The Doc Project

'What was in that dust?' P.E.I. woman searches for answers about mishandling of asbestos in daughter's school

Toby MacDonald is demanding answers about why parents and students at Three Oaks Senior High School in P.E.I., were not informed that asbestos had been mishandled during the school's renovations — amid fears that her own daughter's health may have been put at risk.

Toby MacDonald says parents and students were kept in the dark during Three Oaks High School's renovations

Lydia MacDonald, right, suffered from unusual symptoms in her last year at Three Oaks Senior High School in 2017. Her mother Toby, left, wants to know whether the symptoms were related to breaches in protocol while the school was under renovations — and if Lydia's health may be in greater danger in the future. (Submitted by Toby MacDonald)

Toby MacDonald's kitchen table has become a "war room."

It's covered in papers and binders full of Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection (FOIPP) requests she and other parents filed to the P.E.I. government about renovations at Three Oaks Senior High School (colloquially known as TOSH) in Summerside, where her daughter Lydia was a student until she graduated in 2017.

Over the last year and a half, through filing FOIPPs and pressuring the government and school board for information, MacDonald learned asbestos was mishandled in three separate instances during the renovation — and neither parents nor students were informed. 

One of those breaches in protocol, which happened in February 2017, particularly worries her. She wants to know whether it may have affected Lydia, who began experiencing unusual symptoms that March, including fatigue, nausea and severe headaches..

During the estimated $23-million renovations that took place indoors between February 2017 and March 2019, classes went on as normal for TOSH's 700 students.

I would have moments where I would literally just be in so much pain that I couldn't breathe.- Lydia MacDonald, former Three Oaks Senior High student

The school said areas under construction would be taped off and dust kept at a minimum. Still, some students described thick layers of dust.

"So what was in that dust?" asked MacDonald.

Toby Macdonald's kitchen has become what she calls a 'war room' filled with documents and Freedom of Information request forms about the renovations at TOSH in Summerside, P.E.I. (Submitted by Toby MacDonald)

A review by P.E.I.'s Chief Public Health Office, released in late 2018, concluded that while air quality tests did not always meet recommended guidelines — including one day of high asbestos readings — there were no significant health risks to students.

Still, MacDonald wants answers about why parents weren't told about the breaches in protocol when they occurred, and what the province will do to ensure this doesn't happen again.

'Shock. Dismay. Horrified'

MacDonald describes Lydia as an "extremely active" girl who participated in activities like ballet, soccer and softball. 

That changed in March 2017, when she began to suffer from unusual and severe symptoms.

"I would have moments where I would literally just be in so much pain that I couldn't breathe, and I would literally just drop to my knees on the floor in pain," said Lydia, who's now 20.

Lydia's doctor didn't have a specific diagnosis, but gave her nerve blocker injections to ease her headaches.

"I thought there was just something wrong with me. You know, I thought I was alone," Lydia said.

Major renovations under way at Three Oaks Senior High School in April 2018. (Natalia Goodwin/CBC)

A year later, Toby MacDonald saw a Facebook post by Samantha MacPherson, who said her daughter Nicole, who had also attended the school during the renovations, was experiencing similar symptoms.

"I went upstairs to my parents and I was like, 'I'm not breathing,'" Nicole told The Doc Project, recalling one health scare.

"I think we were up till what, like 5:30 or 6:00 [a.m.], just because I was panicking because I couldn't breathe and it just never went back to normal."

The Doc Project heard from 14 parents and students, who experienced similar symptoms as Lydia and Nicole.

A hazardous materials assessment report of Three Oaks Senior High School, compiled before major renovations began in late 2016, denotes areas of the school with possible asbestos with coloured hatching marks. Contractors improperly removed ceiling tiles that contained asbestos in the area circled in red by CBC in February 2017. (Stantec Consulting Ltd/Submitted by Samantha MacPherson)

Most students felt fine — but parents say they were told by the school that if students felt sick during the renovations, they would help move their classes, or help make arrangements to move them to another school.

In 2018, MacDonald saw a news report about a FOIPP filed in 2017 by the P.E.I. Progressive Conservatives, who were then the official opposition.

That's when "the puzzle pieces started to come together," she said.

The FOIPP revealed that in March 2017, P.E.I. Public Schools Branch director Parker Grimmer sent an email, which said there had been "several breaches in protocol with removing lead paint and asbestos ceiling tiles at TOSH."

"Shock. Dismay. Horrified," MacDonald described her feelings upon hearing the news.

Neither the school nor Grimmer responded to The Doc Project's request for an interview or comment.

