This media article, written by a noted reporter for the largest newspaper in Canada, one that is nationally read by all, profiles the problems of sick schools in that country. As Director of The Center for School Mold Help, I was interviewed for this article over a year ago, helping the reporter to understand the issues with sick schools. This article will be a watershed moment in Canada, for new approaches to prevent mold and dampness in schools and for addressing that which exists. With their national health care system woefully unable to address environmental illnesses at present, Canadians can now look forward to a government that will do something in its own best interest - prevention of these illnesses by all means possible. The Center for School Mold Help has been pleased to be part of this process. (Susan Brinchman, SMH Director)
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HEALTH: SICK SCHOOLS SYNDROME
Globe and Mail - Canada*
Click here to read the story in the Globe and Mail
'When kids are sitting there scratching and they can't concentrate
on their little test, it just breaks your heart'
Teachers are complaining, children are suffering, even Health Canada
admits that mould is 'toxic' - but the schools of Lambton Kent
District still haven't been able to get anyone to clean up their
classrooms. Jessica Leeder reports
June 7, 2008
PETROLIA, ONT. -- The fall of 2005 marked a fresh start for Jackie
Pynaert, a veteran teacher beginning a new eighth-grade teaching
assignment at Queen Elizabeth II primary school in Petrolia, Ont.
Her homeroom was P1, a portable classroom across the hall from two
friendly teachers who had a long history with the school.
Still, it wasn't long before Ms. Pynaert, then 42, found herself
having a tough time in class.
"I started having flu-like symptoms, chills for two months, and I
couldn't shake them," she said. "I was coughing, wheezing, we're
talking coughing until you nearly bring up a lung. I had rashes all
over my face." The students told her that the teacher who had the
room before her coughed the same way.
Puzzled, Ms. Pynaert began to dig into building maintenance records.
The school where she worked, a one-storey brick building in the
Lambton Kent District School Board, had gone through several
additions during its 56 years, including one that resulted in a
cluster of eight temporary classrooms (one of which was Ms.
Pynaert's) being tacked onto the school's west wing to accommodate
an influx of students.
Ms. Pynaert was horrified by what she learned from the records. As
far back as 2002, teachers were reporting "squishy" floors and
rotting wood in the portables. In 2004, teachers were complaining
about headaches and constant colds. The last teacher in her room
went to the emergency room twice with symptoms similar to her own:
breathing difficulties, chronic fatigue, headaches, nausea. He also
had painful sores in his nose.
When class was out, his symptoms would fade or disappear.
By December of 2005, Ms. Pynaert's lips were swelling when she
entered her classroom, pockets of liquid had begun pouching beneath
her eyes and a white, filmy fungus was growing on her face. She also
coughed "until I sprayed urine. I was losing bladder control. My
bladder muscle was giving out." She couldn't shake the belief that
something in the classrooms was making people sick.
Ms. Pynaert is not the first teacher to develop such a hunch. In
nearly every province in recent years, educators have raised alarms
about strange illnesses they think are caused by mould.
Health Canada says mould is "toxic," and no amount of it indoors is
safe, but there are no laws or policies that require school boards
to search out hidden moulds. And because the boards fall under
provincial jurisdiction - and the provinces have no official
policies on what specific tests should be done by boards to ensure
schools are mould-free - how mould complaints are handled by school
boards can vary considerably.
Many whistle-blowers have been able to muster enough public
pressure - often with the help of intense local media coverage - to
force school administrators to deal with the problem.
However, no group of mould-battling teachers has succeeded in
creating a strong enough precedent for subsequent sufferers to draw
on. Often, when teachers' symptoms disappear, so does the mould
issue from public discourse - until the next round of unknowing
teachers is struck.
The battle over mould in Lambton Kent, which covers a sprawling
rural area with 67 schools, 54 of which house elementary teachers
and students, began brewing more than five years ago, when several
teachers from across the district independently began making health
Some had itchy red rashes, constant congestion, phlegm buildup, ear
fungus, bloody noses or hives. For others, there was unexplained
facial swelling, skin lumps, growths, coughing attacks, bowel
problems, stomachaches, searing headaches and chronic fatigue.
