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Mould-infested schools have not been renovated with sufficient determination

Deputy-Ombudsman Pajuoja criticises the City of Helsinki

26.5.2010

Deputy-Ombudsman Jussi Pajuoja has criticised the City of Helsinki for having been insufficiently proactive in investigating and eliminating problems with interior air in some schools. The City's Education Department and Real-Estate Department should have acted more determinedly to meet the requirements of the Occupational Safety Act. As an employer, it should have studied and assessed workplace dangers and ensured that workers and pupils were not exposed to biological and other factors that pose a danger to health.

Teacher complained to the Ombudsman about interior air problems in schools

A teacher in a Helsinki school fell ill in early 2007. An occupational health doctor informed the Uusimaa labour protection district that he suspected what was involved was an occupational illness. Damp problems in the school had been known already the previous year.

The teacher was given a transfer to another comprehensive school and began work there in autumn 2007. Already in October, however, she had to go on sick leave, because she again suffered respiratory tract symptoms. There had been recurrent roof leaks in the school.

The following autumn the teacher transferred to a third comprehensive school. There, fever, headaches, joint pains and eye symptoms began only a few weeks after she had taken up the post. The teacher had to go on sick leave in September 2008. It emerged that the school canteen had suffered extensive water damage.

In her complaint, the teacher asked whether the City of Helsinki would be obliged to arrange healthy working areas for her. According to her, the City had not admitted that there had been mould damage, although she and several others as well had been afflicted by diseases that could be associated with microbes due to damp damage.

Expert's statement concerning measures taken by the City to examine interior air problems in schools

Arising from the complaint, Deputy-Ombudsman Jussi Pajuoja asked the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) for a statement on how mould problems in buildings are dealt with and the measures taken by the City of Helsinki to investigate interior air problems in schools.

Research Professor Aino Nevalainen from THL's environmental health department notes in her memorandum that the city authorities do not appear to have had a more precise picture of the condition of their school buildings nor, therefore, of which school the teacher who had been exposed to damp damage and became ill as a consequence could have been transferred to.

In cases of damp damage, health and occupational health care are guided by the so-called Majvik II recommendation, according to which the absolutely most important thing is to end exposure or at least reduce it substantially. Therefore a person who has become ill must not be transferred to premises that have suffered damp damage.

In the view of the research professor, transferring a teacher who has become ill as a result of interior air problems may be a justifiable occupational health measure. However, studying the healthiness of conditions in schools is important also in order to protect the health of pupils.

According to Professor Nevalainen, the reports supplied by the City convey the impression that the authorities' actions have not been sufficiently targeted and effective. Samples had been taken more randomly than consistently. Original laboratory tests were included in the material only to a limited extent. The National Public Health Institute's guidelines concerning examination of damp and mould damage in schools require that measurements of interior air are based on a sufficient number of samples.

Other matters that were likewise not clear were: whether sampling and measurements had been interpreted appropriately, whether any findings had led to the necessary measures and whether repairs had really been focused on eliminating the causes of the observed problems.

The Deputy-Ombudsman notes that the City did not have precise reports on what technical and structural examinations had been conducted in school buildings to identify damage and serve as a basis for a repair plan. A further matter that remained unclear was whether repairs had been found to have had the desired effect and whether the City had monitored the situation.