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Doing Hard Time: The State of Prisons in the U.S. -- UMW Action Alert

by The Washington Office of Public Policy

Contact: Office of Public Policy GBGM-Women's Division 100 Maryland Avenue, NE Room 530 Washington, DC 20002 (202)488-5660 Fax:(202) 488-5681
Office of Public Policy
GBGM-Women's Division
100 Maryland Avenue, NE Room 530
Washington, DC 20002
Fax:(202) 488-5681

Healthy Schools: Environmental Concerns

Healthy Schools: Environmental Concerns

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. 

            The United 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 year? 

Here are some facts to consider: 

  • 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 More Vulnerable?

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 Health Problems

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 School

Has your state passed “Healthy Schools” legislation?
How 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 building?
Buildings 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?
Over 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?
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?
Diesel 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?
Arsenic 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?
Toxic 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 alternatives.

How many rooms in your child’s school have carpeting?
 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 asbestos?
Asbestos 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 lead?
Lead 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 your school?
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 Schools:

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].

Beyond Pesticides/National 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, [(202) 543-5450].

Information about Children’s Environmental Health:

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].

Children’s Environmental 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) 543-4033].

Physicians for Social Responsibility has compiled a wealth of information for doctors and patients concerned about environmental health issues, www.psr.org, [(202) 667-4260].

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

E-mail:  jtaylor@gbgm-umc.org

Thanks to Jayne Mardock, National Religious Partnership for the Environment.

Volume 1,10/03

Date posted: Nov 04, 2003