"Everybody had to stay drugged to get through work," said Johanne
Tranquille, a French teacher who had been working in portable
classrooms since 1990 - across the hall from Ms. Pynaert - and
coughed constantly, broke out in red facial rashes and suffered bad
Ms. Tranquille said she would drag herself to work in spite of her
symptoms out of fears that "nobody would help the kids." But it was
tough. "I told my mom one time, 'I think I'll have to quit teaching.
I'm too sick.' "
Laurel Liddicoat-Newton, an elementary teacher at Lansdowne Public
School in Sarnia, had to have an egg-sized growth, which her doctor
said "bloomed" because of something in her environment, surgically
removed from her neck. Brimming with frustration at unresolved
health problems in her school, she joined a health and safety
committee in hopes of spurring a fix.
That's when Ms. Liddicoat-Newton learned that her colleagues and
their students were suffering too. From 2002 to 2005, records show,
Lansdowne teachers filed more than a dozen official complaints
requesting air-quality tests in the school's portables. After an
expert tester was finally contracted by the school board to deal
with the portables, no less than 84 square metres of mouldy and
water-damaged materials were cut out of the structure.
However, upon their return to the classrooms - after air sampling
deemed the rooms acceptable - the teachers still felt ill. In the
ensuing months, a repetitive cycle began in which mould was found,
removed and found again.
Amid that cycle, Ms. Liddicoat-Newton found a "garden of mould"
beneath a portable that had supposedly been cleaned.
"It was black earth, covered with orange and white and yellow and
green, like cauliflowers, for as far as you can see," she said.
Exasperated, she ultimately led a work refusal in March, 2007.
"I'm not a person who stands out and fights. I will avoid conflict
at all costs," she said. "I've always been a fixer. I don't like
confrontation and arguing, especially in public. But I want it to be
safe for the kids. Those little kids are developing immune systems.
And they're getting sick."
One of those was Ethan Dickhout, a seven-year-old at a Chatham
public school who is literally scarred from reactions he had in the
classroom, his mother said.
"He started to get the spots all over his body. First it was on his
forehead. Then it was on his stomach, his legs, all over his arms,"
said Billie Jo Robertson. "It has caused him to have three or four
bald spots on the back of his head where hair will not grow back."
When the rash was at its worst, a manager at a Chatham fast-food
outlet asked Mrs. Robertson not to bring Ethan into the
restaurant. "He asked me to leave because it was making the other
customers on edge," she said.
Since Ethan switched schools last fall, his problems have cleared up.
Teachers began turning to their union, the Elementary Teachers'
Federation of Ontario, for help. At group meetings held to air
concerns, Ms. Pynaert was the first to talk about her health
problems, which have forced the 45-year-old to take an extended
leave from work.
Soon, more teachers began to speak out.
Jodi Mandeno, a Grade 2 teacher from Chatham, said she was taking
eight allergy pills a day so that she could go to school without her
body breaking out in hives. The 32-year-old had logged official
health and safety complaints about her classroom, but also changed
her diet, laundry detergents and body wash and even traded in her
brand-new car - out of concern she was allergic to the seat
coverings - to try stopping the hives. Only on March Break, when she
spent a week away from her school, did the huge welts disappear.
Afterward, she began documenting her students' symptoms too. By her
count, 14 out of 19 students in the class were suffering, mainly
from headaches, red rashes and respiratory problems. One youngster
had such bad migraines that his mother was often called to take him
"When kids are sitting there scratching and they can't concentrate
on their little test, it just breaks your heart," she said.
With the onslaught of complaints showing no signs of abating - by
fall, 2007, Ministry of Labour inspectors had made more than 30
visits to district schools and issued stop-work orders for 16 rooms -
the school board agreed to start cleaning up the problems in
elementary buildings. Their pledge, which will cost about $1-million
a year, was a welcome surprise for teachers. But it came with a
condition: The plan would go forward only if the outspoken teachers
responsible for drawing attention to mould problems agreed to
silence their complaints. Grudgingly, the teachers, via their union,
agreed to the deal.
