By Tina Comeau
Those tasked with trying to get to bottom of what has been causing air quality issues at the high school on Forest Street feel progress is being made and they have identified a number of correctable issues that they hope will bring relief to symptoms that have been experienced inside the building.
Stephen Boudreau, a senior consultant and company president of Teritt Indoor Environmental, which has carried out testing and investigative work in the building, says what they think was causing people to have symptoms was a combination of some off gassing, the ventilation system that was not working properly, the humidification system that wasn’t commissioned and a level of stress among staff.
“We believe there are classrooms that weren’t getting enough air and some were getting too much air,” he said. An air-handling unit was shutting itself off intermittently. For how long that issue existed is not known, but the unit has now been fixed and the airflow in the building has been balanced. Factoring in new materials that were off gassing and a humidification system that wasn’t functioning, Boudreau said it would have caused the air to be dry in addition to the airflow being inconsistent or non-existent.
Boudreau is hopeful that the things being corrected will improve the situation. If not, then more investigation will proceed.
The Tri-County Regional School Board and the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal have also been presented with 10 recommendations to carry out and follow. (See the list at conclusion of this story).
(The school board also said on Thursday that in the coming days it will post the air quality report from Teritt Indoor Environmental on the board website and the high school website. The Vanguard will provide links to the report when it is posted online.)
Air quality testing that has been carried out thus far, Boudreau said, has not raised any alarm bells. While early testing back in September showed formaldehyde levels as being slightly elevated in a half dozen areas, the readings were still within certain guidelines.
Air quality testing was carried out on Sept. 9, one two occasions in November and on Dec. 19.
The most recent round of testing showed that VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and formaldehyde levels in the air had both dropped, which Boudreau said is typical of a three-to-four-month-old building that has been off gassing. It is now believed that most of the off gassing has occurred.
Speaking to specific concerns that people have raised, such as whether carbon monoxide is present, Boudreau said carbon monoxide has been tested for on four separate occasions and there hasn't been any substantial levels found.
Still, Boudreau said if they correct the things that are correctable, and this has already begun, but they still see people having symptoms, then more investigation will be taken.“So that’s where we’re at now,” he said on Jan. 9.
The most recent results of air quality testing and investigation were shared with the Tri-County Regional School Board and the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal on Wednesday. As well, these results were shared with high school staff that met with the board, the department and Boudreau on Wednesday afternoon.
Following this, the board invited the media and local municipal representatives to a meeting to provide them with the same update.
Many parents, however, question why there hasn't been a public meeting to inform them about the situation and testing results.
Staff at the high school have reported experiencing symptoms while working inside the building that include burning eyes, sore throats, raspy voices, difficulty breathing and fatigue. A few teachers have been told by their doctors not to report to work, and other staff, including teachers, have not been coming to work in recent days. Many students also say they are experiencing similar symptoms.
For the time being, until they are able to return to the high school, at least two teachers have been reassigned to other schools.
Asked by the Vanguard if, to determine whether fixes being made in the school are working involves having those who are experiencing symptoms to be back in the school to see if their symptoms go away, Boudreau said, “The only way we can see if it’s working is to get feedback, and I don’t know if people who are not in the building are going to come back in the building, and that’s not my intention, to suggest that some of these people not feeling well should re-enter just so we can see if they’re feeling okay.
“But at some point, though, the people who are still in the building, we should be able to conceivably get some feedback whether they think conditions have improved,” he added, saying if they start to see a drop-off in symptoms then eventually those who have been most affected may be asked to come back into the building again to see how they are affected.
Many people have questioned whether staff and students were moved into the building too quickly in September, given that construction of the building was still taking place up to, and following, the opening of the school. Would time have made a difference in what is happening, this newspaper asked Boudreau.
“The thing is, I don’t think off gassing, at the levels we found, was necessarily the root cause. If off gassing was an issue it wasn’t just the off gassing, it was off gassing and some areas not getting enough air,” he said, noting because the high school is a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building, it was built to better standards than typical buildings. “I test a lot of LEED buildings across the country is this is the kind of levels we’re seeing in well-built LEED built buildings. So the levels weren’t particularly high but what might have caused problems is if some of the classrooms had those levels and then weren’t getting enough air, we don’t know if the ventilation system components that weren’t functioning well were doing that since the building was opened or if it happened more recently.”
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Would having had windows opened early on make a difference in what’s transpired, Boudreau said “potentially.” He said opening windows to help ventilate a building is always a recommendation. However, at the high school there was an extended period where windows were not being opened.
Boudreau was also asked if identifying the unfolding air quality situation was prolonged because it took some time for staff in the school to connect the dots of what was happening. Teachers have told the Vanguard that at first, they thought their symptoms were the result of a bug that was circulating. It wasn’t until people started sharing how they were feeling with one another that they started to see there was a lot of common ground and they started to suspect it was the building that was causing them to be ill.
Boudreau said scenarios like this have happened before. The good thing is, though, that the eventual feedback they received from staff about what they were experiencing, and where they were experiencing it, has helped in the investigations that have taken place.
The school board had said on numerous occasions that it does believe the building to be safe. The Vanguard asked Boudreau during Wednesday night’s update session if he feels it is a safe building.
“From the testing and investigation I have done I haven’t seen anything that leads me to believe that the environment is unsafe,” he said. “But at the same time we do have people reporting symptoms.”
Moving forward and making sure there is enough fresh air in the building, it is hoped, will bring about a difference within the school environment.
If not, testing and investigation will continue until all possibilities are exhausted.
During the Jan. 9 update session, Greg Moir, who was the school’s project manager with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, said he had wished that a member of the medical community had been present for the update session. However, the school board did note that Dr. Richard Gould, the medical officer of health for the western region of the province, has been kept apprised of what has been taken place.
Asked about the meeting that took place with staff on Wednesday, Boudreau said they got a lot of feedback, and people did express their frustrations with the process that has unfolded.
School board superintendent Lisa Doucet said the board wants to ensure that there is transparency as the process unfolds.
“That was our reasoning to have this meeting tonight, just to let people know that we know there are issues, we’re working on those issues, if we’re looking for positives (there are) things we can resolve,” she said.
Added Gerry Purdy, the board’s director of human resources, staff is anxious to see things turn around.
“But I think they received some information and some comfort tonight in knowing that this is a priority for everybody,” he said.
The following is a list of many of the recommendations that have been given to the Tri-County Regional School Board and the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal to be acted on. While the school board occupies the building, the school is still under the care of the government department for a one-year warranty period.
• Establish a tracking system for any corrective actions.
• Ensure ventilation system is working properly. (Note: It has been stated the system has been fixed.)
• There were times when identified deficiencies within the building were being worked on during the school day when staff and students were present. The recommendation is to intercept any of this work before it occurs during the school day as construction materials being used could affect others.
• A scent-free policy should be in enforced.
• If there are reports of allergic reactions in the building, people should get a diagnosis on what it is they are allergic to.
• There are a few areas of the building where water leaks have been identified. If the corrective work taking place now does not improve or fix the current situation, then study these areas next.
• Make report on air quality testing and investigation available to staff for review.
•Any corrective action should be evaluated for effectiveness.