Ceiling tiles containing asbestos improperly removed

During renovations, some areas were cordoned off into "abatement zones" to ensure students and staff were not exposed to potentially harmful substances.

According to the PCs' FOIPP, protocol was broken in late February 2017, when a government contractor removed about 5,000 square feet of ceiling tiles from the first floor of the school near the kitchen — some of which contained asbestos. 

It's unclear if any asbestos was in the air at the time. But according to a Workers' Compensation Board report unearthed by a FOIPP by Samantha MacPherson in July, air quality tests weren't conducted until eight days later.

Areas under construction were taped off, but students described thick layers of dust in several parts of the school. (CBC)

Contractors didn't know the area may contain hazardous materials, so an abatement zone wasn't put in place. A survey conducted before renovations, which included a map that marked areas with hazardous materials, was difficult to follow, according to the WCB.

The report also found the survey itself did not "follow accepted quality control measures to ensure accuracy or completeness."

A stop work order was issued after a consultant from All Tech Environmental was called in eight days later for a separate lead dust breach.

Asbestos was long used in building materials because it was a strong insulator against heat. Long-term exposure has been linked to lung cancer. Canada banned its production and sale — with some exceptions — in January 2019. (Shutterstock/HikoPhotography)

Subsequent air quality tests found traces of asbestos on the floor in three locations outside the construction zone, including one with asbestos levels 50 times the acceptable amount.

Details of the breach in protocol were made public after the province released All Tech's air quality and asbestos tests in June 2018.

Parents not told of breaches

P.E.I.'s Department of Transportation, Infrastructure and Energy (TIE) said in a statement that it "had an environmental consultant on site daily since the start of the project" in 2016, but The Doc Project was unable to confirm any such consultant was on site until March 2017.

In a later email, the ministry said "the environmental consultant was on-site daily for the duration of the hazardous material removal."

In a meeting held Oct. 4, 2018 with parents and school and government officials, an official in charge of the renovations suggested not to fine the contractor, even though they could have, because the mishandling of the ceiling tiles was unintentional.

MacDonald recorded the meeting, but didn't tell others.

TOSH's renovations were officially completed in March 2019. It's the first major upgrade since the school opened in 1976. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

Following school renovations, the B.C. government fined Vernon school district $75,000 in 2016 for exposing workers to asbestos without training and without their knowledge.

According to another FOIPP filed by MacPherson, teachers were informed of the breach as per Workplace Health and Safety regulations. So were janitors, who had been cleaning the corridor. Three teachers filed Workers' Compensation claims, but The Doc Project was unable to confirm their outcome.

But neither parents nor the students were made aware of any of the stop work orders.

"Whenever the breaches occurred, you sent out emails to teachers and workers. You gave them the privilege of having meetings. ... We had sick children, but it was a year later …  that we found out," said MacDonald.

No way to know if students were exposed to asbestos

There's no way to know for sure whether any students at TOSH ingested asbestos as a result of the protocol breaches.

Om Malik, CEO and principal of Environmental Consulting Occupational Health, says any possible asbestos exposure was likely "remote," and suggested the symptoms students described were probably the result of common dust exposure.

But he sympathizes with parents' outrage.

You shouldn't have to be waiting until the kids are sick to start their fight.- Toby MacDonald

"It's not, 'Oh, sometimes somebody misses it.' No. If you're paying me fees and I or my group misses it, I must be held accountable for it," he said.

The worst of Lydia's symptoms began to subside by the summer of 2017, but she still suffers from occasional coughing, chest pains and fatigue to this day.

Mesothelioma, the deadly cancer linked to asbestos exposure, can take decades to manifest.

MacDonald is haunted by even the slim chance that her daughter may have been exposed to a cancer-causing substance while she was at school.

"My gut tells me that something's wrong. And I'm responsible for my daughter," she said.

"If heaven forbid she's one of the ones that get sick, I need her to know that her mom tried her best."

Student registry announced

This past spring, the P.E.I. Progressive Conservatives unseated the Liberals to form government. Aylward, now the minister of health and wellness, committed to making the full details of the 2018 review public.

That hasn't happened yet, but Aylward also said the province will create a registry for students who were enrolled at TOSH during the renovations.

P.E.I. Health Minister James Aylward said the government will create a registry for students who were enrolled at TOSH during the renovations. (Ken Linton/CBC)

MacDonald hopes the registry will ensure proper health care for the students in the event that any of them develop mesothelioma in the future.

"I pray that it never gets used, but we have to fight for it to be there in case it is required," she said.

"You shouldn't have to be waiting until the kids are sick to start their fight."

Written by Jonathan Ore. Documentary 'Three Oaks' produced by Julia Pagel.


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