Girl Planting seeds

Beyond Back to School

school_back_shutterstock_108173030By Deirdre Imus, August 7, 2018
The only thing more inevitable than the long, lazy days of summer is the return to school at each summer’s end. For parents and teachers alike it’s a time filled with planning and purchasing and preparation – but also with pause about the environment in which children and staff will spend almost a third of their time over the next 10 months.

A safe school not only means one that is secure, but one that is healthy. At the Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center®, we are deeply concerned about the nation’s aging school infrastructure. Parents should feel confident that their kids won’t be made sick by the poor quality of the school building itself. 

More than ever, communities are concerned about the water children drink, the air they breathe, and the chemicals they come in contact with every day. With all there is to worry about in this world, these basic assurances should not be on the mind of parents and teachers on a daily basis.

This August 7th is National Back to School Day. It offers an opportunity to examine the health of school facilities and what we can do to improve them. Lead in school drinking water is a national problem. Some school districts, like those in Portland, Oregon and Baltimore, Maryland, have turned off lead contaminated taps – but it is reprehensible that this problem persists in schools or anywhere, especially in light of the ongoing environmental tragedy committed against human health in Flint, Michigan.

Permanently providing bottled water or unmonitored filters is an inadequate stopgap to this embarrassing problem. Since the Flint crisis that was revealed a few years ago, where most of that city’s families were exposed to water laced with lead and other toxics, some states, cities and school districts have begun to take action. In 2016, New York State passed landmark legislation that required every public school drinking water tap in the state to be tested for lead. Setting an action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb), it turned out that 11 percent of all drinking water sources in New York City schools exceeded that level. Statewide, the percentage was even higher at nearly 15 percent.

Much of this action is long overdue. As a member of the National Coalition for Healthier Schools, we know that this is just one part of the ongoing conversation about how to make schools healthier and safer. The cleaning products that are used in schools need to be free of toxins. Some states are buying green products and helping to change the marketplace, but this should be a national movement. Collective institutional purchasing agreements can bring safer, cleaner, cost effective products to market. 

Climate change is also a growing threat to this country’s vulnerable schools. Severe storms, like the hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Houston, Texas last summer and fall can devastate infrastructure. Floodwaters can bring contamination into school buildings, fouling the environment and exposing children to toxic hazards.

Shockingly, there are no national standards that determine when a school closed because of a severe storm or other disaster-related damage, can be safely reoccupied. As the severity of such storms increases, so does the need for action.

It has never been more important to make schools healthier. For National Back to School Day, the National Coalition for Healthier Schools has prepared a national tool kit for parents, teachers and administrators who want to provide children with clean and healthy places to learn – which should be ALL parents, teachers, and administrators.

Featured this year is a new report on lead-free products, plus tips for parents and schools on green cleaning, safer pest control, and eliminating toxics like disinfectant wipes and dry erase markers.

As our schools get ready to open for another year, parents and communities need to band together to make schools healthier. This means sending children to school with safer supplies, asking your school district to improve buildings and expand their green purchasing, and supporting rebuilding our public school infrastructure on a national level – and with federal and state funds – to ensure all schools become safer, healthier places for children and staff. 

We can’t change the past but we can improve on the present, and guarantee a better environmental future for generations to come. This should be our legacy – not turned off taps.


CDC - Lead in Drinking Water
EPA -  Mold Remediation
EPA -  Healthy Indoor Air Quality
Beyond Pesticides - Pest Control
CEHC - Artificial Turf and Children's Health
GTC - Safer Cleaning Products
EPA - Exposure to PCB's
EPA - Safer Renovation Practices
EPA - Mercury Free Lighting

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