The Globe and Mail's interviews - nearly two dozen teachers and
parents from across the school district talked about the ailments
they link to time spent in district schools - all took place before
the gag order went into effect.
In the months since then, Om Malik, principal of Environmental
Consulting and Occupational Health Management Inc., based in
Mississauga, was contracted to inspect all of Lambton Kent's
elementary schools. He uncovered mould and indoor air-quality
problems in most of the nine buildings he has seen, as well as
repeated signs of shoddy upkeep: rodent excrement, leaky windows and
clogged air exchanges.
For the schools he has seen so far, the inspector has recommended a
broad slate of often-expensive remedies. With four dozen more
schools left to be inspected, worries persist that the schools will
not be fixed.
It's a concern that school board officials have tried to strike down.
Gayle Stucke, chair of the Lambton Kent school board, said all the
classrooms will be inspected, as per the agreement with the union.
But she also said that "the idea of a mould-free building is not
"Mould in buildings has been an issue forever. ... When you have
mould, it's cleared up and six months later it shows again."
Friends of Ms. Pynaert said she has begun considering a second
career out of worries that returning to her classroom would make her
Ms. Stucke, who would not discuss the specifics of any teacher's
case with The Globe, rejected the possibility, saying: "There's no
medical evidence that in fact those symptoms are caused by
mould. ... There's no scientific connection."
Mould has been present in the environment since biblical days, but
the science around it remains patchy and controversial. And though
the term "toxic mould" has become a mainstay in popular vernacular,
there is still fierce debate in the medical community over whether
it is the sole culprit for illnesses it appears to cause.
"We all agree that there are a number of health issues. We don't
understand them all," said Dr. David Miller, an Ottawa-based expert
who has helped to develop federal guidelines.
One problem is the sheer number of mould species - there are
hundreds of thousands.
Another is that "the constellation of symptoms people can
potentially experience are quite varied," according to Karen
Bartlett, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia's
School of Environmental Health who has been studying mould issues
since the early 1990s.
"This is the crux of why these things are so difficult to sort out.
The medical community has no problem with the concept that people in
mould-infested places can experience a wide variety of respiratory
symptoms," she said. "There is no consensus in what happens for
other kinds of symptoms. We don't have a nice clean test that can be
applied that gives us a result."
There is one controversial American doctor who says he does.
Ritchie C. Shoemaker is a Maryland-based family physician who began
delving into bacteria and mould medicine in the mid-1990s, when some
of his long-time patients - swimmers and fishermen - began
complaining of memory problems, fatigue, coughs, chronic pains,
diarrhea and sensitivity to bright light.
Dr. Shoemaker ultimately connected their illnesses to an outbreak of
Pfiesteria, a toxin-forming micro-organism responsible for large
fish kills in North Carolina and Maryland. His work with those
patients led him to another network that was complaining of similar
symptoms. However, theirs were due to exposures to mould and water-
Dr. Shoemaker has since developed a reputation as something of a
mould-science cowboy; he theorizes that people who fall ill after
contact with mould are actually having reactions to the toxins
contained in the fungus's microscopic spores. Among some
individuals, particularly those who he says are genetically
vulnerable, biotoxins can cause immune-system impairment or
"Mould exposure initiates a series of illness generators, hurting
immune-system responses and altering blood flow to many small blood
vessels," Dr. Shoemaker wrote in his 2005 book, Mold Warriors:
Fighting America's Hidden Health Threat. He said the effects of
biotoxin exposures are often mistaken as influenza, chronic fatigue
syndrome or other common ailments.
He claims that he is able to diagnose biotoxin-related illnesses by
analyzing a patient's medical history, blood tests, physical exam
and performance on a visual contrast sensitivity test, which a
colleague developed. That test measures whether toxins have
disrupted neural function.
Although his work has been peer-reviewed, he acknowledges that his
theories remain controversial.
"Indoor growth of toxin-forming moulds make people sick in ways most
physicians don't yet fully understand," he wrote in his
book. "Proving that mould causes common illnesses that are rarely
recognized by physicians has been a challenge."
