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Back to School, Away from Toxins

old_school_classroom_shutterstock_295505420_recoloredBy Deirdre Imus, August 10, 2017
For countless American kids, back to school time means shopping for new backpacks, supplies, and outfits. For millions of families, especially those whose children have asthma and other health or learning issues, it also means ensuring that their child’s school won’t make them sicker, or interfere with their learning. 

The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center® at Hackensack University Medical Center is deeply concerned about the 50 million U.S. children who attend public schools every day. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly ten percent of children in this country have asthma, and that number has been steadily increasing among all age, sex and racial groups since the 1980s. Approximately 13 percent of school-aged kids are in special education, per the National Center for Education Statistics. A growing number (21 percent) are living below the federal poverty threshold, or challenged by autism (1 in 45). These conditions can make them more vulnerable to environmental stressors in schools – and yet the schools their states require them to attend are effectively unregulated by any agency at any level for toxic exposures.

Critics often blame teachers when kids are bored, or don’t perform well on standardized tests. But a growing body of evidence confirms that children do measurably better in schools that consider how the environment may impact students and educators alike. Factors such as cleanliness, noise, clean indoor air, dust control, and thermal control strongly influence how kids perform; perhaps not surprisingly, they do better when these factors are considered.

Still, children from poor neighborhoods or with special health or learning needs too often endure conditions known to undercut health, thinking, and learning. These conditions include: lead in drinking water; growing molds; poor sanitation; leaking roofs and pipes; no ventilation; and no air conditioning. What’s more, many schools continue the use of hazardous, chemical-laden cleaning products and pest removal agents, which further contaminate the indoor environment and threaten the health of anyone who learns and works there.

There is movement in Washington. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce is considering the Rebuild America’s Schools Act of 2017 (HR 2475).  The goal of this $100 billion, ten-year proposal is to make sure schools are front and center in the infrastructure conversation. Senate Democrats also have a plan. And the Trump Administration has indicated its interest in including school facilities in infrastructure investment planning, including federal/state partnerships designed to improve children’s health in school. Even the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is facing a proposed 31 percent cut in its budget, has met with school health advocates to discuss ways to address schools and child health.

In New Jersey, where my center is located, more than eight percent of people suffer with asthma; 1 in 41 children – and 1 in 28 boys – has an autism spectrum disorder; and 11.1 percent of the population lives in poverty. We can’t fix all these problems at once, but trying to address their root causes, preventing their proliferation, and avoiding exacerbations can all help ease the burden of disease unhealthy school environments inflict on innocent children.

In addition to problems of lead, poor ventilation, dust, and toxic cleaning products, children are also routinely exposed to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a chemical used in building materials in schools built from the 1950s to the 1970s. It can be replaced in lighting systems or removed from caulk, but this process is not necessarily routine, and in the meantime kids are exposed to a chemical that is known to cause cancer, as well as reproductive and neurological problems, according to the EPA. All schools should be tested for PCB levels, and it should be safely and appropriately removed from learning environments where small, vulnerable brains need to thrive.

Beyond PCBs, schools need to incorporate integrated pest management (IPM) into their pest control approach. The CDC has recommended schools practice IPM rather than use pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other chemicals known to harm human health. And the presence of mercury anywhere in a school – whether a science lab or a CFL light bulb – is risky. If a CFL or fluorescent bulb breaks, for example, the classroom or area needs to be cleared of students and EPA cleanup procedures need to take place. Otherwise, students could be exposed to a known neurotoxin that has been associated with cognitive difficulties, memory and vision loss, coordination issues, tremors, skin rashes and mood instability. For instructions on properly cleaning up a CFL or fluorescent bulb, click here.  For more information on why you should be concerned about mercury in your school, click here.

When a school is cared for and rid of health hazards, students and faculty want to be there. Better buildings can boost attendance and save taxpayer money. The best way to conserve existing school buildings is to ensure that states, communities, and schools know how to manage their facilities. As a member of the national Coalition for Healthier Schools, The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center(R)  joins in supporting a modest bump of $1/child enrolled in schools and childcare (about $65 million) for the EPA to restore and expand its capacity across several school health related program areas.

Remember: Back to School time is about raising children to become healthy adults. It is time to ask yourself and your children’s school administrators: is this school building clean, dry, quiet, and ready for all its occupants? We need to act now to ensure that all children have healthful learning environments in which to learn, play, and grow.

 

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