Healthy Schools: Environmental
In 2002, the Women’s Division
launched Phase III of the Children’s Campaign to focus on Advocacy, specifically
in Public School Education. This publication is part of an ongoing series
of issue papers designed to provide United Methodist Women and others with
a variety of local concerns that they can investigate and on which they
may take action.
Methodist Women’s Children’s Campaign originally began in 1988 as an effort
to bring awareness of Children’s concerns to the attention of the church. Phase
II worked towards “Making the World Safe for Children and Youth in the
21st Century” and focused on raising children’s issues within
the surrounding community. Rooted in the story of Jesus who rebuked the
disciples for dismissing children from him, United Methodist Women believe
that EVERY CHILD IS OUR CHILD and OUR CHILDREN COUNT!
We all want our children to have a safe place to learn. How healthy
are the buildings and grounds where they spend hours each day of the school
Here are some facts to
- One-sixth of the U.S. population can be found in school
buildings during the school year.
- The average age of the main instructional building(s)
was 40 years (in 1999).
- Asthma is the leading cause of school absences. Environmental
factors including indoor and outdoor air pollutants, dust and cockroach
droppings can trigger asthma attacks.
- Many pesticides used routinely in schools can
affect learning and behavior, cause chemical sensitivities, and lead
to future infertility.
Schools as Environmental
Threats to Our Children
For at least 180 days
each year, children spend more time in school than any place outside the
home. Older school buildings and others that are not well maintained
may host potential dangers—asbestos, lead, and pesticides, to name three. All
of these are proven to pose threats to the developing brain. Moreover,
these pollutants pose health risks to your child and other children and
can impede school performance. For example, indoor air pollution can reduce
a student’s ability to perform specific mental tasks requiring memory,
concentration, or calculation. (See http://www.epa.gov/i aq/schools/performance.html.)
What Makes Our Children
Children have unique qualities that make them more vulnerable to
their environment. First, their bodies and minds are still developing
and they do not have the defenses to some toxins that are present in adults. A
child absorbs about 50 percent of the lead she is exposed to, while an
adult only absorbs 10-15 percent. Children also have certain habits that
increase their risk – they put things in their
mouths and don’t wash their hands frequently. They play and exercise more
than adults and spend a lot of their time on carpets or in the dirt. And
finally, children have years of life before them during which these chemicals
can affect them.
Children do not choose their environments. Adults make those decisions
for them. Therefore, we are the ones who must ensure that our schools
are safe places for them to learn.
What Can We Do?
There is a lot that can
be done. Investigate what the law requires in your state concerning environmental
health problems and schools. Local school officials or the local Parent
Teacher Association (PTA) may have this information. You should know the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has no regulatory or enforcement
authority regarding general indoor air quality in schools. Find out about
your state laws concerning pesticides in schools. Some states have mandated
Integrated Pest Management programs that avoid use of pesticides in schools
if at all possible. Some state laws also require public schools to notify
parents about pesticide use and encourage schools to limit the use of pesticides. For
schools that receive federal funding, smoking may not be allowed within
the school (based on the Pro Kids Act). There are no comprehensive Federal
laws pertaining to lead exposure in schools (although schools are affected
by Federal regulations such as the Lead Contamination Control Act of 1988).
The Federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act mandates that every
room and every surface of every school must be systematically inspected
for asbestos every three years.
Signs of Environmental
Parents should monitor to see if their children have certain symptoms
that usually start at school. Symptoms may include headache, fatigue,
shortness of breath, sinus congestion, coughing, sneezing, eyes, nose,
throat and skin irritation, dizziness, or nausea. If the onset of symptoms
occurred recently, check to see if remodeling, painting, or pesticide application
has been done at the school.
Find out if other parents have noticed that their children have
these symptoms at school but not anywhere else. If only one child has
problems, he or she may have allergies, asthma, or chemical sensitivities.
In that case, a parent must speak to the child’s pediatrician.
Checklist for a Healthy
Has your state passed
“Healthy Schools” legislation?
does your school handle pests such as ants and cockroaches? Pesticides attack
the nervous system of bugs and can affect children as well. Do they try
to prevent pests by removing food, water and homes for pests or by routinely
spraying pesticides whether there are pests present or not? When pesticides
are used, are they the least toxic available? Many states have or are considering
legislation to requiring that parents be notified when pesticides will be
used in the school. Some schools are being forced to develop plans to prevent
pest problems using low risk pesticides, while others do this voluntarily.
How old is your school
built in the 1970s or before are likely to have problems related to asbestos
and lead, as well as aging heating and cooling systems, and drafty windows. What
is the age of your school building(s)?
Has the indoor air quality
been tested in your school?
one-half of all schools have indoor air quality problems. The heating, ventilation
and air conditioning (HVAC) system frequently plays a role in whether there
is good or poor air quality in the school. Are filters cleaned or replaced
regularly? Are all air intake vents free from clutter, fumes and dust? Radon
and carbon monoxide levels should also be monitored regularly. If your school
has been tested, what is being done to address any problems? If there have
been no tests, take prompt action to see that they are done.