Schools are particularly susceptible to mould - the problems in
Lambton Kent have been seen in nearly every province, as well as
across the United States.
In San Diego, a former schoolteacher named Susan Brinchman has set
up the Center for School Mold Help, a website that serves as a
continent-wide clearing house for information about mould science,
policy and media coverage. Ms. Brinchman, who taught for 25 years
before being transferred to a mouldy school where she became too
sick to work, said her website gets 120,000 hits per year, with an
endless stream of requests from teachers looking for help in the
Because schools are often built with flat roofs, they are vulnerable
to water pooling and leakages. In this era of stretched budgets,
expensive maintenance jobs - such as adequately repairing water
damage - are often deferred in favour of spending in the classroom.
Schools in the past have tried to fix water seepage by permanently
sealing windows, which has the effect of trapping moisture in the
schools (which helps mould to grow), said Mr. Malik, of the firm now
inspecting the Lambton Kent schools.
Poor ventilation is another common factor abetting mould growth in
schools, he said.
In Newfoundland last year, severe mould problems were discovered in
at least eight schools, seven of which were closed. Since last
September, mould and water problems have been discovered in at least
two Ontario school districts aside from Lambton Kent: Ottawa-
Carleton and nearby Renfrew.
Kathleen Wynne, Ontario's Education Minister, said last fall that
problems in Lambton Kent schools got out of hand. "This particular
situation is one that we will rely on for some pretty serious
lessons," she said.
Still, individual teachers, including Ms. Pynaert and Ms. Liddicoat-
Newton, who appealed to the minister for help when Labour Ministry
processes seemed unable to stimulate an end to the mould, say she
Asked why she did not intervene to help with the issue, Ms. Wynne
said: "There isn't a direct way for me to be involved."
However, lessons drawn from other provinces suggest that there could
Canada's most notorious school-mould problem broke out in Nova
Scotia in the late 1990s; more than a dozen schools were closed. In
one case, several million dollars was spent trying to remediate a
school before it was finally torn down; in another, contractors were
forced to peel back the building materials to the rafters to get at
all of the mould.
The problem was so bad the Education Minister created a dedicated
team of staffers to travel around the province helping school boards
tackle the mould - and the politics the fungus seems to carry with
"My biggest job was to show that I was impartial and that I believed
that if you said the child was sick, the child was sick," said
Gerald Muise, who headed the department's team. "It was critical to
have the province involved. ...
"This health and safety business is used and abused," he said,
adding: "We had some of the best medical people around. All they
could agree on what not to agree on."
Also born out of that era was the Halifax-based environmental
advocacy group called Citizens for a Safe Learning Environment.
The group, now a registered charity, was formed in the early
1990s. "I personally went through two years of being blasted in my
community," said the group's head, Karen Robinson. "Teachers would
stop me in stairwells and whisper to me, 'Please don't stop, Mrs.
By 1997, however, after seeking out national experts on mould and
indoor air-quality problems, members of the group ended up working
frequently as advisers to the Education Department and the following
year were asked to work with the province on the design of
new "healthy" schools.
Ms. Robinson even received a commendation in the provincial
legislature for her efforts.
"We started by pledging that our way of operating was going to be a
respectful one, that we'd get more with honey than vinegar," she
said. "We worked with solid information ... [and pledged] to be
respectful of any of those who were harming our children. No one
really wants to harm children," she said.
In most cases, Ms. Robinson said, the events that led to the
discovery of serious mould problems unfolded in a similar manner to
those in Lambton Kent, where sick teachers, at first, hesitated to
"I hazard to say that it's happening right across North America,"
she said. "It's amazing how much people can be suffering ... and
they're afraid to speak up.
"They're afraid there will be repercussions and things will get
worse. Teachers can be harmed in insidious ways. They can quietly
find a little glass ceiling placed over them, or they can be shipped
off to a school in the far reaches of the school board, or you miss
out on your principalship. You become a troublemaker when you speak
out against your employer."
Mental health questioned
For Ms. Pynaert, the Lambton teacher who had been the most outspoken
on the mould issue, the full price tag of the ordeal has yet to be
When she last met with The Globe, her health was still waning
despite being out of the classroom for months.
