Environmental Sensitivities and Housing

Every year, CERA receives a significant number of calls from tenants being made ill from the poor indoor air quality in their apartment buildings. Most of these individuals suffer from environmental sensitivities and are particularly sensitive to contaminants in the air. With funding assistance from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, CERA recently launched HomeSafe, an initiative to educate tenants and multi-unit housing providers on strategies to improve indoor air quality and create healthier living environments. We are currently in the process of developing a voluntary set of guidelines for housing providers and an associated resource guide.

What Are Environmental Sensitivities?

The term environmental sensitivities describes a poorly understood chronic medical condition (or set of conditions) that affects millions of Canadians. People with environmental sensitivities (known variously as multiple chemical sensitivity, chemical injury, environmental illness, and environmental hypersensitivity) become sensitive to relatively low levels of contaminants in the environment. These individuals can become severely ill or disabled due to the presence of substances in the air at levels that would not affect most people.

Environmental sensitivities can be extremely debilitating, making it very difficult to find and maintain housing and employment, and frequently turning people into prisoners of their homes. Symptoms vary from individual to individual, but can include headaches, shortness of breath, abdominal pain, fatigue, muscle spasms, difficulty walking and with fine motor skills, nausea, irregular heartbeat, hives, high blood pressure, difficulty concentrating, and anxiety and depression. Primary treatment often focuses on avoiding contact with substances which lead to these symptoms.

While environmental sensitivities are not well understood by the general public, they are recognized by Health Canada, the Canadian Health Network, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the Canadian and Ontario Human Rights Commissions, the Ontario Medical Association and the Environmental Health Committee of the Ontario College of Family Physicians – among others.

Why Do Apartment Buildings Make People Sick?

Multi-unit housing exposes residents to a variety of substances which can make them sick, and which can act as “triggers” for people with environmental sensitivities and other environment-related illnesses, such as asthma. These substances include:

  • Petroleum products such as gasoline, natural gas, propane, asphalt, glues, solvents, plastics, urea formaldehyde foam insulation, polyurethane foam, and polyester and acrylic fibres found in textiles. (these products release toxic Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) which are unhealthy for anyone, but which can make people with ES extremely ill)
  • Construction/renovation materials such as treated wood, paint, wood stripper, wood stains and sealants which release VOC’s
  • Cleaning products (especially scented ones) such as floor cleaner, stripper, floor polish, laundry and dish detergent, furniture polishers, air fresheners and toilet pucks, toilet bowl cleaners, and fabric softeners
  • Scented personal care products such as hand and shower soap, shampoo, hand sanitizers, perfumes, hair gel and sprays, and after shave
  • Exhaust fumes from cars, trucks, buses, etc.
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers
  • Naturally-occurring substances such as pollen, dust and pet dander
  • Mold and mildew
  • Electromagnetic radiation from household appliances like fridges, televisions, computers, etc.

The presence of these environmental substances – even in very low concentrations – can cause residents with environmental sensitivities and related conditions to become extremely ill and disabled. To maintain the health and ability of residents with sensitivities, along with the resident population generally, it is critical that housing providers take steps to remove or at least minimize the presence of these substances.

It is important to realize that these substances do not merely come from the inside of buildings. They also come from the surrounding area: lawn sprays, fumes from lawnmowers, vehicle exhaust, pollutants from nearby commercial and industrial activity, high tension power lines, etc. The surrounding environment can add greatly to the challenge of creating healthy housing.

Creating Healthy Living Environments: the Law

While creating healthy living environments is a worthwhile goal for obvious reasons, it is also the law. Under Ontario’s Human Rights Code, housing providers have a legal obligation to respond to the needs of tenants with disabilities, such as those suffering from environmental sensitivities. When a resident requests modifications to a building’s structures, policies or practices in order to address particular needs related to a disability, the housing provider will have to do its best to accommodate this request. In the case of a person with environmental sensitivities, this could mean changing to less toxic, unscented cleaning products and establishing new protocols with respect to renovations, maintenance and cleaning, among other things.

Once a resident has established a medical need for some action, the housing provider will need to act on the request promptly, respecting the resident’s need for confidentiality. The housing provider must accommodate the resident’s needs to the point of “undue hardship.” That is, the provider should take the most appropriate action unless it can demonstrate that this action would be clearly unaffordable (taking into consideration available sources of funding) and/or would be an unreasonable health or safety risk. If the “best” solution is not possible, the housing provider will have to investigate other options.

The Province of Ontario is also in the process of developing an Accessible Built Environment Standard as part of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). The proposed standard includes a detailed guideline for indoor air quality which could become the norm for new – and possibly existing – residential buildings in the years to come.

Carole’s Experience

Hello, I am Carole and have an educational and professional background in nursing, child and youth behavior, physical rehab and environmental health.

