The slow throb in your left temple radiates down the back of your neck and into your shoulders. For the past couple of months you can’t seem to shake that low-grade flu and you’ve lost your appetite. No one understands why you’re so sick. Some have suggested it’s all in your head, but the symptoms are real. The cause could be poor indoor air quality—an issue on the radar again following the closure of the Bloomfield Common Building in north end Halifax.
Two months ago, the city found the building to be heavily contaminated with mould, lead and asbestos and the tenants were forced to vacate. Kim Strong of Maritime Testing, a private company hired by HRM to do the environmental inspection of Bloomfield, says “probably half of commercial buildings in Halifax have some issue that could affect air quality.”
Strong says often a small change such as installing a fan may be all that’s required to improve air quality. But solutions for seriously sick buildings can cost thousands of dollars.
Strong says she’s increasingly being called to inspect private residences. In most cases, occupants have spotted mould or peeling paint, or someone has experienced a physical symptom that he or she associates with being in the building.
In Halifax rental buildings, poor air quality is a concern because of the damp weather, which can mean more mould and more time spent indoors. For many tenants who discover their homes are making them sick, getting help is challenging.
Megan Leslie of Dalhousie Legal Aid fields many sick home complaints but says “there is a real problem with enforcement.” Leslie says clean air is difficult to legislate.
“Wolfville, Antigonish and Halifax have the highest rents in Atlantic Canada.” says Leslie. “There are a lot of students here, so we end up with a real lack of affordable housing. Tenants can’t be choosy and a lot of landlords realize this.” Bylaw M-100 lists tenanted building standards, but it’s difficult to point to what constitutes a healthy dwelling, and regulations like adequate ventilation are pretty subjective.
One of the most prevalent issues in residential buildings is mould. Contrary to popular belief, century homes are usually less affected by mould than structures built in the last 60 years.
“One hundred years ago,” says Strong, “homes were constructed out of stone, plaster and wood. None of these materials support a lot of mould growth.” But products like particleboard and laminates are made from processed wood fibre, which is absorbent and susceptible to mould. These materials, combined with the use of moisture barriers and double-glazed windows means newer homes don’t allow for a significant air exchange.
Particleboard and carpet also off-gas chemicals used in their glues and binding agents. The effects of long-term exposure to these chemicals can range widely, making it difficult to find the problem. And it’s why many people who are sick have been faced with skepticism even from the medical community. But responses are starting to shift.
“Approximately five percent of the adult population is sensitive to chemicals to the extent that they become ill, but closer to 15 percent of people are normally sensitive,” says Roy Fox, director of Nova Scotia’s Environmental Health Centre. “We’ve seen a lot of change in attitudes during the last five to 10 years in that more physicians are actually willing to help people.”
In fact, Halifax is considered to be at the forefront of environmental activism. Karen Robinson, of Citizens for a Safe Learning Environment, attributes Nova Scotia’s leadership to media support and strong grassroots action groups that coalesced around the Camp Hill Hospital crisis in the early ’90s, during which more than 800 people became ill due to indoor air contamination.
“If not for CASLE, I believe the Camp Hill disaster would have been suppressed,” she says. “Nova Scotia is recognized by many as leading the way. We have to continue to educate people in order to keep this a priority—and to maintain accountability. The thing about air quality is that when we protect those who are particularly sensitive, we are actually protecting everyone.”