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Union suspects cleaning products making teachers, students sick at Yukon schools

Yukon's teachers union says it suspects that sanitizing products being used in schools are making teachers and students sick, after hearing complaints from staff at several schools.

Staff members at 5 schools have raised concerns, says Yukon Teachers' Association

The Yukon Teachers' Association says it's heard complaints from staff members at five schools, including Whitehorse Elementary School. (Steve Silva/CBC)

Yukon's teachers union says it suspects that sanitizing products being used in schools are making teachers and students sick.

"We don't know if this is a bigger trend," Ted Hupé, president of the Yukon Teachers' Association, said in an interview.

The union says seven staff members, collectively, have raised the concern at four Whitehorse schools — École Émilie-Tremblay, Holy Family Elementary School, Jack Hulland Elementary School, and Whitehorse Elementary School — as well as a school outside of the city.

Hupé says staff members at those schools have been dealing with headaches, extreme fatigue, itchy and sensitive eyes, and irritated nasal passages, while at work. Less common issues include dizziness, nausea, scratchy throat, and sinus aches.

One staff member has had to leave work early multiple times because they keep getting sick while at work, making them use about two weeks' worth of sick leave so far this school year, Hupé said. A staff member at another school has taken at least one sick day for similar reasons, he said.

'I believe the government is taking this seriously,' said Ted Hupé, president of the Yukon Teachers' Association. Officials from the education department were not available for interviews. (Laura Howells/CBC)

At Jack Hulland school, several students have gone home sick for the same reasons, Hupé said.

He said he was made aware of the complaints a couple of weeks ago, and he started investigating.

Hupé said he has been working with the Yukon's Department of Education, and they're waiting for more information.

"I believe the government is taking this seriously," Hupé said.

He said it's not known whether the problem lies with hand sanitizers or other sanitizing products being used — or both. He's also not sure whether the cleaning products themselves might be to blame, or how they're being used (for example, if they're not sufficiently diluted first).

Education department not available for interview

Yukon's Department of Education did not make anyone available for a phone interview following requests made by CBC News over two days.

In an email, Kyle Nightingale, one of several spokespeople for the department, said custodians follow guidelines from the territory's chief medical officer of health.

If anyone has anything they want to bring up, they can contact their school's administration or its health and safety committee, he wrote in the five-sentence response.

According to Hupé, concerns about cleaning products are not new to the department. He said during the first week of school this year, eight staff members at Holy Family Elementary School were ill for apparently similar reasons, resulting in at least two sick days taken.

"The concerns went to the department, and it was dealt with very expediently," he said.

According to Hupé, the culprit was a cleaning product, which has since been removed.

Hupé wants school staff to report any such issues to their occupational health and safety committees. He said the hope is, in part, to detect any larger trend.

He said schools are cleaned twice a day, including at noon, and some teachers are cleaning students' desks themselves.

"There should be, in my opinion, a little more work done by leadership because the leadership needs to take account that they're providing these products to their employees and, if employees use them improperly, who's responsible?" Hupé said.

Schools across the territory are using the same sanitizing products, he said.

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