your office poisoning you...?
Ottawa acknowledges that workers may
not be malingering when they blame fetid air for headaches, skin
problems and nausea By Larry Millson "The globe and mail Toronto"
The air we breathe at work can give
us a headache, make us drowsy, put a rasp in our throats, initially,
the minor ailments might be dismissed as the flu or the byproduct
of stress. But eventually some people become so ill they cannot
work, a notion often met with skepticism, particularly from their
Ask Paul Gibson, a former maintenance
mechanic at the Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre who suffered
persistent headaches, sore throat and abdominal pain on the job
and has campaigned against his employer for more than 10 years.
Along the way, he has lost his job and, although a grievance board
overturned his firing for absenteeism, he is resigned to the fact
that, at 61 he will never return to work.
Or ask Vera Wall, 45, a former program
manager at the federal government's Terrasses de la Chaudihre in
Hull, Ont. Ms. Wall's symptoms included chronic . throat infection,
influenza symptoms, skin rash and constant headache. In may, the
federal government made its final appeal over a Quebec workers'
compensation award giving her credit for 13 sick days from a 1981
claim; a ruling is expected this month.
Mr. Gibson and Ms. Walt - who left
her job in 1986 - have paid the price for being ahead of their time
in complaining about inhospitable, unhealthy work-place air, about
sick building syndrome.
Now, the world is catching up. At the
first International Conference on Indoor Air Quality and Climate
held in Copenhagen in 1978, 230 people heard 47 full-length papers
delivered over three days. Last year, a week- long conference in
Toronto attracted about 2,000 people from 35 nations, and 550 papers
and 750 abstract were presented.
James F. Woods of Virginia Polytechnic
Institute spoke of the dimensions of the problem. "It is now
generally assumed that 20 to 30 percent of the existing building
stock in Europe and North America may be characterized as problem
buildings, "he said", The World Health Organization estimates
that one-third of all new and remodeled buildings have unhealthy
The US. National Institute on Occupational
Safety and Health refers to indoor-air quality as a "booming"
concern. In Canada, problems stemming from air in the work place
account for 10 per cent of work done by the Occupational Health
Clinic for Ontario Workers. The Canadian Center for Occupational
Health and Safety in Hamilton responded to 1,306 inquiries from
1987 to 1989 involving indoor-air quality. In 1988-89, more than
3,907 tests for carbon dioxide a measurement of inadequate ventilation
were conducted in Ontario government buildings, more than twice
as many as in 1986-87.
The problem of unhealthy air quality
stems from the energy crisis of the seventies, when business' looked
for ways to save on energy. The response was airtight buildings,
sealed windows, the recirculation of air through a building's heating,
ventilation and air-conditioning systems. The move kept out the
outside including fresh air and kept in the noxious fumes and by-products
of building materials.
The air-borne villains of these sealed
offices are many. Hair spray and perfumes worn by co-workers can
severely effect hypersensitive or allergic people, says Dr. Norman
Epstein, director of the allergy clinic at St. Joseph's Health Center
Copying machines, office furniture,
carpets, drapes and felt tipped markers put chemicals into the air.
Molds and fungi are produced in the humidifying system. Federal
buildings have erased a ' major indoor air pollutant by banning
smoking, says Gary Cwitco of the Communications and Electrical Workers
of Canada, but other noxious chemicals remain.
Carpets and wall-coverings produce
gases. Ozone levels from photocopiers are high. Because of bad design,
carbon monoxide enters buildings through intake vents located where
cars idle or at unloading docks. For sensitive employees, the result
can be illness but not quite enough of an illness to convince the
" They get headaches, " says
Dr. Epstein. "When they're away on the weekend, they're all
right. When they come back on Monday they start with a headache
and a feeling of tiredness. Many of them are told that they are
neurotic and they are really not neurotic."