Does your school have
a problem with mold?
the result of an ongoing moisture problem, affects students and staff with
allergies and asthma the most. Look for signs of mold in the school: standing
water, moisture stains on ceiling tiles, condensation on walls or windows,
wet carpets, or the smell of mildew. If there is evidence of mold, what
repairs are necessary to prevent it?
Where do the school buses
idle while students are entering and leaving the building?
exhaust is full of cancer-causing chemicals. School buses lined up near
open doors, windows, or air intake vents send diesel exhaust and carbon monoxide
into the school. Buses should warm up and wait in an area as far as possible
from the school building.
Are the school playground
equipment and landscaping boards made from pressure treated wood?
is one of the primary chemicals used to treat wood and it is released when
the wood is touched. While it is best to remove the wood, at a minimum,
it should be sealed at least once a year to build a barrier between the wood
and children’s hands.
What types of cleaning
products are routinely used in the school?
carpet and bathroom cleaners are two of the most worrisome chemicals used
in schools. There are numerous nontoxic and less-toxic cleaning supplies
on the market today. Encourage your school to investigate these less dangerous
How many rooms in your
child’s school have carpeting?
is a magnet for anything that has been in the air, including pesticides,
dust, and mold from moisture problems. Despite the comfort of carpet, floors
that can be mopped are much easier to keep clean and free of toxins. Suggest
replacing carpets with easy-care tiles.
Does your school contain
is extremely toxic. If it is intact, it is safest to leave it in the school;
however, if exposed or crumbling, it must be removed immediately.
Does your school contain
paint was used until the 1970s. If lead is contained or covered, it does
not pose a risk. However, chipped paint or dust from rubbing windows or
doors is a problem. Also, ask if dust and dirt outside the school has been
tested for lead. Lead in paint or dirt must be dealt with immediately.
Are dust mats used at
Placing dust mats at the doors is a sound practice. They reduce dirt and
pesticides tracked into the school on children’s shoes.
Resources for More Information:
To find out more about
the overall pollution levels in your area, enter your zip code at
www.scorecard.org. This website consolidates federal databases on air
and water quality, Superfund sites, toxic and agricultural emissions so
that you will get a picture of your community’s issues.
US Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) has several websites that provide excellent information. Its
“Tools for Schools” program focuses on indoor air quality and is an excellent
free resource available to any school. To get a copy, call (800) 438-4318
or get information at www.epa.gov/iaq/schools . EPA also offers
information about pesticides and alternatives from the Office of Pesticides,
www.epa.gov/pesticides, [(703) 305-5017] and about lead from the National
Lead Information Center, www.epa.gov/lead [(800) 424-LEAD].
Green Guidance is a resource developed
by the Women’ s Division to help create environmentally
friendly events. It may be ordered for $6.00 plus postage and handling
(#2951) from the Service Center, (800)305-9857.
Caring for Children, Caring
for Creation: A Conversation about Children’s
Health and the Environment is a 16-minute video and discussion guide from
the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. It is available
on loan from the Women’s Division (address at bottom of page).
Information about Healthy
Healthy School Network, based in New York, has developed model
resources and has become a national resource, www.healthyschools.org, [(518)
462-0632]. They have teamed up with National Resources Defense Council
(NRDC) to develop a kid-focused school detective website www.nrdc.org,
that allows you to go through each room of the school and identify
hazards and solutions.
Center for Health, Environment
and Justice has a Childproofing Campaign that has published several reports,
including a good primer, Creating Safe Learning Zones: The ABCs of
Healthy Schools, available on its website, www.chej.org or www.childproofing.org,
[(703) 237-2249, ext. 21].
Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides publishes reports, a newsletter, and coordinates a national network
of state advocates working to reduce pesticide use in schools, www.beyondpesticides.org,
Information about Children’s
Children’s Health Environmental
Coalition has an excellent website that includes an “e-house” allowing
you to see the hazards in every room of the house and provides fact sheets
on solutions, www.checnet.org, [(609) 252-1915].
Health Network produces a Resource Guide on Children’s Environmental Health providing
contacts to a variety of organizations working on different aspects of
many environmental concerns, www.cehn.org, [(202)
Physicians for Social
Responsibility has compiled a wealth of information for doctors and patients concerned
about environmental health issues, www.psr.org, [(202)
For more information on the Children’s Campaign, contact:
Executive Secretary for Children, Youth and Family Advocacy
Women’s Division, General Board of Global Ministries
The United Methodist Church
100 Maryland Ave, N.E., Room 530
Washington, DC 20002
1-202-488-5660, ext. 102 Fax: 1-202-488-5681
Thanks to Jayne Mardock, National Religious
Partnership for the Environment.