by Elizabeth Stutt
AEHA Quarterly, Winter/Spring 1994 - 1995

With increasing pressures to improve profits, employers are cutting corners.  They’re buying cheaper, toxic chemicals to maintain buildings.  They’re reducing airflow in the workplace to reduce energy costs.  But at what cost?  The cost is productivity, human health, and morale.  The cost is too high.  Abram Hoffer, MD, PhD, has been quoted as saying “No amount of evidence can persuade anyone who is not listening”.  I beg you to listen.  I beg you to care.

The workplace of the 60s and 70s (yes I do remember it well), was far different from the workplace of the 90s.  In 1977 my office was large (about 10’ x 20’, if my memory serves me well), had smooth flooring (no carpets anywhere, except perhaps in the big cheese’s office), a door I could close, lots of windows that I could open and my furniture was solid oak.  Unfortunately, the powers that be were lured into a brand new office tower.  My office environment changed dramatically.

No window, no door, particle board furniture, and an 8’ x 8’ piece of carpet with 6’ partitions around me to call home away from home.  Within six weeks I resigned at the recommendation of the personnel officer.  I was on the verge of a physical and nervous breakdown due to the poor indoor air quality in the building, the lack of natural light, the noise pollution and the lack of privacy.  What price progress!

Maurice Strong, Chair of the Earth Council, has said that “The world is not facing a political crisis, or a health crisis, or a poverty and population crisis.  It is a moral crisis...The question is, do we have the moral conviction, the moral courage and the political will to change our ways.”  The change, in my opinion, is to move back to the 60s.

Back to buildings built with real (read “not wood pieces or dust stuck together with glue”) wood.  Back to an age without the literally millions of chemicals which have been introduced to our world in the name of progress.  We need to be kind to the Earth and kind to ourselves.  If we do not, the price will be too high as more and more employees are forced to leave the workplace due to poor health and for some, total disability.

Very conservative estimates admit that at least 15 per cent of our population is adversely affected by environmental pollution.  A recent Health Promotion Survey (1990) by Health Canada indicates that 81 per cent of Canadians believe that their health has been adversely affected to some degree by pollution.

Indoor air pollution is a serious environmental health problem since people spend an average of 90 per cent of their time indoors.  A Toronto study by R. W. Bell indicates that the level of contaminants indoors are at least two to five timers higher than outdoors.  The World Health Organization estimates that 30 per cent of homes and buildings today contain enough indoor pollutants to cause health affects that range from a sniffle to more serious health problems.

The benchmark used to assess indoor air quality in buildings - ASHRAE Standard 62-1989 - is based on the premise that 20 per cent of a healthy young adult male population will react adversely at the levels set by the standard.

Many people today are suffering from the effects of pollution and have been referred to as the “Canaries in the coal mine”.  Heed the message.  People are dying from, or being totally disabled by, exposure to poor air quality.  Does it have to be you before you take action?

What are Environmental Sensitivities?
Environmental sensitivities occur when some individuals become unable to tolerate exposure to common substances in their everyday surroundings or environment.

Some substances that may act as triggers:

Harmful substances, either naturally occurring or synthetic, in our air, water, food, personal and home care products, fabrics, furnishings; hospital, school and office equipment and supplies; building materials; and chemicals used or stored in the home, health care facilities, schools, workplaces, farms or industries and public transportation vehicles.

Natural substances such as pollens (grass, trees, plants and weed), dusts, molds and animal danders.


The severity of symptoms can range from mild discomfort to total disability or chronic health problems.  Symptoms may develop suddenly or slowly.  Environmental sensitivities can develop in individuals of any age regardless of whether they have a past history of allergies.

Environmental sensitivities can be progressive.  Prevention, early detection and treatment are therefore of paramount importance.  Treatment of environmental sensitivities focuses on prudent avoidance of offending agents, appropriate nutrition, supportive counselling and other medical interventions.

Some of the behavioural signs of food and chemical sensitivities which may be observed include:

Drowsiness and exhaustion;
Poor concentration;
Easy distractibility, distracting others;
Inconsistent performance in speech, writing and coordination;
Difficulty problem-solving;
Mood and personality changes;
Recurrent absences from work.

The physical changes which one’s body can undergo due to poor indoor air quality can include:

Brain and Central Nervous System - headaches, extreme tiredness, dizziness, fainting, mood swings, confusion, depression, hyperactivity, memory problems, loss of coordination, seizures.

