Tag Archives: Healthy Housing

Trying to find environmentally safe housing

These are the experiences of one of our clients, Jane, who lives with environmental sensitivities and has been struggling to find safe housing.

If you are one of the few Ontarians that doesn’t have Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) or doesn’t have a relative, a friend, a co-worker, who has MCS then please read on. If you are one of the more than a quarter of a million Ontarians who have Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (217,000 in 2005, Statistics Canada), also known as Environmental Sensitivities (ES), a human rights disability, then you know how desperately important healthy, safe housing is to improving your health, to making life livable.

I had no idea that when I started experiencing increasing migraines, sudden weight gain, rashes, coughing, IBS, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and other symptoms at work, that I was developing MCS/ES. Very small amounts of chemicals found in fabric softener, air freshener, perfume, scented personal care products, detergents, pesticides and more, were toxic to my body — chemically injuring the organs of my body. At first, I would be fine when I returned home, but over many months, the exposures to chemicals caused chronic MCS/ES and my home was no longer safe. I needed, what is known in human rights as ’a scent-free/chemical avoidance’ environment. And so I began the search for safe housing.

My first attempt was completely unsuccessful, mainly because it takes a great deal of research to know what is safe and what is not safe. I can tell you now that living near ‘brownfield’ remediation is not safe, living near a major street or highway is not safe; neighbours using fabric softener, detergents like Tide or Gain and venting these chemicals out of hot dryers; pesticide use in the neighbourhood, industry, rail lines and gas stations nearby; and the list goes on. Also, the house, itself, was not safe. Air freshener residue is very hard, if not impossible, to remove; products such as laminate and carpets ‘off-gas’; mold can make life impossible; and, again, the list goes on.

My last attempt at safe housing seemed to be almost perfect: wood floors, no scented products used for cleaning, radiant heat, no laundry exhaust near my unit from neighbours, no industry, and lots of trees. However, I had forgotten the most important thing of all: “For people with environmental sensitivities, their health . . . rests with the actions of others. . . .” [Canadian Human Rights Commission, The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities, 2007] When I asked for accommodation for my disability, some residents were very co-operative, but some were not — there was discrimination, reprisals, threats, and lots of chemical injury (e.g. cologne worn in the hallway by those who never used it before; cleaning the carpets in the halls chemically instead of using steam cleaning; cleaning common areas with ‘green’ scented products instead of the vinegar and water used before; running a truck motor under my window).

I foolishly assumed that people would understand that the environment is healthier for everyone when it is chemical-free: better for those with asthma, cancer, and respiratory disease; better for babies and children (studies show that the use of air fresheners causes new moms to be more depressed and babies to have stomach and other problems), the frail, the elderly.

I shared information available on MCS/ES, toxic chemicals, safe products: CERA (Multi-unit buildings and accommodating MCS), Canadian Human Rights Commission (policy and two papers on ES), The Environmental Working Group www.ewg.org on product safety, www.lesstoxicguide.ca on products, and many more. The Ontario Human Rights Commission recognizes MCS/ES as a non-evident disability. And The Standards for Customer Service, Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, provides for accessibility for all disabilities in buildings with at least one employee, starting January 2012.

However, knowing you have a right to accessibility is very different from being able to get that accessibility, especially when you are dependent on people‘s good will and you have no guarantee that the future will not bring new chemical injuries. After many months of sharing information on MCS/ES, letter writing, record keeping (very important!), taking legal action, it became evident that this was going to be an on-going struggle in a ‘toxic’ environment, both chemical and emotional.

I will be moving once again, hopefully to a kinder, safer environment. And this is the struggle for most people disabled with ES/MCS: finding a safe oasis from a ‘chemically charged‘ world and finding understanding. Attitudes will change over time, just as they changed in relation to cigarettes and smoking. When people realize that they or their loved ones are suffering unnecessarily from chemical exposures, they change. Of course, that doesn’t help the thousands of people with MCS/ES that need healthy housing today — but, if each of us does our part to use only safe products, to spread the word about MCS/ES, to make our homes healthy indoor spaces with good air quality, then our environment, our homes, can become safer for those with MCS/ES, safer for all.

CERA Presents to Legislative Committee on Province’s Long Term Affordable Housing Strategy

The Province of Ontario released its Long Term Affordable Housing Strategy in late 2010.  Bill 140, Strong Communities Through Affordable Housing Act, 2011, legislation which has passed 2nd reading and is now before the Legislature at the Comittee on Justice Policy, is the implementing legislation for the Housing Strategy.

CERA and the Social Rights Advocacy Centre (SRAC) appeared before the Committee on 24 March 2011, to encourage the Committee to adopt a series of amendments to Bill 140 to ensure that it is in keeping with the provinces’ commitments under international human rights law.

