Reducing Environmental Risks for Kids in Schools

Aug 28, 2014, 12:09 PM

Most parents send their children off to school expecting they’ll have their minds enriched and expanded—they don’t expect that their kids’ health to be jeopardized.

But the reality is that the environmental conditions in aging or deteriorating school facilities can harm kids’ health and compromise their ability to learn. This is partly because children may be exposed to a variety of environmental hazards—such as lead, asbestos, molds, radon and volatile organic compounds—as well as toxic chemicals and pesticides at school. Half of U.S. schools have problems with indoor air quality, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and research suggests that the poorest children in the poorest neighborhoods have schools that are in the worst condition.

Sixty percent of kids suffer health and learning problems that stem from the conditions of their schools, according to the Coalition for Healthier Schools’ Towards Healthy Schools 2015 report. Children are especially vulnerable because they’re smaller; their organs are still developing; they spend more time on the ground; and they breathe more air and drink more water per pound of body weight than do adults, according to the EPA. They also may not be able to identify obvious hazards and move away from them.

Reducing environmental risks in schools offers significant payoffs in multiple domains. Improving indoor air quality can reduce asthma attacks by nearly 40 percent and upper respiratory infections by more than 50 percent, according to the 2006 report Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits. What’s more, a study weighing the costs and benefits of developing green schools for Washington State estimated a 15 percent reduction in absenteeism and a 5 percent increase in test scores, according to the Towards Healthy Schools 2015 report.

“A healthy school has a building that promotes health and learning—it will be clean, dry, and quiet. It will have good control of dust and particulate matter. It will provide good ventilation and good air quality,” said Claire Barnett, founder and executive director of the Healthy Schools Network Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to children’s environmental health and safety in schools. “This also assumes there’s no lead in the pipes, no PCBs in lighting or other old building materials, and no routine spraying of pesticides indoors or out. It shouldn’t be hard to have a building that meets these standards but it is. Parents shouldn’t take it for granted that a school facility is healthy.”

The good news is that the number of states that have adopted green school design protocols has increased in recent years. So has the number of states that encourage or require schools to use green cleaning products. Some of these healthier schools were recently honored with the U.S. Department of Education’s 2014 Green Ribbon awards. Among the recipients is Wellington Elementary School in Lexington, Ky., which now has a comprehensive indoor air-quality management program that’s consistent with the EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools program, as well as an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program to reduce pesticide use. The school also prohibits smoking on campus and school buses and uses cleaning products that are certified through Green Seal. Another Green Ribbon recipient, Brock’s Gap Intermediate School in Hoover, Ala., has also implemented the EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools program and IPM measures, as well as other “green” building practices.  

Meanwhile, the Connecticut Department of Public Health has implemented the EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools program to help improve indoor air quality throughout all state schools.

“Beyond doing basic things to promote safer, healthier buildings, the priority should be to figure out what’s happening to children,” said Barnett. “There is plenty of evidence that it’s important to prevent exposures in schools. The piece that’s missing is tracking if a building is serving its purpose: We should be looking for outcomes for children’s health and learning.”

>>Bonus Link: Read a NewPublicHealth Q&A with Matthew Trowbridge, MD, MPH, an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, who has a special interest in the impact of the built environment on public health.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.