Halifax West: Lessons from a sick school
UPdate Winter 2001

     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
school was sick.  The school was called Halifax West High School. 

      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.

      In recent 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
some, the problems became so bad they were forced to leave work, and even years after remain disabled.  Some parents sent their children to other school districts. "Lots of people knew it was not a healthy place" said one parent. "I sent my daughter to live with relatives to finish high school in another town.  Don't think I didn't miss her." 

      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). 

      Karen 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 and
safety in schools. Robinson is environmentally ill herself.  Her son, who was heading for high school at Halifax West has significant environmental sensitivities.   Robinson has been involved with the Halifax West issue since 1998. She has worked with teachers and members of the schools health and safety committee. "There are lots of reasons people might not complain about a problem.  But there are extra problems in making a complaint about the air quality in your school," Robinson explains.   "People are afraid of being called hypocondriacs, or considered a bit nuts, especially if they are getting sick and others aren't."

      Like 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

      But even 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, reduced
concentration, eye and mouth irritation, and more.  More complaints came from teachers than students.  While students came and went, staff remained year after year, which put them at greater risk.  There is no record of how many teachers
transfered out of the school, or how many children were transfered to other districts by their parents. In many cases, children were sick but the parents did not connect the problems to the school. "My daughter had a cold, runny nose, stuffed up, the
whole time she was at Halifax West. I thought nothing of it until she graduated and went to college and has been healthy ever since" commented one parent.

      Over 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 escaping.
Rainwater drain pipes under the school had plugged and backed up onto the roofs.   No one realized that channelling maintenance budget monies into educational programs year after year would eventually result in schools that could make people ill.

      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.

      One of 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
or student.  Although the provincial government has been working on developing indoor air quality regulations since1994, these regulations are still not in place.  Without legally binding standards, there is little clout to force school clean-ups. 

      School 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 on
moulds in1996, two years after it was written.  When they did, they wondered, could this explain the health problems staff and students were experiencing?  The committee pushed for further testing which was done in 1997.  As a result of these tests, a major overhaul, costing half a million dollars, was done to remove the mould.  No one knew then that the leaks causing the mould growth were not fixed, and that the mould would regrow. 

      Immediately 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.  This
assessment was carried out in February 1999 and concluded that "Since the completion of significant remediative activities in August, 1997, symptoms and complaints have not decreased; on the contrary, some of the staff have experienced increased severity of negative health effects that appear to be associated with environmental conditions." (OCL Report, Art McLaughlin, 1999)  The Report recommended that the Board "Carry out a total environmental and condition assessment of the complete facility..."

      Unfortunately, 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
earlier reports. It concluded "there are no long term build-up of unacceptable indoor air contaminants in this school to which occupants are exposed." (Van Hiep Report, 1999.) 

      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. 

      However, 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
walls. Exhaust-only systems suck air in through windows and doors when they are open,  but in bad weather when they are closed it draws air from cracks and air passages within the walls, spreading dust particles and moulds throughout the school and making problems worse rather than better.

      On Robinson's 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. But the
Board went ahead. In order to install the new air pipes, ceiling tiles in several halls had to be removed. Safe work practices, which would have included isolating the area, were not used. When the renovations were being done, the smell of dust and
mould was so strong that sensitive teachers and students went home ill. For some teachers, this exposure was the breaking point which resulted in long term disablility. 

      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
assessment is a relatively new field.  Just as there are few legislative standards, there are few technical experts trained to investigate the full range of factors which could contribute to indoor air quality problems.  Engineers, yes, ventilation experts,
yes.  So, to the original construction flaws and deferred maintenance, add difficulty in finding knowlegable experts. Then add poorly informed decision making. As a result, betwen 1997 and1999 over a million dollars was spent on repairs that did not get to the root of the problems.

      And where 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, the JOSHC
opened its doors to a parent representative, Jane Davies. Davies, a Halifax West graduate herself, has two children headed for Halifax West, and was committed to seeing the problems solved. Working with PTA's at every elementary and junior high
school which fed into Halifax West, she organized the Halifax West Feeder School Group, with elected representatives from each PTA.  She made sure that parents at every school were kept informed of problems and proposed actions. Their
objective: to get to the bottom of the health problems at Halifax West and to make sure they were solved.  The group was powerful, informed and well organized. Davies explained "As parents, we had nothing to lose. We weren't afraid to speak
when something needed to be said, or to push for action when action was needed." CASLE  also became more involved, contributing information on up to date research in school health issues, and contacts with some of the leading experts in this
field. Working together with the Health and Safety Committee, the voices for effective action were getting louder. 

      The provincial 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 included top
civil servants from four departments, the chair of the School Board, a doctor trained in environmental medicine, parents, staff, students and community representatives.

      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. 

      They 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
evaluation that is taught at over 200 universities, and he teaches and lectures internationally on the subject.  Lee has a firm knowlege that no one profession can have all of the skills or answers. His evaluation team included mechanical and civil
engineers, a building maintenance expert and a biologist specializing in molds and mold abatement. 

      For the 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
assessment process. Through their hands-on involvement with this expert team, hopefully they would learn what to look for and become more able to spot similar problems in the making at other schools. The project could conceivable have spin-off benefits for every school in the province.

      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. 

      As a 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
upgrade the school to make it able to deliver current curriculum. At last count, estimates for repairs were $12 million and rising.

      The legacy 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
maintenance personnel are admitting publically how serious the physical deterioration of their buildings is. And, to Robinson's satisfaction, more knowlege now exists on how to prevent and solve problems. "My objective wasn't just to see one more school get fixed" says Robinson. "It was to do it so that the effect would be to get everyone learning and changing." 

      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." 

      But the 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
Settlement among others. 

      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.


School Books:
Our top three recommendations on healthy schools and healthy kids.

 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.

Want to know more? CASLE On-Line is packed with information...

 More about moulds and schools...

 What parents can do...

 Less Expensive ways to Improve Indoor Air Quality...

 Sample Health Survey and Complaint Form...

 and many links to other interesting sites