Vancouver (B.C., Canada) Free Press
November 03, 2005


By Erica Johnson

Barbara Docherty knew there was something wrong as soon as she opened
the door of her son's elementary school. "It was really stinky," she
says. "The smell just hit me in the face."

The East Vancouver school, Laura Secord elementary, was getting a
paint job. According to Docherty, it's an old school, with small
windows and poor ventilation. Docherty's son told her that kids were
covering their faces with their arms in the lunchroom because the
paint fumes were so awful. He said he had a really bad headache. And a
kid with asthma had an attack. Docherty wondered if the paint was the
cause, but she soon discovered that neither she nor her son had the
right to find out.

"Neither I, as a parent, or my kids are entitled to find out what
chemicals are used on the school grounds," Docherty says. "That seems
to be a small problem."

Not so small, according to Mae Burrows, executive director of the
Labour Environmental Alliance Society (LEAS). She's worried about the
number of potentially toxic chemicals that kids are exposed to in
schools and on school grounds and says that information shouldn't be
kept secret from parents and students. "Workers -- teachers, janitors,
and secretaries -- have the right to know what hazardous materials
may be exposed to on school property, but that right doesn't extend to
parents and students. They're powerless."

Burrows is calling for a Students' Environmental Bill of Rights, a
bill she'd like to see endorsed by school boards across the province,
which would give students and their parents the right to find out what
toxic materials are being used in their school. "We're very concerned
about health trends we're seeing in young people," Burrows says.
"After accidents, childhood cancers are now the leading cause of death
in Canadian children. There've been huge increases in asthma rates,
chemical sensitization, and learning disorders, and I'm hearing about
girls hitting puberty as young as seven or eight years old. That's
just not right."

Burrows and LEAS have three toxic targets on their hit list:
carcinogens (substances that can cause cancer), reproductive toxins
(which can damage sperm and cause infertility in women), and so-called
gender benders, or endocrine disrupters (chemicals whose similarity to
hormones confuses the body and disrupts natural hormones). According
to Burrows, many of these hazardous ingredients are found in the
cleaning products employed to keep schools germ-free. But they can
also be found in the treated wood used in woodworking class, in the
diesel fuel handled by children in automotive workshops, and in the
formaldahyde used in science class. The list goes on.

"We call it chemical trespass," Burrows says. "In the past few
decades, tens of thousands of new chemicals have hit the market and a
lot of them are toxic to human health and the environment. We think
students and parents have a fundamental right to know if these
chemicals are being used where children are forced by law to spend the
majority of their day."

At Laura Secord elementary, principal Kerri Wallin offered to help
Docherty in her quest to find out just what was in the paint. She gave
Docherty the list of the paint's ingredients from the manufacturer,
called a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). "Lo and behold, the paint
was full of really vile stuff," Docherty says. "It had a really high
VOC level."

VOCs are volatile organic compounds. The airborne solvents can be
toxic: they can cause headaches, convulsions, central nervous system
damage, dizziness, and fatigue. They can trigger asthma and cause
cancer. "It seems like a no-brainer that stuff like that shouldn't be
put on walls while children are in class," Docherty says. "And this
painting was supposed to go on for six weeks!"

Burrows says parents and students would be amazed to learn how many
harmful chemicals are contained in products used to clean walls,
carpets, desks, and every corner of a school.

She blames chemical manufacturers and savvy media campaigns for
convincing us that we need these chemicals. "After the World Wars,
chemical manufacturers had to create demand for things like chlorine
because chlorine gas wasn't in high demand anymore," she says. "So
we've been taught that 'more is better', 'stronger is better',
'chemical is better'."

And unless you're a worker in a school, the only way you can see the
list of substances in use is to find someone who has access to MSDS
sheets. "There's so much fear about this," Burrows says. "I've had
people meet me after hours and hand me a brown paper envelope. A lot
of people say, 'I know I shouldn't be giving you these," and we're
talking about freaking MSDS sheets! We shouldn't have to be so covert
about chemicals that are so widely in use."

When LEAS researchers did an assessment of cleaning products being
used in the Burnaby school district three years ago, they were shocked
to find methylene chloride in a heavy-duty carpet-stain remover. The
World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on
Cancer (IARC) has determined that methylene chloride is a human
carcinogen. It may also cause liver, kidney, and brain damage. Besides
finding methylene chloride, LEAS also found that two germicidal
cleaners being used in the schools contained a liver, blood, and
kidney toxin, a suspected reproductive toxin, an endocrine disruptor,
and another ingredient that is toxic to the central nervous system and
respiratory tract.

The union that represents janitorial workers and other support staff
is also concerned about this situation. "It was quite an eye opener,"
says Brent Farbridge, a CUPE health and safety representative in
Burnaby. "When you have to clean something, you want to use something
strong, but we don't want our workers -- or kids at school -- getting
exposed to toxic stuff."

CUPE workers took their concerns to management, but making the switch
to safer products wasn't easy. "Nobody likes the union telling
management what to do," Farbridge says. "But in the end, they did the
right thing. We worked with management and found some safer, greener
alternatives, and that's what we're using today."