I have been living with MCS – Multiple Chemical Sensitivities for 10 plus years. I was first diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue and Sjogrens. Several years, many specialists and alternative therapies later, I was diagnosed with MCS, multiple food allergies, gluten-intolerance and Scleroderma. My autoimmune system is compromised; frankly, my body is under attack by its own cells and it is unable to detoxify without medical measures.

Prior to diagnosis with MCS/ES –Environmental Sensitivities, my health was rapidly declining following a significant life event. My search for recovery began earlier than this event, when I noticed changes in my cognitive abilities, sleep pattern, weight, pain levels and physical abilities. Months later, working as a community nurse became a very great challenge. Within 6 months and several periods of absences, I resigned on the recommendation of a GP. Symptoms significantly increased plus there was dramatic weight loss and I had difficulties with daily living activities. My main income was from the social system. My main focus became caring for my child and my health. Life changed. Thankfully I found a great Environmental Medicine Doctor whose methodology treated the root cause, and I could glimpse hope for change in my wellbeing.

I continue to be chemically ill, gluten intolerant, etc. However, I manage significantly better with air flow barriers in my apartment, a rotation diet of organic food (when possible), R-O water, carbon and hepa filter air purifier, carbon filter mask when needed, resuming some physical, social and spiritual activities outside my home, giving back to an organization for MCS/ES sufferers, EHAO-Environmental Health Association of Ontario. EHAO provided resources like CERA’s contact information, networking opportunities and I was reminded I am not alone with this invisible and misunderstood illness. I had opportunity to give back to this organization, thus able to remind others with ES that the general public’s impression is not the truth we live.

We know we are not mentally ill, hypochondriacs, or from another planet. We know the chemical soup of society does not fit well with our compromised immune and detoxifying systems; for some of us, it may be the cause of our illness, for others, the cause is rooted elsewhere. Regardless, we know our body’s immune and detoxification systems do not function as most and cannot process and flush the toxic chemical soup of modern society.

I am grateful for the compassion, understanding, knowledge of my Environmental Medicine Doctor, family and friends, and social services, plus the collaboration that occurred with the landowner, property manager and superintendent of my building.

The relationship with the management team was built with the help of CERA as advocate, who required medical-legal documents and openness from both parties, since initially discussing accommodations was adversarial. Once management understood that the Ontario Human Rights and the Canadian Human Rights Commissions acknowledge ES as a protected disability and they are obligated to accommodate, the relationship changed positively. Providing management with potential resources of ‘safe’ products fostered this process. CERA developed guidelines for landlords to accommodate identified MCS tenants, resources for supplies of low VOC and green products and other ways to create healthy apartment living, now available on their website.

I wish I knew CERA earlier, likely avoiding prolonged debilitation due to poor air quality. With the small accommodations the property management has provided, the treatments I now receive have opportunity to effect my health positively with a reasonably chemically ‘safe’ place in which to live. I know this because there is significant change in my health status after the accommodations were made. Proper notice, no-VOC products, and renovations coordinated with voluntary apartment absences have contributed to an improved, not perfect,
living environment in my ‘home’. I am grateful for the working relationship we have established.

Resources

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation has a wide range of online resources related to healthy housing and indoor air quality:

The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities. Written by Margaret E. Sears for the Canadian Human Rights Commission (2007)

Accommodation for Environmental Sensitivities: Legal Perspective. Written by Cara Wilkie and David Baker for the Canadian Human Rights Commission (2007)

Environmental Sensitivities and Multi-Unit Housing: A Review (2009) Microsoft Word DOC

“Breathing Easier in Apartment Buildings.” Article in Canadian Apartment Magazine (March 2011) PDF

Are our homes making us sick? Presentation from the 2010 Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada Annual General Meeting (June 2010) PowerPoint Presentation

“Creating Healthy Housing”. Article in Fair Exchange, the magazine of the Federation of Rental Housing Providers of Ontario (March 2010) PDF

“Creating Healthy Apartments: What You Need to Know” pamphlet. English French Arabic Chinese Punjabi Russian Spanish Tamil Urdu

Creating Healthy Housing: Guidelines for Multi-Unit Housing Providers. English French

Creating Healthy Multi-Unit Housing: A Resource Guide. PDF

Thank you!

Many people and organizations have contributed their time, resources and expertise to CERA’s work on environmental sensitivities and healthy housing. They include (in no particular order): the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the Environmental Health Association of Ontario, the Federation of Rental Housing Providers of Ontario, the Greater Toronto Apartment Association, Women’s College Hospital’s Environmental Health Clinic, the DisAbled Women’s Network Canada,  Ottawa-Carleton Housing Help, the Eastern Ontario Landlords’ Association, the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada – Ontario Region, Toronto Community Housing Corporation, Ottawa Community Housing Corporation,  HouseLink Community Homes, Your Healthy House, Green Communities Canada, the Canadian Environmental Law Association, the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the City of Toronto, the City of Ottawa, the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment – and many more!

Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation