School’s air quality issue remains mystery for parents

Brokenhead Ojibway Nation residents have more questions than answers about the source and extent of air-quality concerns that sent almost a dozen people to hospital two weeks ago, and have cancelled their children’s classes since.

“It’s not being talked about and I don’t want this to get pushed under the rug. They put our children’s lives at risk and somebody needs to be held accountable,” said mother Yuly Abaunza Zega.

Sergeant Tommy Prince School, a nursery-to-Grade 9 building and part of the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre’s school system, dismissed students early when air-quality alarms were triggered Jan. 13.

Conflicting reports about the polluted environment — which community members believe is behind bouts of sudden fatigue, nausea and related symptoms staff and students have reported in recent weeks — are circulating in the absence of updates.

“Initial inspection of the school carried out Jan. 19, 2023, has ruled out carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide as causes of the illness of students and staff,” Jennifer Cooper, spokeswoman for Indigenous Services Canada, said in a statement to the Free Press.

“The school has an electrical heating system, not natural gas, and hospital tests on the affected patients have confirmed (the above).”

Experts are doing air sampling and inspecting equipment to identify the problem so it can be fixed, Cooper said, adding the school board is looking into alternative education delivery methods in the meantime.

School administrators initially cited vague air-quality concerns for the sudden closure. The principal, education director and various First Nation departments named carbon dioxide as the concern in various communications distributed throughout the weekend that followed.

“It was discovered that the carbon dioxide (CO2) levels reached a strength to be considered toxic air quality,” states a letter signed by principal Patsy Bercier and Wendell Sinclair, director of education.

The Jan. 15 notice states the building’s furnaces were outfitted with air purifier units earlier in the school year and the equipment was not installed properly, in turn causing a lack of fresh air intake.

Shared Health indicated 11 people attended emergency departments Jan. 13 in connection to exposures at the school. The agency declined to provide shared symptom details to protect patient privacy, but a spokesperson said the files all mention carbon monoxide rather than CO2.

Both CO and CO2 are colourless and odourless gases. The former is found in combustion fumes and can be fatal, with symptoms ranging from nausea to unconsciousness. Exposure to significant amounts of the latter, which impact one’s ability to concentrate, is extremely rare in comparison.

“The only time where you see CO2 (result in) effects like vomiting are when CO2 is so high that the actual issue is it’s pushing oxygen out of the air, people aren’t getting enough air to breathe,” said Jeffrey Siegel, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto.

While Siegel said CO2 is almost never the cause of air-quality problems itself, he indicated high levels of it usually suggest there is poor ventilation in a building and something else is wrong.

An unpleasant odour, chemical reaction to a cleaning product, byproducts of alternative air cleaner equipment, and mould or moisture issues — each combined with poor ventilation — are all possibilities in this case, according to the academic who studies indoor air quality.

Alternatively, Siegel said community members may be suffering from sick building syndrome.

Brokenhead Chief Gordon Bluesky said the initial air testing stage is underway and leaders were awaiting results Wednesday.

“The school will be closed until engineers and other experts can diagnose the issue, fix the problem, and ensure the air quality of the school is up to safety standards,” according to a joint statement published by the First Nation and education resource centre last week.

“The well-being of our students and staff is the biggest priority,” centre director Charles Cochrane said in the Jan. 17 release. “As soon as we were informed of the issue, action was taken to ensure the children of Brokenhead were safe.”

Abaunza Zega said she was anxious about sending her eldest to kindergarten in the first place and the air-quality situation has worsened matters.

The mother of two said she is scared the problem affected her five-year-old and explained why the young student came home from school exhausted and started vomiting, seemingly out of nowhere, on a recent afternoon.

“We are supposed to trust the school, but how are we supposed to trust it now? Our trust has been broken,” she said Wednesday, at which point she had not heard from the school in 10 days.

The community should be involved in the investigation and provided with a final report on the subject, Siegel said. “The relationship has to be repaired — and it’s probably just as important as the indoor air quality.”

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press