New Brunswick

'As a parent, I would be concerned,' air quality expert says of N.B. school results

An Ontario expert on indoor air quality says he would be concerned about the latest air quality test results from New Brunswick schools if he was a parent.

High carbon dioxide levels indicate poor air quality, which can cause health concerns, engineer says

A female teacher stands at the front of a classroom as several students seated at their desks raise their hand.
Ontario HVAC engineer Joey Fox says schools should have only 1,000 parts per million of carbon dioxide, but several New Brunswick schools exceeded that, with one peaking at 3,914. (Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

An Ontario expert on indoor air quality says he would be concerned about the latest air quality test results from New Brunswick schools if he was a parent.

Data recently released by the Department of Education shows 37 schools had peak carbon dioxide levels above 1,500 parts per million, which the department set as the peak "desirable" level for schools, based on consultations with WorkSafeNB and the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.

Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is used as a proxy to measure air quality and the rate at which air is being renewed, which can contribute to the transmission of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses, according to experts like Joey Fox, chair of the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers' air quality advisory group.

His group recommends all spaces comply with "bare minimum" ventilation requirements, he said.

Fox, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) engineer, said for a school that would be about 1,000 parts per million.

"All these [schools] are well above 1,500," he said.

The 2021-22 results show the highest peak reading was 3,914 parts per million at Marshview Middleview, which houses about 300 students in grades 5 to 8 in Sackville, N.B.

Two schools also had overall averages above 1,500 ppm — Norton Elementary School, at 1,799.9, and Lord Beaverbrook Elementary School in Campbellton, N.B., at 1,509.8.

"Testing completed so far has not indicated an immediate danger to occupants," department spokesperson Morgan Bell has said.

A smiling man with short dark hair, a beard and glasses standing in front of an HVAC system.
Fox, who is chair of the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers' air quality advisory group, supports the use of filters, including Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, as well as upper-room UV lights, as short-term measures to reduce airborne diseases, such as COVID-19. (Submitted by Joey Fox)

Fox agrees there's no immediate danger.

But when air quality is poor, people get sick more often with respiratory viruses, including COVID-19, the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and the common cold.

That means children miss more school and parents miss more work, he said, noting a recent study in Italy found the relative risk of COVID-19 infection of students in classrooms equipped with mechanical ventilation systems decreased by at least 74 per cent, compared with a classroom with only natural ventilation.

In the long term, other pollutants that may be in school air can be health threatening and even fatal, said Fox, citing carcinogens as an example, which can cause cancer.

"So as a parent, I would be concerned," he said.

$13.1M for 11 school ventilation systems

Ten schools received new ventilation systems last year, including seven of the 37 that had elevated readings.

Eleven more schools are scheduled to get new systems this year, at an estimated cost of $13.1 million, Education Minister Bill Hogan told the legislature Tuesday.

There are 28 other schools slated to get new ventilation systems, according to Hogan. They're expected to take another three years to complete, he said.

Screen shot of man in a suit speaking at a government gathering.
Education Minister Bill Hogan says it will three more years before school ventilation system installations are complete. (Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick)

"A lot of this has to do with supply chain issues and labour issues," he said. "So the quicker we can get the materials required and and get the labour in place to install these systems, we'll do that."

In the meantime, schools without proper ventilation continue to use portable air filtration devices with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters.

Reconsider Corsi-Rosenthal boxes

Fox supports the use of HEPA filters, but says they're not a good long-term solution. While they remove particles and help protect people from viruses and airborne diseases, they don't remove other pollutants, such as gases called volatile organic compounds, which are also a health concern, he said.

"In order to provide a full, healthy and safe environment you need ventilation. You need to be supplying outdoor air to the space."

A HEPA air filtration system in a classroom.
The Department of Education installed 2,000 portable HEPA systems in classrooms of the schools that lack a ventilation system in January 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Opening windows can help, along with using fans to better mix the air, said Fox.

He also recommends Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, which are homemade air purifier systems made from four filters taped together to form a cube, with a box fan taped on top.

They're "the cheapest solution we have, and it's very quick and easy to scale up," said Fox.

He estimates they cost about $100 to make and describes them as "extremely powerful," providing two to three times as much air cleaning as a HEPA filter.

A picture of several Corsi–Rosenthal Boxes made of four filters taped together to make a square with a box fan taped to the top.
Fox said Corsi–Rosenthal boxes can be a 'fantastic solution' for schools that don't have ventilation systems. (Submitted by David Thomas)

New Brunswick schools cannot accept donations of Corsi-Rosenthal boxes or HEPA filters.

"Air purification systems are designed for the specific space and installed by professionals," a department spokesperson has said.

Homemade equipment would not meet the strict safety standards, such as electrical, according to Anglophone School District South spokesperson Jessica Hanlon.

Fox thinks the province is off-base in rejecting Corsi-Rosenthal boxes. He argues they don't pose a safety risk because none of the electrical aspects of the fan are modified.

UV technology 'piques' minister's interest

To specifically target airborne diseases, Fox says a type of light fixture that shines ultraviolet light in the upper part of a room is "extremely effective."

Upper-room ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) gives about 20 to 30 air changes per hour, compared to three to six from a ventilation system and an extra one or two from HEPA filtration, he said.

His group has recommended these be installed in health-care and congregate living settings.

Although they aren't really being used in Canada right now, they were used in schools in the 1940s and reduced measles transmission by 75 per cent, Fox said.

After hearing about them on CBC News, Chuck Chiasson, Liberal MLA for Victoria-La Vallée, asked the minister in the legislature Tuesday whether they piqued his interest.

Personally, I think the best ventilation is an open window.- Bill Hogan, education minister

"I thought maybe, you know, the minister would want to be a trail breaker," he said.

"Yes, that does pique my interest," replied Hogan.

"I'd like to read up a little more on that," he said, noting the department would have to evaluate the costs and effectiveness.

"Personally, I think the best ventilation is an open window, but that's just a personal thought," Hogan said.

Schools that have a ventilation system are not being tested, but the department will look at them in future phases, according to a department spokesperson.

It's "focusing on schools without a proper ventilation system as those are the schools that have the highest likelihood of poor air quality," Bell said.

Indoor air quality act urged

Fox contends indoor air quality legislation is required in New Brunswick and other jurisdictions.

"Clean indoor air is a right and we unfortunately have no requirements on this matter," he said.

"We need to be providing people with a healthy and safe environment," particularly students, long-term care home residents and hospital patients.

Earlier this month, Restigouche West MLA Gilles LePage, the opposition critic on the environment, tabled a motion that the legislative assembly urge the government to modernize the province's air quality laws and standards, "with a goal of bringing forward a strengthened Clean Air Act."

In addition, he wants the government to bring forward a plan to "monitor, report, and improve air quality systems" in government buildings to mitigate the risks associated with the transfer of airborne illnesses and other harmful agents.

A date for debate has not yet been scheduled. Even if the motion does pass, it would not be binding and would not obligate the government to take action.

Joey Fox is an engineer and chair of the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers air quality advisory group.

With files from Information Morning Saint John and Fredericton

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