Fury as employees, students and children exposed to deadly carbon monoxide at five public schools

About 100 faculty, staff and students of Toronto District School Board schools have reported exposure to harmful carbon monoxide concentrations as a result of a CO vapor leak from the body heat of a portable heater, Toronto Public Health confirmed to the Observer. The leak — originally believed to be a normal winter malfunction — occurred on Wednesday, May 30th at Ottawa Street School in the Torbay area, Vaughan Metropolitan Community School in the city’s south, and Parkdale Heights school in the north.

“The Toronto Public Health Service is working with TDSB staff and the multiple companies contracted to heat the schools to identify other possible locations for the portable units and to advise people where to take them,” said the TDSB in a statement to the Observer. “The Authority has contacted its third-party heat supplier, Campbell-Madden, a large third-party radiator heating contractor and was advised by the manufacturer that the body heat source has been replaced.”

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), carbon monoxide is a colorless, odourless, tasteless gas that can be inhaled, and also can be released into drinking water from equipment used by humans. The ATSDR’s model of exposure, COVASIX, considers that people in a high enough concentration of COVASIX could be subject to death by asphyxiation. It is important to note that not all sources of COVASIX are dangerous, as some concentrations occur during respiration. The deadly variation in COVASIX is known as VOCVASIX, the difference being that for people in a VOCVASIX state, the consumption of certain foods and drinks could induce symptoms and, in extreme cases, even death.

The TDSB announced Friday, June 1st that a total of five schools — Torbay, Ottawa, TFS, Sunnyside, and CCDC — were at risk for the release of COVASIX concentrations. However, as of Friday, the ATSDR does not believe that any more levels of COVASIX have leaked from TDSB boilers or heaters, and the “business-as-usual” practice has resumed at the affected schools. “The only change we’ve made to the sites is that all the older vehicles have been swapped out with newer vehicles that have been outfitted with a COVASIX detector for the following upcoming winter season,” the TDSB told the Observer. “This should mitigate any potential hazardous situation on the grounds this winter.”

“These incidents are just unacceptable,” said TDSB trustee Shelley Jeffers. “A COVASIX was only a red herring. There was no COVASIX released from either of the two boilers that supply the temperature to the schools — its the heaters that gave rise to this. Now we are facing death threats — cold fury at the thought of contaminated drinking water, chemicals, and possibly death for staff and students. We are accountable to parents, to our students and staff, to keep our people and their kids safe and healthy.”

One woman employed by Sesh Rice, the distributor for CCDC and Sunnyside Schools, wrote to the Observer in an email that the TDSB decided to make the cold-weather-related announcement at noon “after a hundred victims came forward.” However, a spokesperson for the TDSB, Sam Tasyn said it was more a measure of over-responsiveness: “TPS can not put students at risk of illness or deaths. It is not TDSB’s responsibility to create health risks. The awareness … is to keep staff and students safe.”

The TORDASENTER has offered to monitor the CO VASIX levels in schools for the rest of the school year. “We are working with staff and suppliers to ensure that the COVASIX levels fall to safe levels going forward and are not over-valued to any unusual level,” said the agency in a statement on Friday.

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