

It is high time such legislation was adopted. In 1983 as attention was being drawn to sick building syndrome, the World Health Organization estimated that 30% of new and remodeled commercial buildings in the world were the subject of "excessive" complaints relating to indoor air quality.  Excessive was defined as more than 20% of building occupants.  This is a startling figure, as building health complaints tend to be underreported, because people are often not aware that their health problems are related to their work environment.  

Indoor air quality problems at work can result in health problems which show up immediately, or which develop over a period of time.  Sick building syndrome (SBS) is one of the best known.  The NSAEHA receives frequent calls from employees who are becoming sick from their workplaces and don't know where to turn.  Frequently they have reported the problem to a manager or occupational health and safety committee but received no help.  

The Environmental Protection Agency wrote in a fact sheet on sick building syndrome, "Frequently problems result when a building is operated or maintained in a manner that is inconsistent with its original design or prescribed operating procedure."  Problems resulting from "change of use" without corresponding changes in the environmental building systems are common in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick hospitals. We are aware of situations where hallways with little ventilation have been turned into clinical units or offices, and labs have become seriously overcrowded. These changes have resulted in numbers of sick employees.

We urge you to strengthen the current draft document and add a Part 2, which would include quantified standards, contaminant exposure limits, guidelines, protocols, standard operating practices, etc. These should reflect the current state of knowledge about building health.  One of the few specifics in the current draft refers to a ventilation level of 2.5 litres per second of outdoor air per person.  This is clearly inadequate, as the present ASHRAE guideline is 7.5 to 10 litres per second, 3 or 4 times higher than your proposed acceptable levels. 

Nova Scotia needs effective legislation on this issue, to serve as a reference point to which employers and owners of buildings used as workplaces can be directed, health and safety committees can refer, and employees experiencing indoor air quality problems at work can have recourse. We look forward to the adoption of indoor air quality regulations with clear, quantitative standards and enforcement mechanisms, which will give non-industrial workers the protection they deserve.  Preventing disease by insuring healthy workplaces is one of the cheapest forms of health care the government can provide, in both economic and social terms.