Op-Ed By: Chris Magwood
Earth Day has been creating environmental awareness and encouraging positive action in Canada for the past 19 years. Yet, when most Canadians think about the environment we tend to think about the outdoors. But we Canadians spend the majority of our time indoors, and the buildings where we live, learn and work are our environment. This Earth Day, I encourage you to consider the health of your immediate environment and take a look at your homes, schools and workplaces as important eco-systems upon which you rely for your health and well being. Healthy choices at this personal level translate into effective choices for the wider environment.
Most of us don’t think about the quality of the air, water and light in our buildings as being crucial elements of our own health and safety. We do so at our own peril. Studies by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation show that the indoor air quality in an average new home is 10-100 times more polluted than the outdoor air. We don’t want this for our children or ourselves.
The materials in our buildings can off-gas a shocking array of toxic fumes and chemicals, and the majority of products we use to “freshen up” our homes are actually major sources of indoor air contamination. From cleaning products to paints to new furniture, we make choices daily that pollute our environment.
The good news is that viable options exist to replace the products that bring toxin into our homes. Milk- and mineral-based paints are made in Canada and are non-toxic in our homes and in disposal. Latex paints are now made in low- or no-VOC (volatile organic compound) emitting versions. Floor finishes, carpets, bedding, blinds and curtains… eco-friendly versions of these and many other products already exist. And many are very price competitive with their toxic competition.
At Fleming College in Peterborough, I run a program, called Sustainable Building Design and Construction, where as a group, my class of about 30 students construct an entire building using only materials that are local, renewable, recyclable and healthy.
We use renewable energy to power and heat buildings affordably, without the use of fossil fuels. We use local resources like sustainably harvested wood, earth, rocks and straw to create strong, durable buildings that are not toxic to their occupants. And we make buildings that are attractive and reproducible by anybody with a concern for the health of their own built environment.
To date, our students have completed four eco-buildings, overseeing every aspect of the project. Completed projects include a performing arts centre, a museum, a food bank and an outdoor-education classroom, all of which are open to the public. Our next project, which will start in time for Earth Day will be an environmental learning centre at Camp Kawartha in Peterborough.
The fact that there is a constant waiting list for students to be accepted into this program indicates there is a hunger to make changes to the way we live.
This Earth Day, I’m challenging Canadians to change the way we think about our personal environments. In making healthier choices within our own ecosystem, we will also be making a very valuable contribution to preserving the wider, global environment. It’s a win-win situation that starts with yourself and where you live.
Chris Magwood is the program co-ordinator for Fleming College’s Sustainable Design and Construction program.