New Brunswick

New Brunswick seeks expert opinion on use of HEPA filters in schools to fight COVID-19

New Brunswick plans to hire an outside expert to review the "competing science" on the use of high-efficiency particulate filters to help fight COVID-19 in schools, says Education Minister Dominic Cardy.
Education Minister Dominic Cardy said there has been 'real discussions and concerns from folks' over the lack of HEPA filters, but the 'competing science' concerns him so he believes hiring an independent expert is the best solution. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

New Brunswick has quietly updated its guidance on ventilation in public schools to say high-efficiency particulate, or HEPA, filters may be a way to improve air quality during the pandemic.

But Education Minister Dominic Cardy says there's been no change in policy regarding the use of in-class HEPA filters.

The province plans to hire an outside expert to review the "competing science" surrounding the issue and provide recommendations, he told reporters Thursday.

"I'll bring back a timeline for that process in the coming days."

He did not say how much the review will cost.

Sixty schools in New Brunswick have no integrated mechanical ventilation systems, as of September. Unlike the 234 schools in the province that do have integrated ventilation systems, these schools must rely instead on opening doors and windows to circulate air.

Air quality tests conducted at these schools over several months were, however, "within the safe range and did not demonstrate reason for health concerns," Department of Education spokesperson Flavio Nienow has said.

Other provinces, such as Ontario, spent millions on HEPA filters for schools before classes started last fall.

On Nov. 25, New Brunswick's guidance on ventilation in schools, which is available online, was updated.

It now states: "HEPA filter devices reduce particles in the air and could be used in rooms with poor air circulation.

"This should be considered on a case by case basis."

No public announcement was made.

The previous guidelines on ventilation, dated Oct. 29, made no mention of HEPA filters.

Sixty of New Brunswick's 294 schools do not have adequate ventilation systems, as of September. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

In September, during a back-to-school Q&A hosted by CBC New Brunswick, Cardy said there was no evidence the HEPA air filters work and suggested they could make things worse.

"The recommendation was, don't do little Band-Aid measures because those can sometimes make things worse. In-class HEPA filters, for example, because as much as they can absorb some COVID-19 into them, when they're circulating the air in the room, they can be moving COVID around and actually infecting more people," he said.

"So that's why we say for this year again, leave off with any discussions around fans and ventilation systems because the evidence just wasn't there that they would work. And the last thing we want to do is, in an effort to try and make things better, end up by causing people to get sick."

Health Canada had a list of companies trying to sell portable units, he said. "They say these guys are saying that their filters can stop COVID. There's no evidence for that."

Asked Thursday about the updated guidance and how it might give the impression HEPA filters have already been approved for use, Cardy disagreed.

I don't want to go and say, 'absolutely no HEPA filters,' ... if that could put kids at greater risk and I don't want to say, 'We should have them everywhere,' if that could put kids at greater risk. So let's look at the science and make a decision.- Dominic Cardy, education minister

"By definition, something approved for a case-by-case use is not approved for general use. Otherwise, it would say universal use," he said.

Cardy could not say whether HEPA filters are being used in any classrooms now.

"Not having visited all of those classrooms personally recently or asked that question, I can't give you a definitive answer.

"I can say that we had issues with teachers having fans in classrooms and that HEPA filters had been considered to be fans and had been taken out."

Asked who could authorize their use, Cardy said most decisions regarding school operations are made at the district level but anything that involves COVID-19 usually goes to the Department of Education or Public Health.

"I don't want to go and say, 'absolutely no HEPA filters,' ... if that could put kids at greater risk and I don't want to say, 'We should have them everywhere,' if that could put kids at greater risk. So let's look at the science and make a decision," he said.

"Glad that we're getting this off the ground because I think it's a point of controversy and it's certainly something that has worried me for many months, and I'm glad that we're moving on it."

The department has not made the list of schools with inadequate ventilation systems available to the public.

Ventilation systems are expected to be added to some schools, starting in 2022.

The department is working with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure to develop the project requirements and budget for each school, based on a prioritized list.

With files from Jacques Poitras

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