Systemic Reactions  - anaphylactic shock, uticaria, exzema.

Eyes - infected, itchy, red, watery or puffy, visual problems.

Ears, Nose and Throat - frequent infections; itching, ringing ears, red earlobes; sneezing, itchy, irritated, blocked, runny or stuffy nose, “allergic salute” (pushing nose up with palm of hand); irritated, hoarse throat, laryngitis.

Mouth - metallic taste, dryness, cracking, excessive saliva, skin peeling or blistering.

Lungs - infected, coughing, wheezing, tightness, breathing difficulties, asthma.

Skin - cold, itchy, cracked, red, bruised or swollen; hives, rash.

Muscles, Bones and Joints - stiffness, aches, pain, weakness, swelling, muscle cramps, “arthritic” symptoms.

Digestive System - nausea, cramps, bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation, irritation, food cravings, weight loss or gain.

Urinary and Reproductive Systems - cramps, infections, itching, burning, urinary urgency or frequency.

Sources of Indoor Air Pollution
Many sources of contaminants in our indoor environments are found in the workplace as well as our homes.  Common contaminants include:
Synthetic materials, especially carpeting and underpadding.

Cleaning products, except those which are non-toxic, environmentally friendly and free of volatile organic compounds.

Bactericides, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides.

Petrochemical (including exhaust) fumes.

Humidification systems.

Humid and wet environments.

Heating and cooling systems.

Computer terminals and printers (particularly bubble-jet and laser).

Photocopy machines.

Laminating machines.

Scented products (including scent-laden clothing).

Tobacco smoke (including smoke-laden clothing).

Ventilation systems often fail to exhaust or dilute unavoidable contaminants and to deliver good quality air.  Moreover, many air intakes bring in contaminated outdoor air from avoidable sources such as tarred roofs, parking lots, ventilation outlets, etc.  With reduced operating budgets, many building owners are deliberately lowering the air exchange rate, especially during the winter months.  The result of indoor air pollution is lost days due to illness and a decreased ability to learn and work in an increasingly polluted indoor environment.

What Employers Can Do:

Listen to your employees’ needs and do your best to provide reasonable accommodation.

Establish and enforce a no-smoking and no-scented product policy (this also means, no smoking outside of the entrance to your building!).

Provide carpet-free offices.

Provide “tolerated” furniture which is at least 2 years old - or purchase second-hand solid wood furniture rejected in the 70’s.

Use “tolerated” cleaning products which are earth and people friendly.

Upgrade dusting and vacuuming routines.

Ensure that the office environment is accessible to all by:

- eliminating pesticides, bactericides, fungicides and herbicides in and around office buildings;

- providing offices with openable windows for sufficient natural light and fresh air;

-installing electronic ballast for fluorescent fixtures;

- using full-spectrum lighting;

-installing directional vertical blinds;

-scheduling painting, roof repair and renovation projects during a sensitive employee’s holiday time; if major renovations are required, consider moving to alternate accommodations during the renovations and allow sufficient time for off-gassing before returning to your old location;

- maintaining and cleaning efficient heating and ventilation systems;

- locating photocopiers, laser printers, office supplies and other pollution sources in specially vented (outdoors) rooms with automatic closure doors.

By taking responsible, “moral” action now, employers may actually help to prevent the development of sensitivities in other employees.  It is essential that employees and employers work together to develop the best possible workplace for all employees.

If you are interested in picking up the challenge for better indoor air quality in the workplace, the Allergy and Environmental Health Association (AEHA) would welcome your participation on our Education Committee to develop educational materials and provide speakers to educate the public on this growing problem.  Donations are also welcome.  Call Elizabeth Stutt at 825-8388 or write AEHA Ottawa, P.O. Box 33023, Nepean, Ontario, K2C 3Y9.

The Association has developed an information package for children entitled “Accommodating the Needs of Students with Environmental Sensitivities”.  This information package includes:  (1) a report documenting the effects of indoor air pollution on children’s learning, behaviour and health, with guidelines for the prevention and/or reduction of indoor air quality problems; (2) a brochure; and (3) the text for a five-minute oral presentation suitable for copying on transparencies.  The package is available from AEHA, Ottawa Branch, Attention:  Education Committee.

Elizabeth Stutt is President of the Ottawa branch and National Education Chair for the Allergy and Environmental Health Association.