Surprisingly, switching to safer products didn't end up costing more.
Farbridge says some of the newer alternatives were a bit more
expensive, but the review led to cleaning staff following product
directions more closely, so they now save money by using smaller
amounts of products.

But not all school districts have been so cooperative. LEAS analyzed
cleaners used in Victoria schools and found products containing a
carcinogen, an endocrine disruptor, and other toxic ingredients. But
when Burrows asked the school board's manager of operations, Seamus
Howley, to replace the products, he said he was stuck -- he'd signed a
contract with a supplier for three more years. "And you know," Howley
says, "I don't believe the product is risky when it's diluted and used

Howley says another product -- a toilet cleaner with a toxic chemical
-- is
"only used in the evenings by trained staff". But Burrows wonders how
someone is trained to use a reproductive toxin "properly". "It's like,
'Let me show you how to smoke that cigarette "properly" so that you
don't ingest any of its 69 chemicals or 11 known human carcinogens."?"

Howley claims he's continually reviewing what's in use and
substituting "greener" products when he's satisfied they're as
effective. "We may not be moving as quickly as some people would like,
but the products we're using are also used in universities and
hospitals, so how bad can they be?"

That's the question scientists around the world are trying to answer.
In a groundbreaking study in 2002, the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog
organization Environmental Working Group tested the blood and urine of
nine healthy individuals and made an alarming discovery; each person
was contaminated by an average of 91 chemicals, most of which didn't
exist 75 years ago. Now a growing number of scientists believes that
every person in North America is carrying dozens of chemicals in the
bloodstream that are foreign to the human body. But are they causing

One of the first to raise concerns about endocrine disrupters was
scientist Pete Myers. In 1996, he coauthored Our Stolen Future, a book
that heavily influenced Burrows. The book links chemicals in the
environment to serious health effects in animals and in people. And
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is conducting ongoing studies
suggesting that low-dose exposure to toxic chemicals can cause adverse
health effects ranging from asthma, cancer, chronic bronchitis, and
heart and lung disease to premature death.

But opposition -- fuelled largely by industry groups -- contends that
doses of toxic chemicals are okay. For some toxic chemicals that may
be true, but when it comes to carcinogens and endocrine disrupters,
scientists don't know what level of exposure might trigger cell
changes that lead to cancer. They also don't know what damage might be
caused by repeated exposure.

So Burrows advocates what's known as the precautionary principle.
"Since we don't know at what level toxic chemicals can cause harm, why
use them at all when we have safer alternatives? My mom used to say,
'Better safe than sorry."?"

Not everyone agrees with Burrows or her mother. Economist Jeremy Brown
of the corporate-backed Fraser Institute says cost has to be taken
into consideration. "I think it's okay if parents at private schools
want to overhaul the janitor's closet, but if you start buying safer
products for public schools, who is going to cover the price for that?
Taxpayers." Brown is not convinced that toxic chemicals in school
products will necessarily affect children. "Say there's a carcinogen
in a floor cleaner. If you touch the floor and lick your finger,
you're not getting nearly enough of the chemical to be a problem."

Brown admits he's just "guessing" there wouldn't be a problem. He
believes cleaning products are "basically safe" because they're sold
for use in schools. But, in fact, companies are not required to
conduct basic health and safety testing for the vast majority of the
chemicals produced. According to Environmental Working Group, there
are more than 85,000 chemicals in use across North America and only 10
percent have been tested for potential health and environmental

And it's almost impossible to know where those chemicals will show up
because, unlike in Europe, Canadian laws don't require chemical
companies to label the ingredients in cleaning products -- you have to
refer to the Material Safety Data Sheet (the sheet students and
parents are not entitled to see).

At Laura Secord elementary, Barbara Docherty spent several weeks
meeting with school officials and wrote more than 30 e-mails before it
was decided that the toxic paint would be replaced with a water-based
latex. "I'm just lucky I had the time to fight this," Docherty says.
"Most parents don't, so these products shouldn't be used in the first
place." Because of input from Docherty and other concerned parents,
the Vancouver school board now has a policy of using less toxic latex
paint instead of oil whenever possible.

Burrows knows that her campaign to get toxic chemicals out of the
school environment won't be won overnight, which is why she says her
Students' Environmental Bill of Rights is so important and why LEAS
hopes the idea catches on among school-trustee candidates during the
upcoming school-board elections.

"If there are chemicals in schools that have been linked to asthma, to
cancer, that's a big deal," Burrows says. "We're just breaking through
the consciousness barrier here."

Ultimately, Burrows would like British Columbia to follow the example
of New York state, which just passed legislation that protects
children, teachers, and all personnel from toxic cleaning products
commonly used by schools.

Until then, Barbara Docherty is a big supporter of a bill of rights
for parents and students. "I'm totally in favour," she says. "It
doesn't make you happy when you learn what kids are getting exposed to
at school."

Copyright 2005 Vancouver Free Press