From Where I Sit
By Helen Lofgren
UPdate Winter 1994-1995

     It’s bleak, overcast and cold, but I feel the promise of warm rays of sunshine on the horizon.  I’ve been thinking about environmental health issues for a long time, far longer than I have known a vocabulary for it other than to say that I still felt tired and my brain was confused two years after having had mono at 17; I just wasn’t back to normal (It was no joy trying to go to university in this state); or I felt sick and got a headache the moment they started tarring the roof immediately outside the classroom in which I was trying to teach junior high school mathematics in the mid-sixties.

     The children were for the most part well-behaved, but many had great difficulty concentrating and/or couldn’t seem to grasp the basic concepts. First I moved all the desks to an empty classroom across the hall which wasn’t adjacent to the newly tarred roof.  The administration wasn’t impressed; I found myself moved back a week later with the safer classroom remaining empty. The school surrounded a large open garden courtyard.  I always felt well there and one day hauled a portable blackboard out to teach the class in that beautiful space which seemed to me just waiting to be used.  The students were amazed, delighted and worked well.  After a few days, seeing that this was more than a one-time aberration of this “crazy” teacher, the administration hauled in my blackboard and forbid me to teach out-of-doors again.  So much for the clean air and clear minds.  My contract wasn’t renewed.

     That was 30 years ago.  No one wanted to hear that in certain environments I didn’t feel well: Headaches that made it hard to move and went on for days, bone-aching fatigue, and un-controllable and exhausting sneezing (eg., 4 hours, continuous), Reynauds disease were among my complaints.  I was seen to be a complainer: I was ignored.  To this day I have trouble recognizing, admitting to myself and reporting my symptoms or pursuing the help that I need though I can do it well for family and friends, because I found that denial, really just ignoring myself and ‘getting on with it’ in whatever mediocre way I could, if it did nothing to make me well, brought me the least grief.

     And so my employment went: Job interview went well, hired, felt sick on the job, no one understood, I left or wasn’t hired back.  I learned to cope by standing back, always standing back, never developing professionally as my education and background would have suggested.  In the meanwhile I’ve learned a great deal and I’ve come to know countless others reporting my symptoms and many more I’ve never experienced, and I’ve met any number of employees who won’t be forced out of their jobs because the environment is making them ill.  They insist on change.  That’s a lot of progress.

     Though I had suspected it much earlier, I first recognized allergy-type illness in my daughter when she was two.  Somehow I knew, as I think I always knew, the answer lay in finding the cause(s) and elimination, but 20 years ago there wasn’t much help along those lines.  With the blessings of MSI and Blue Cross, pharmacological preparations of great variety in all colours and flavours were urged upon us even though I regularly expressed my concern at over-prescription.  Symptoms suppressed, she was in acute crisis at six years.  Sometime later her brother was born and began his symptomology even earlier than I had recognized it in her.

     Meanwhile, I was learning more, asking more, expecting more, and finding even stronger resistance to my questions.  I persisted, feeling I had little to lose: Eventually I lost my marriage, a tragedy almost entirely due to the mishandling of medical/health-care issues including addictions, by those ‘knew’ over a long period of time.  Economic worries and uncertainty now compounded all others for me.  I tried to steer a straight course, often only with the deep conviction that what I was doing was right, logical and rational, really the only responsible choices I could make.  It was lonely road and often still is.

     Both of my children have experienced protracted environmentally-related illness and repeated long absence from school.  I began learning about and implementing solutions to environmental health problems at home to good effect, but there was little progress along these lines at school.  I quickly learned that I couldn’t expect much more than just some tolerance at school.  Any more, and the situation would get worse than if I said nothing.

     Over time my courage was growing along with my knowledge, and finally, after many years, came promise of the first ever government-funded Environmental Medicine Clinic soon to open with Dr. Gerald Ross at the VGH.  My daughter was by then in grade 11, very ill and able to attend school only sporadically.  She refused to withdraw, not wanting to prolong the agony.  Suddenly, overnight, my attitude changed: No longer did I go to her school with some timidity, trying to find out how to cope.  I went there saying that my child was very ill due to the environment, that she was doing her best to cope and function, that she would do her work as best she could and when she could, that she was never to be punished academically for late work even though they did not understand her erratic attendance, PERIOD.  They said, O.K.  I was stunned.  They were obviously skeptical, but they agreed to my reasoned demands.  My daughter was not going to allow herself to be pushed out or aside in her education just because the public school environment was so toxic to her.  She was right!

     That day six years ago I knew that at last I had made progress.  I also gained courage and my voice has been getting stronger and stronger.  My daughter was no longer punished academically for her ill health; she managed, with the school’s cooperation and accommodation to her needs to finish grade 11 that year. With somewhat improved health and more regular attendance because she was now seeing Dr. Ross, she graduated near the top of her class the following year, with a scholarship for university, though not without school comment to me that “she wasn’t working up to her potential.”  Well, maybe, but she is now graduating from university with top marks, always with full scholarship, has never missed more than two days per year due to illness, and is fully engaged in preparing herself for a productive a fulfilling future.