She was hoarse-voiced, tired easily and was suffering
gastrointestinal issues. Also waning was her reputation in the
community. Her outspokenness, penchant for taking after-hours
pictures of mouldy schoolrooms to add to her cache of files and to
challenge the school board - particularly in the pages of local
newspapers - worried other teachers and ostracized her from
Even her own sister, also a schoolteacher, had grown wary of being
in public with her.
When the school board began to take a hard line against her
allegations, Ms. Pynaert said, she was "made out to be a liar and a
nut." Her mental health was publicly questioned.
"In the beginning, we thought we would tell the board and they would
save us. They would say, 'This is horrible, and the children are in
there and we've got to get them out,' " Ms. Pynaert said.
"What should have been a surefire health and safety issue has become
a political nightmare," she said.
Because of the agreement with the school board brokered by her
union, Ms. Pynaert was not able to describe her current situation.
Friends said she has not been able to return to work since leaving
in 2006 and faces a growing risk of losing her job if she continues
to refuse to go back to her classroom without being able to prove
conclusively that something in the room is causing her illness.
So far, Ms. Pynaert has gone to extreme lengths to try to validate
her claims. Along with some of the other Lambton Kent teachers, she
paid about $600 in April, 2007, to send blood samples for testing by
a California-based mould-allergy specialist. All of them said they
had tested positive for antibodies related to mould exposures.
Ms. Pynaert's results were so alarming that she spent several more
thousand dollars to take the test results to Dr. Shoemaker for his
In a long report on his diagnosis, the doctor wrote that he believes
her illness is without a doubt due to mould exposures at work.
"The syndrome that affects Ms. Pynaert is a biotoxin-associated
illness that has been given many names, including Sick Building
Syndrome," he wrote. "To a reasonable degree of medical certainty,
exposure to the interior environment of the water-damaged building
is the sole cause of her illness."
Water damage, he said in an interview, is a precursor to mould.
"Ms. Pynaert is no different from my thousands of cases of mould
illness: She is primed for subsequent illness solely caused by
exposure to the indoor air environment in her workplace. ... She
will become ill following re-exposure to any other environment with
presence of biotoxin-producing organisms growing in buildings with
Dr. Shoemaker went on to say that out of the 4,400 cases he has
seen, Ms. Pynaert's is "one of the most flagrant examples of
disregard of an employer's responsibility to provide a safe
workplace I have evaluated.
"What this means is that because of the illness Ms. Pynaert acquired
from her workplace, her life will be forever changed."
Jessica Leeder is an investigative reporter for The Globe and Mail.
Moulds are a form of fungi that help to break down organic material
and can grow indoors or out on nearly any surface, from food in the
fridge to building materials left out in the rain.
When mouldy material is disturbed, spores are dispersed into the air
and can be inhaled. The worst offender is stachybotrys chartarum, a
greenish-black mould that grows easily on drywall, drop-ceiling
tiles and wood, and which is known to have health effects.
Health Canada guidelines endorse a ban on indoor moulds, noting
that "exposure to fungi in occupational environments causes allergic
and toxic diseases," but there is no official policy on testing for
mould in schools or workplaces.
Even when tests are carried out, they can be inconclusive: Most
tests begin with air quality, which is problematic for a number of
reasons, including the fact that the indoor environmental and air-
quality industry is unregulated in Canada. Consultants can pick and
choose from a patchwork of standards set by industry groups, which
do little to scrutinize members' quality of work, said Bruce
Stewart, senior vice-president at Pinchin Environmental Ltd., a
Mississauga-based national environmental-consulting company.
According to Mr. Stewart, 80 per cent of indoor mould grows in wall
cavities and other hidden places. Buildings that have had water
leaks, a fire or poor air quality are the most susceptible.
"When it starts growing inside, mould is a symptom of a building
system that is failing," said Om Malik, an industrial hygienist and
indoor-air-quality expert who heads the Mississauga-based firm
Environmental Consulting and Occupational Health Management Inc.
One thing known for certain is that water is a major factor.
