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‘Waiting to be plugged in’: B.C. school district urged to install donated HEPA filters

Surrey elementary school was the winner of 20 air purifiers that have been sitting unused
Cloverdale Traditional Elementary School’s PAC was the winner of a contest for 20 HEPA filters. Pictured are the purifiers when they were first shipped to the school. The PAC says the pallets have since been taken apart due to space constraints but the filters remain unused and stored at the school. (Submitted photo: CTS PAC)

The head of a company that donated 20 HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters to be used in a Surrey school says he was furious when he found out through a story in the Now-Leader that the filters are collecting dust in storage.

“I was livid,” said Helder Pedro, Airpura Industries president. “I was absolutely livid. What the hell — and I would probably use a different four-letter word — what the hell are they doing?”

Airpura donated the UV air purifiers, which range in price from $900 to $1,150, to Cloverdale Traditional Elementary School after it won a contest in September. There were 10 runner-up schools that received one HEPA air purifier each, with George Greenaway Elementary in Surrey also being selected.

However, the Surrey school district confirmed to the Now-Leader that all the air purifiers were shipped to Cloverdale Traditional and are being stored there.

The district claims that “most spaces” in the district do not warrant additional filters for ventilation, but that doesn’t sit well with Cloverdale Traditional School’s Parents Advisory Council.

READ ALSO: ‘Extremely discouraging’: 20 donated HEPA filters sitting unused at Surrey school, Feb. 16, 2022

“Parents are very frustrated that the 20 air purifiers are still in storage, and just waiting to be plugged in. Our hands are tied because of the Surrey school district’s decision to not allow them for use,” reads an emailed statement from the PAC.

“We feel the district is making a blanket policy district-wide, and not on a case by case basis. We really just want better indoor air quality for our children.”

In an emailed statement from district spokesperson Ritinder Matthew, she said the filters the PAC won “were not approved for use at that school by our health and safety department.

“We considered this request carefully – taking into account all of the controls in place within the space, including ventilation, how the space is utilized, time spent in proximity to others, etc. The physical layout of the space was also an important consideration as these units must be sized, placed correctly and maintained according to manufacturer’s directions.”

Matthew added “another important factor to consider with any UV units is the potential for by-products (like ozone and possible respiratory irritants).”

The district previously said that in “most spaces” portable HEPA air filtration is “not indicated because we have layers of controls in place to prevent transmission. These include optimized ventilation, maximizing use of available space, wearing masks, limiting mixing of people, and limiting time spent in close proximity to others.”

Last fall, the Surrey school district released an online ventilation database that lists what ventilation systems are used in different areas of each school site.

Out of 20 areas listed for Cloverdale Traditional, 18 spaces used MERV-11. The two remaining locations, the hall and the gym, use a pad filter and MERV-13, respectively.

Pedro said the HEPA filters he provided in the contest is MERV-14, and “in essence it’s way better than the standards it is at the district.”

The district said that where the equipment can accommodate, it had upgraded filters in HVAC equipment to MERV-13s. However, in cases where the manufacturer specifications do not accommodate MERV-13s, the district has installed the next highest filters that can be accommodated – either MERV-11s or MERV-8s.

MERV stands for minimum efficiency reporting values. According to the Government of Canada’s guidance on indoor ventilation during the pandemic, filters with higher MERV ratings “are more efficient at removing particles.”

When the district released the database, it said it was also changing filters at an increased frequency – four times a year – to ensure efficient operation and to date in the 2021-22 school year, $674,000 has been invested in HVAC upgrades and $250,000 in MERV-rated filter maintenance.

READ ALSO: Surrey school district releases online ventilation database, but critics say more needs to be done, Oct. 16, 2021

The school’s PAC says the air purifiers are “the added layer of protection for the children,” especially as masks are no longer mandatory in schools.

“This is not just for filtering out COVID-19, but also other viruses/bacteria, allergens, and smoke during forest fire season. The school building itself is 100 years old and all classrooms are using MERV-11 filtration system, so any additional filtration would assist in cleaning the air.”

Pedro agrees.

“At the end of the day, it’s not just a one-off investment,” he says. “If you improve the air quality across the 75,000 students in the district, generally speaking, you’re not just improving the protection against COVID, you’re also improving the long-term aspects.”

That’s part of the reason why Pedro says he’s working with the PAC to hopefully convince the district and the school to use the donated HEPA filters.

Pedro emailed the PAC last week directing them to use two arguments when trying to encourage the use of the air purifiers.

The first, he said, is to “attack the science that is being used to justify the inaction and the refusal of using the product.” While the other looks at “reasonable accommodations” for people with pre-existing conditions. But Pedro described the district’s reasoning as “asinine.”

“They need to be challenged.”

When asking the district if it plans to return the filters, Matthew said “they were won by the PAC so this is a decision that group would need to make. Our school is storing them for the PAC.”

For now, Pedro said he’s working toward a solution.

“Look, originally we gave 30 days but since we’re working with them, I’m obviously going to give them a lot more than 30 days,” he acknowledged, but the intended purpose of the contest was for the air purifiers to be used in schools, which they’re not.

“At the end of the day, if they warehouse some place, we’d like to give it to the second-prize winner.”

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Lauren Collins

About the Author: Lauren Collins

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media's national team, after my journalism career took me across B.C. since I was 19 years old.
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