Ontario’s school board homes in benzene: half of its schools have high pollution

Region on track to have highest rates of chronic exposure to the carcinogen since response to FOIL laws

About half of Ontario’s public school board schools have been confirmed to have students exposed to chronic levels of the carcinogen benzene and hydrocarbons, the latest in a string of illnesses in the province that is fuelling an anti-regulatory backlash.

Students at 15 schools in the Greater Toronto Area experienced up to four times the recommended limits of six times per hour for benzene and up to ten times a day for hydrocarbons in a sample of school air on 27 October, the province’s Ministry of Education said on Thursday.

The announcement comes just over a month after Ontario recorded the highest level of reported instances of acute benzene exposure since the province began tracking data in 1995. In a statement on Thursday, the province’s ministry said an effort was now underway to limit exposure.

‘How could they not know?’: how school air pollution became a public health crisis Read more

The data released Thursday is the first update on reports since 27 October, when the Ministry of Education received information about the daily concentrations of benzene in the system for the month of October from members of the Ontario Medical Association.

On 6 November, the ministry’s Environmental Health Branch director, Dr Paul Leonard, said the chemical levels were higher than in previous months, but that the levels did not exceed the standards set by the World Health Organization.

Many of the schools exposed to benzene and hydrocarbons have been on board with the ministry for some time. As per protocol, the ministry contacted its carriers – the schools and the kids – to say that they were aware of the situation and were taking action.

Earlier this week, the Guardian also reported a spike in hospital admissions by children suffering from headaches and nausea after school, which had an impact on reports from school communities. The ministry had previously reported a smaller spike in children’s hospital admissions in September, but kept quiet on the cause of the spike.

The information released Thursday illustrates the upsurge in pollutants affecting schoolchildren, leading experts to question the state of school testing in the province.

A school teaching staff member from North Hill community school in Toronto, Ontario. Photograph: John Schults/The Guardian

“It’s an area of the province that is deeply active in municipal governments and the province but it’s really important when the information is not being communicated effectively or at all that we get it out,” said Isabelle Pelletier-Bernard, a pediatric toxicologist from the Hospital for Sick Children.

“These are low levels, these are not concentrations that we see on screen, what we see with a high concentration of these gases in people’s bloodstream.”

The temporary ban on benzes in schools in the province has affected thousands of schools as their levels hover around the limit set in February by the Ontario provincial government.

The unregulated blanket ban of benzene, which the ministry stresses is not on a list of carcinogens, has come under criticism from experts and parents, who have described it as a waste of limited resources.

According to the Global Action Plan on Clean Air, benzene is known to cause a variety of different issues including changes in bone marrow, skin, immune system and breathing, and should not be used as a reason to effectively ban it.

Peter Mannistu, a pediatrician at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, said that the unsafe levels at some schools are “crazy high” and should not be allowed to stand in the future.

“We’re not talking about the benzene they find in organic materials like cars, we’re talking about it blowing up in air on kids’ noses and lungs and food,” he said.

Cathy Brennan, executive director of Clean Up Your School, said the message from the province to health experts and students was: “Stop telling us our schools are unsafe because the rules don’t apply to us.”

“The message to students [is]: ‘Watch what you put in your body.’ ”

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