"Mould and moisture are interchangeable," Mr. Malik said. "You have
to find the cause of the moisture."
Once the moisture source - often a leaky roof or wall - is taken
care of, any mould-ridden areas of drywall, carpeting or insulation
should be cut out and patched with new, clean material. Do not try
to scrub or clean the mould away, Mr. Malik warned. Even bleach is
useless, as it targets only bacteria, not fungus.
Leaks of what he calls "black water" - extremely contaminated water
from something like a sewage backup - leave only a six-hour window
for cleanup before mould begins to grow. "Grey water," mildly
contaminated rainwater, or sink or toilet overflow, will lead to
mould growth within 12 to 24 hours. With clean water, the window is
48 to 72 hours.
But the best way to deal with mould, Mr. Malik said, is to stave off
its growth in the first place: "If things get wet, we must dry them."
SMH may add your comments to those below, if you wish to comment*, please email
The above article has been picked up by Education in the News. These are their readers' comments:
June 7, 2008 9:49 PM
Re: HEALTH: SICK SCHOOLS SYNDROME
Glad to see this posted...what is important to remember is that
teachers are trained to teach and not participants in the traditional
sense of union activism, with the same fervor as the trades. As a
daughter of a carpenter and former vocational (business education)(me)
teacher, I can tell you that the plumbing, electrical, sheet metal,
etc., teachers took the leadership role in union activism and the
"nice elementary school girls/women" who had to tell their principal
that they were pregnant (before their husbands) and leave teaching
immediately, were slow to assert their rights to a healthy workplace.
Women, historically until about 45 years ago, could not work as
teachers, once they got married. The vocational teachers had to work
hard to manage safety issues, especially if they were working with
kids around saws, drills and other potentially dangerous equipment.
Safety education was part of the curriculum. Safety was tantamount and
was taught in the apprenticeship classes that everyone aspiring to get
into a union, learned about shop safety.
That said, vocational teachers are in the minority now, as shop
classes have disappeared from the school terrain, sadly. The only
area women were in was Home Economics...and those teachers took enough
biology and chemistry to know the dangers of mold and mycotoxins with
food prep classes. The advocacy part, was kind of a disconnect for
women, who did not participate in "labor guilds" as the men did and
many of whom kept their union memberships up to date.
So, it should not be surprising that teachers, who are now, much
better informed, have had the necessity to become involved, because of
sickness in the schools from building issues. Their involvement in
the unions involved the collective bargaining process, for contracts,
sick time, maternity leave, the process when they are assaulted by
students, and pay scales.
This job of being in a clean building was not even on the radar
screen. So, fighting for your rights, for a clean and healthy
classroom, was and remains an uphill battle. And, still, it is hard
for a teacher to get anywhere, because the "wall of power" comes
crashing down from all sides. They attack you personally and
professionally in order to silence you. At least Canada is in the
right place. I found the Canadian websites helpful when I was
researching "aspergillus fumigatus" which made me sick in school It
is written in plain language, and the MSDS - Safety lists are not.
I brought this up at an Environmental Law conference in 2002, and the
scientist looked at me like I had 3 heads, and the "description of the
toxins in chemical compound style" was "owned" by them and should not
be "brought down" to the laypersons level of understanding.
I suggested that it might be even a legal issue, as when experts in
court are called in, they are supposed to instruct the judge and the
jury about how the injury occurred, in plain language. Even judges
don't understand this process, as a rule and it is the "expert" who
must be the teacher in the courtroom. The lawyers' heads all "snapped
to" at once. Because, that is "where it's at" in court.
But, if they talk "over your head" or describe the toxin in complex
language, it is like a wheelchair trying to get over a curb without a
ramp. There is no "access" because the "chemical language" is a
"barrier" for non-scientists.
At any rate, I was happy to see the American names, Shoemaker and
Brinchman in the article; as this is as much an "educational" process
as much as it is a health-care crisis process.
Ginny Tomasini Lane
2008© (Ginny Tomasini Lane, used with permission)
Subscribers may read about Ginny's school mold experience in our Real Testimonies section.
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