CERA provided an overview of the 5 components that Bill 140 must include to ensure it is in compliance with international human rights standards based on what UN human rights bodies and officials have indicated must be in a housing strategy.  SRAC then provided the Committee with an overview of practical amendments that could be made to Bill 140 to integrate the 5 components.   Both the Wellesley Institute and the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario submissions were supportive of this approach.

Committee members from all three parties expressed interest in the CERA and SRAC presentations and the suggested amendments.  CERA and SRAC will  work collaboratively with other organizations concerned with housing rights and will continue to press for human rights amendments to Bill 140.  For more on human rights accountability of the province and Bill 140 click here.

CERA’s presentation

Summary of UN Consensus

SRAC’s presentation

Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario presentation

Smoking and the Human Rights Code

From a human rights perspective, smoking in apartment buildings can be very challenging.

Ideally, the fact that a resident smokes in his/her unit should not have any bearing on the health and quality of life of another resident. But it does. Buildings and apartments leak, ventilation systems don’t work as well as they should, and second-hand smoke regularly moves from one apartment to another. CERA has many clients with asthma, environmental sensitivities and other conditions who are being made ill because of smoke coming from other apartments.

Where a resident has a health condition that is being made worse by second-hand smoke, landlords and/or property managers will have to take steps address the problem. These can include ensuring that corridors are properly pressurized so that smell and fumes from apartments do not enter hallways, sealing any openings in the resident’s unit (such as openings from plumbing, electrical outlets, fans, etc.), and ensuring that kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans are working properly. Unfortunately, this is often not enough.

If steps to eliminate the transfer of second-hand smoke fail, can a landlord request that the resident stop smoking in his/her unit? What are the smoker’s rights?

In all likelihood, smokers’ rights are protected to some degree under the Human Rights Code. Strong arguments can be made that addiction to nicotine is a disability protected by the Code and, as the Ontario Human Rights Commission states in its Policy on Human Rights in Rental Housing, some people smoke to control the symptoms of other medical conditions. The Commission’s policy also notes that people with mental illness are disproportionately likely to be smokers.

However, even if smoking is considered a disability and associated with other Code-protected characteristics, such as mental illness, landlords are only obligated to accommodate smokers if it is safe to do so. If a resident who is smoking is making other tenants ill, the landlord could argue it would be an unreasonable health risk to permit the resident to continue smoking in his/her unit (assuming the landlord has already taken appropriate steps to minimize the transfer of second-hand smoke between units).

What about smoke-free apartment buildings? This is more problematic. In our view, an all-out smoking ban – which could significantly limit the housing options of people with this addiction – would have serious human rights implications. And unlike the example above, it would be difficult for a landlord to demonstrate that it is an unreasonable health or safety risk to permit residents to smoke anywhere in the building.

Is there a way to balance the rights of smoking and non-smoking tenants other than on an individual, case-by-case basis? One option worth considering would be to have a separately ventilated common-room for people who smoke. This could address the problem of second-hand smoke migrating from unit to unit, while maintaining the housing options of individuals who smoke.

Balancing the sometimes competing rights of individuals can be challenging – but it’s not impossible.

Further Reading:

Housing as a Medical Necessity

Housing and health are clearly linked. Nowhere is this connection more evident than for people with environmental sensitivities.

People living with environmental sensitivities (sometimes called multiple chemical sensitivities or environmental illness) can be made severely ill by the presence of very low levels of pollutants in their homes. It could be the smell from an air freshener or scented cleaning product, off-gassing paint, dust from the carpet, mold, or the smell that comes off of new cabinetry. Most of us don’t realize it, but our homes are filled with pollutants that contaminate the air we breathe.

For people living with extreme environmental sensitivities, having appropriate, “healthy” housing can mean the difference between being able to live an independent, full life, and being totally disabled.

For the past few years, CERA has been working with landlord and property managers to address the needs of tenants with environmental sensitivities and improve the air quality in apartment buildings. While this is important work that could improve the housing conditions of tens of thousands of tenants, the reality is that our efforts will never reach those with the most severe sensitivities.

People with extreme environmental sensitivities will not be able to live healthy lives in apartment buildings – there are just too many environmental variables that they cannot control.

So what can these people do?  If they have enough money, they may be able to find or make a healthy home. If they don’t – and people with severe sensitivities are often unable to work and are isolated from other supports – housing options are usually limited to the rental sector. And within this sector, a large proportion of the housing will be in apartment buildings. That means, for many of these people there are NO housing options – they will be homeless.

These people need safe housing. It is medically necessary. However, there are very few affordable homes in Canada that have been designed specifically for people with environmental sensitivities. Safe Housing Ottawa has been struggling for a number of years to build an environmentally safe housing development, but they’re not there yet.

And I don’t know of any public funds that will assist these folks to make or retrofit a home so that they can live healthy, full lives.

Governments at all levels need to recognize this glaring failure of housing, social and health policy – and fix it!