Students, hospital patients, seniors in long-term care homes and other New Brunswickers deserve to be protected from the transmission of airborne illnesses, such as COVID-19, says Gilles LePage, the Liberal MLA for Restigouche West.

He contends there’s a “major risk” of spread in government buildings, such as schools and hospitals.

That’s why he’s calling on the provincial government to ensure improved air quality in them.

LePage, the opposition critic on the environment, says the COVID-19 pandemic hit the people who use these buildings “hard,” and “brought home the reality” that if New Brunswick does not improve its air quality systems, it faces increased risks.

“Predictions are that more [viruses] will come, and we just want to make sure that our users and our staff in our government buildings are taken care of and are safe,” he said.

LePage recently tabled a motion that the legislative assembly urge the government to modernize the province’s air quality laws and standards, “with a goal of bringing forward a strengthened Clean Air Act.”

In addition, he wants the government to bring forward a plan to “monitor, report, and improve air quality systems” in government buildings to mitigate the risks associated with the transfer of airborne illnesses and other harmful agents.

“Improving air quality and thus improving community and environmental health should be a priority of government,” LePage told the legislature.

Tweet gets 110K views

Ryan Murphy, a high school teacher in Saint John, posted a video on social media of LePage presenting the motion, and urged people to contact their MLAs, unions, friends, family, and neighbours. The tweet has been viewed more than 110,000 times.

“I understood that it was fairly important … and thought it was worth a share. Apparently a few other people did too,” said Murphy.

It’s been shared by doctors, lawyers, parents who have had to take sick days because of their children’s illnesses, and workers who are seeking protections from airborne illnesses, he said.

“It seems to show that there’s widespread interest in this topic.”

A man with short dark hair wearing an N95 mask and green collared shit with navy stripes standing in front of two homemade air purifiers systems, one purple, the other blue.
Ryan Murphy with the two air purifier systems, known as Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, that he made for his classroom at a Saint John high school. (Submitted by Ryan Murphy)

Murphy’s interest increased in January 2022, when New Brunswick was in a lockdown because of COVID-19 and he was about to become a father.

The idea of contracting the virus and bringing it home to his newborn was frightening, he said.

Although the school where Murphy teaches has a ventilation system, and he always opens his classroom windows, weather permitting, he decided to make two air purifier systems, known as Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, using filters and fans, to keep his classroom as virus-free as possible.

He also purchased a carbon dioxide monitor. Carbon dioxide, or CO2, commonly created indoors when people exhale, is used as a proxy to measure overall air quality.

Murphy, 41, estimates he spent $400.

Five months ago, when he spent another nearly $200 to replace the filters and saw how dirty they were, he was thankful he made the investments, both for his family and the roughly 100 students who are in his classroom every day, he said.

The pandemic has shown the importance of breathing clean air, and not just due to COVID-19, said Murphy, pointing to last fall, when the combined effects of COVID, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and the flu added strain on hospital systems, and New Brunswick students missed an average of 2.5 days in November.

“If hospitals are full and schools aren’t, something needs to change,” he said.

While there is a growing sentiment the pandemic is ‘over,’ Murphy contends the risks are greater now, as more layers of protections are decreased, such as the masking of health-care workers and patients in many hospital settings.

Should include other public buildings

Murphy describes LePage’s motion as a positive step, but argues air quality improvements should extend to other public buildings, such as daycares restaurants, and malls.

“Just like clean water, [clean air is] something that we should be able to count on … wherever we are.”

He acknowledges these improvements will cost money, but contends that could be offset by fewer sick employees and absent students, fewer businesses having difficulty finding enough staff because of illness and a decreased burden on hospitals.

Other jurisdictions have recognized the importance of clean air, he said, citing as an example Belgium, which has made carbon dioxide monitoring mandatory in public spaces, such as restaurants and gyms.

In Boston, the public school authority has created an online dashboard with real-time air-quality data from thousands of classrooms.

And in Ontario, a private member’s bill to protect people and the economy from airborne pandemics was recently introduced.

Debate date unclear

Asked how optimistic he is LePage’s motion will pass, Murphy said clean air should be “apolitical” and supported by all parties, including his Progressive Conservative MLA, Premier Blaine Higgs.

Even if the motion does pass, it would not be binding and would not obligate the government to take action.

It’s unclear when the motion will be debated. The legislature resumes on May 9, but LePage will have to bring it back on an opposition day, which are Thursdays, and the Liberal caucus must decide which of its outstanding motions to bring forward first, said LePage.

“This one is definitely one of the top three,” he said.

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