Ottawa: April 11, 2008
Smoke-free housing needed, say health groups
by Wanda O'BrienCarol Lebel, who suffers from multiple chemical sensitivities, has been on the Ottawa Allergy and Environmental Health Association's safe house waiting list for more than two years. As the province is less tolerant of second-hand smoke, advocates in Ottawa are working to expel it from one of the last places it can hover – the home.
The Ottawa Council on Smoking and Health is calling on seven eco-friendly developers to designate at least one new building construction in the Ottawa area 100-per-cent smoke free.
“We know the demand is out there, it just hasn’t been met,” said Ellen Holmes, past-president of the council.
Carol Lebel, a 48-year-old apartment dweller, was diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivities four years ago. She has been on Ottawa’s branch of the Allergy and Environmental Health Association’s safe house waiting list for over two years.
“We’re encouraged to have a safe zone and I don’t have that in apartment living,” said Lebel. A safe house would provide Lebel with a living situation that would allow her to refuel, rather than deplete her energies.
The association has a safe housing project that has been in the works for five years.
A suitable location was found two years ago, said Mary de Bassecourt, the association’s executive director, but the project still needs funding.
Over 82 people are on the waiting list for the projected 40 units.
“If we’re successful in completing this it will be an optimum place within Ottawa,” said de Bassecourt.
The multi-unit dwelling would be made of safe building materials and separate ventilation systems in an area with the least amount of car-exhaust.
The association hopes to complete the safe housing project within two years.
Cigarette smoke is one of many substances that trigger what Lebel calls her “Jekyll and Hyde” experience. She said exposure to chemicals, such as those in cigarette smoke, laundry detergent, perfumes and ordinary cleaning products, causes her headaches, mood swings, fatigue and muscle strain.
Lebel said she has carbon filters over the vents in her apartment because of cigarette smoke and a large air purifier in her living room that she rolls from room to room.
But she said she still needs to wear a carbon-filtered mask in her home at times.
“I’m sick,” Lebel said. “Other people’s lives are impacted by me if I ask them to change and living in a multiple development unit you just can’t be asking everyone to change so that you can live a better life.”
Karen Rowan is a property manager with 270 rental units in the Centretown area.
She said she can choose whether to rent to a smoker, but once the apartment has been rented she cannot evict someone because they smoke.
Rowan said she believes the demand for smoke-free living is there, but the government needs to provide more legislative support. “It’s a bit of a big loophole,” she said. “Even though we’re all health conscious and smoke conscious, our hands are tied. There aren’t really rules to back us up.”
If smoke is causing damage or interfering with another tenant’s quality of life a landlord can make a case on the tenant’s behalf before the Landlord and Tenant Board, said Mira Gamsa, a Toronto-based manager of the board.
Pippa Beck, president of the Ottawa Council on Smoking and Health and policy analyst for the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association, said landlords are interested and want to offer smoke-free units, but it’s difficult to enforce.
Part of the problem is that when people are exposed to second-hand smoke at home they see it as a health issue, rather than a tenant’s rights issue, Beck said.
“This is the number one issue why the general public finds our organization and contacts us,” Beck said.
The Ottawa council’s campaign for smoke-free living began last December because of complaints from a variety of people, with and without chemical sensitivities.
“People are beginning to realize they don’t have to put up and shut up,” said Beck.
“I should have the choice to live in a smoke-free environment if that’s what I want.”