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Poor indoor air quality affects First Nations young children

Mold, particulates, and inadequate ventilation in houses may explain why many Indigenous children have respiratory illnesses

by Priyanka Runwal
December 5, 2023


The research team on its way to monitor air quality in Lac Seul First Nation homes.
Credit: Ryan Kulka
The research team on its way to monitor air quality inside houses in Canada's Sioux Lookout region to understand why many children in First Nations communities have respiratory illnesses.

Nearly 10 years ago, Tom Kovesi noted that a high number of children had sought treatment for lower respiratory infections at the Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre in Canada.

These children from First Nations communities were 3-4 times more likely than other kids in Ontario to visit the hospital for these kinds of illnesses, says Kovesi, a pediatric respirologist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

In previous research, Kovesi had linked similar health problems among Inuit children living in Nunavut to poor air quality inside their homes. In a new study, Kovesi and his colleagues detected elevated endotoxins, mold damage, high fine particle levels from wood burning and tobacco smoking, and inadequate ventilation inside First Nations homes in Ontario, which might explain why many children experience respiratory illnesses (PLOS One 2023, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0294040).

This field of research is extremely relevant to efforts to improve ventilation and eliminate certain sources of pollution, says indoor air quality educator Mansel Nelson with the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, who wasn’t involved in the study.

To assess indoor air quality, the research team selected 101 houses in the Sioux Lookout region with children 3 years of age or younger. Between 2017 and 2019, they deployed air monitoring equipment in the main living area for approximately five days during the winter, when the homes are more tightly sealed. An indoor air quality specialist also inspected the houses’ ventilation systems and mold and dust levels. Kovesi and some of his colleagues also reviewed the children’s medical records.

About 27% of the homes had sustained carbon dioxide levels exceeding 1500 ppm, indicating poor ventilation. (Health Canada recommends a long-term exposure limit of 1000 ppm). Twelve houses had mold damage associated with elevated risks of respiratory disease. According to the study authors, the concentration of inflammation-causing contaminants called endotoxins in settled house dust were higher than in any previous studies in Canada. They also found that more than 90% of the homes lacked working heat recovery ventilators (HRVs)—devices that remove stale indoor air and replace it with pre-heated, filtered outdoor air.

These results have been used by representatives of First Nations communities to seek government support for improving housing and respiratory health, says the study’s co-author David Miller, a chemist at Carleton University. His team also worked with three women from the First Nations community to produce digital flyers raising awareness about HRVs and how to maintain them.



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