UPdate Fall 2002

I think there is something at school that is making my child sick.  How can I be sure, and what can I do about it?

Karen Robinson and Sandra Moser respond:
If your child experiences health problems that occur particularly during the school year, you may suspect that the school environment is causing the problem. Indoor
environment contaminants can cause physical and emotional symptoms and can
effect both behaviour and learning.  The following clues can often help to determine if a problem is related to school indoor environment quality (IEQ):

* Often IEQ related symptoms may be mistaken for the flu, cold or allergies. Children may appear pale and may have dark circles under their eyes.

*Does your child complain of non-specific symptoms such as eye, nose, ear, throat, skin or lung irritation, headaches, fatigue, sinus congestion, coughing, dizziness or nausea?

* Does your child exhibit behavioural symptoms such as mood swings or drowsiness, irritability, aggression, short attention span, short term memory loss, hyperactivity, restlessness or depression?

* Does your child have MORE difficulty writing or drawing in school than at home?

Consult your child's doctor to eliminate other possible causes of illness.  Be aware that few physicians have been trained to recognize health problems arising from indoor contaminants.  

Look for symptoms which decrease or disappear when your child leaves the school building. Symptoms may appear during the school hours but disappear during evenings, weekends or vacations.

Keep a detailed journal, providing that your child is old enough, listing  the types of symptoms and the time of day, day of week, location in the building, activity that your child is involved in and, if possible, activities taking place nearby when the symptoms occur.  If your child is not old enough to participate in the journal activity, enlist the help of your child's teacher.

Look for symptoms that come and go following a particular pattern. For example, does your child get headaches every Thursday, or come home in tears every Tuesday? It could be associated with a particular activity or place in the school (eg. a chemistry or art class, a delivery van outside the window, custodial activities or a room which once  stored cleaning chemicals.)

Children who have heart disease, asthma or other respiratory diseases, allergies or weakened immune systems, or wear contact lenses may be particularly susceptible to IEQ problems. In general, children are more vulnerable to air quality problems than adults. Sometimes a problem is an individual one, such as a child who has sensitivities to chalk or scented products, while other times the problem may be wider in scope and affect many children. 

Mould growth, oil or gas fumes, or maintenance activities can effect numbers of children. It may help to find out if other children are having similar problems. It is primarily the school principal who is responsible to ensure the safety of everyone in the building. If your child is having a problem which you think is related to the school environment, you will need to speak with the child's teacher or principal first. Give them as much information as you can. Once you have registered your concerns, it is the responsibility of the principal to investigate or bring in someone to investigate. The principal may know if other people have complained of similar problems. They could do a survey to find out how widespread a problem is.  In some cases, immediate evacuation may be necessary, in cases such as a hazardous chemical spill, roof tarring, oil spill or leak, combustion gas leak, sewer gas leak or if renovations were done that have resulted in gassing off of paint, caulks or other materials. In some cases there may not be an easily identifiable hazard, but there may be widespread symptoms such as breathing difficulties, chest tightness, respiratory irritation or carbon monoxide poisoning-like symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, nausea and drowsiness. In these cases, the health effects are the only obvious indication of the existence of a hazard, and evacuation is
necessary even before the cause of the hazard has been determined.  If normal procedure doesn't succeed, there are some other routes you can take. In some schools, parents have contacted the Regional Occupational Hygienist from the Department of Labour to discuss their concerns. In other cases, Regional Officers of
Health have helped to resolve problems. Some schools have formed environment committees which may work as part of the PTA or independently and have worked to have officials take action on a problem. Parents can contact school board members, MLAs or MPs or the superintendent of schools to outline their concerns and ask for help getting problems solved. Many parent groups have found it wise to send copies of all correspondence to the superintendent, board members, the principal, the PTA, Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committees, board maintenance managers, the Minister of Education and anyone else involved to make sure that they are all aware of the problems.

Too often everyone believes it is "someone else's job" to make sure problems are solved. Things tend to work better when everyone involved takes some form of "ownership" of their school and each other's welfare. If there is reason to believe that there may be a health hazard (one that can not quickly be removed or handled), the first priority has to be to remove or isolate children and staff from the perceived hazard until it can be (a) repaired or (b) proven to be of no risk. In some cases, this means temporarily closing all or part of a school.

The most important thing to remember is this:Even though there are others
who are technically responsible for your child's welfare during the school day, the
final responsibility for your child's health and welfare lies with you, the
parent or guardian.  If you believe or suspect that the school is unsafe for your child, then you must take appropriate action to protect your child. Sometimes you may be faced with the choice of keeping him/her home from school until safety is assured.


Note:all these issues are relevant to teachers and other school staff.  Those represented by unions may first want to contact their union or joint occupational health and safety representative. Any employee can contact the Department of Labour if they feel their work environment is jeopardizing their health.

Karen Robinson and Sandy Moser work with Citizens for a Safe Learning
Environment (CASLE). More information from CASLE is available at