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Aging portables blamed for fertility problems

Teachers say health concerns aren't being addressed

National Post - May 17, 2002
by Jessica Leeder

A health and safety officer at a Toronto high school is investigating reports that staff have miscarried and are having fertility problems because of the ageing and sub-standard portable classrooms.

Janice Keil is a teacher and the health and safety officer at Bishop Allen Academy Secondary School in Etobicoke, where more than half of the school's 1,333 students are forced to attend classes in 23 portables, one of the highest ratios in Canada.

Ms. Keil said some female staff members have been reporting an abnormal number of miscarriages to her, as well as fertility problems.

She and some colleagues have filed refusals to teach in certain units under the provincial Health and Safety Act.

During an investigation, Ms. Keil found more than 90% of the 770 students she surveyed reported regular headaches, bronchial infections, asthma, allergies, congestion, throat irritation, dizziness and other respiratory problems.

A report she released at an open forum at the school, which is part of the Toronto Catholic District School Board, alleges the portables are responsible for a growing number of health problems among students and teachers at the school, including one male who sprained his ankle when an outdoor wooden stairway gave way last week.

A second source at the school, who asked not to be identified for fear he would lose his job, said he has also received reports from a high percentage of staff members who are experiencing fertility problems, miscarriages and problems conceiving, which they believe to be a result of teaching in run-down portable classrooms.

According to Ms. Keil's report, the portables range from 14 to 32 years of age, and the makeshift classrooms are "rotting from sitting on wet ground ... damp with extensive mould growth, with holes in the floor and ceilings open to rodent and insect infestations."

It is claimed some of the portables have poor ventilation, which has led to the growth of toxic mould between the walls and above the ceiling tiles.

Board officials say their official position is that none of its students should be in portables. However, they confirmed that Bishop Allen has a Ministry-rated capacity of 633 students, yet carries an enrollment of 1,333 this year. The overflow attend classes outside of the main building.

To date, board officials say they have not received documentation of the need for an investigation into the portables and an inspection completed by the board's health and safety coordinator in February did not find any major problems.

However, Mary Jo Deighan, spokeswoman for the board, confirmed some complaints have been received about students feeling sick, but none have been filed according to "proper protocol."

"We have to have some scientific data that they are experiencing the illness because of their environmental conditions," she said, adding the board will not authorize special environmental testing until they receive a physician's note.

Bishop Allen was not one of the 15 schools named in the board's March approval of $156-million in new capital funding, although last month, a board-commissioned report recommended $1.1-million in facility upgrades, the removal of 17 portables by 2020 and the construction of 20 new classrooms at the school.

Students at the school have expressed concerns that nothing is being done to fix up the school.

"For now, can they not just replace our portables so we can breath," said Lisa Meffe, a Grade 12 student who complains of breathing problems and migraine headaches.

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