     My son’s environmental illness led him first to very poor attendance, great difficulty in learning the most basic of academic skills in spite of great intelligence, and finally to withdrawal from school for 1 ½ years during which time he underwent treatment and got well.  His withdrawal from school was tolerated without objection in part because I am a licensed teacher, but in truth, seldom were we able to pursue anything resembling the curriculum.  He craved fresh air.  Fortunately we live where we usually have it and so he regularly spent up to six hours per day in active play outside.  This was hard for many to accept as their vision of sick meant sick-in-bed, unable to be active.  These years coincided with and followed close on the heels of my daughter’s years of most severe illness.  We were on our own and succeeded.  With health now to be envied by most, “learning disabilities” largely a thing of the past, he’s returned to school, seldom missing a day, doing very well.

     I am a member of the Committee on School Environmental Health Issues at the Halifax District School Board.  For two years now we have put on in-service days for all of the Halifax principals and a member of the P.T.A. and school environment committees from each school.  These full-day workshops, each addressed by Dr. Ross were very successful and very well received.  Many schools have now held their own in-service days on school environment for teachers, and more are planned.  Parent groups and individuals are becoming more active, vocal and insistent, appearing at school board meetings with well prepared information, requests, and finally, demands.

     Karen Robinson cites the Labour Code Act for particular violations in terms of the environment in her children’s school, and the School Board must listen.  When I tried to cite the Labour Code six years ago while trying to find a safe school for my son, I was told it didn’t apply to schools because children weren’t employees and there weren’t enough teachers and others to constitute a place of employment large enough to come under the act.  My voice alone wasn’t big enough.

     Craig Miller represents parents who will no longer tolerate having their grade one children becoming ill and remaining in a carpeted classroom which had toxic moulds identified in a school board study over a year ago.  Those parents are already acting by removing their children and will not stop until the problem is remedied.  Another child is being provided with computer hook-up to her classroom, another with a modified healthy classroom and promise that he will always have one throughout his school career.  Other parents, finding that their children are healthier in this child’s modified classroom are requesting that their child always be assigned to this classroom as well.  It’s no longer the single isolated voices.  This is progress!

     Hospital workers from Camp Hill to the V.G. to the I.W.K. and the new Grace have become instrumental in drawing issues of the health effects of indoor air quality to public attention.  As well, their plight has helped in the expansion of the Nova Scotia governmentally-funded Environmental Medicine Clinic from part- to full-time.  That’s progress.  I only wish I didn’t hear that some of these health-workers won’t allow others from other health-care institutions to join in with them.

     “Scent-free” is no longer an oddity, and smoke-free is becoming the norm.  We’ve come a long way.  Employers and the government are coming to recognize their responsibility in terms of environmental health issues, if not with open arms, because of the individual and collective activism and insistence of so many.  There is so much more that has been done which I haven’t mentioned specifically, and so much more yet to be done.  The forthcoming A.E.H.A. Annual General Meeting, Sat. 25 March, at St. Augustine’s Church, Pucell’s Cove Rd., Halifax is on just such topics.  There will be a panel presentation on activism in the schools and in the workplace.  Come and hear what is being done, what’s yet to come, and share your experiences and ideas for future action.

     From where I sit, there’s lots to be done, but thinking back to those early meetings ten and more years ago, before there was an A.E.H.A., we’ve come a long way.  We now have a full-time Environmental Health Clinic under the able direction of Dr. Roy Fox and look forward to the day the Clinic will include Dr. Ross who has already given us so much, on its regular staff.  We now have local organically grown produce available to us year-round, we have support groups such as A.E.H.A. Back-to-Basics and the Chronic Fatigue Support Group, Citizens for Choice and South Shore Citizens for Choice to name a few, for education, sharing and empowerment, and stores like Great Ocean, Mary Jane’s and Supernatural to supply our many needs.

     As a community we have said no to incinerating our garbage and to the D.N.D.’s plan to expand its Firefighting School.  We have fought for and continue to defend the rights of physicians and other health practitioners to practice genuine health care including many options and alternatives.  We have all that we have because we have had enough dedicated people fighting intelligently, passionately and steadily for a long time. 

     Who is ready to start tackling the hazards of high electromagnetic field exposures? I know there is at least one school in Halifax that has the electrical panel for the school in a crowded basement classroom.  When I could do no more, I refused to heave my child placed in that classroom.  Whatever the issue, we are far more capable, informed and able to act as a community now.  The fight is far from over, and we need your help in whatever ways you are able to contribute.

     From where I sit, spring is in the air, the sun shines and birds sing, even with ice still everywhere on the ground; we are coming out of our period of winter darkness.  I feel an optimism that has long eluded me, that out efforts in the name of environmental illness/multiple chemical sensitivity and allergy are bringing significant and worthwhile results.

     Thank you, everyone, for all of your efforts and KEEP UP THE FIGHT!