As the weather gets cold, I find I keep looking at this year’s first day of school photo. I see neat braids, clean backpacks, new sneakers, and brave smiles. The picture warms me up from the inside.
The idea of going off to school conjures happy thoughts of new discoveries, new skills, new friends, and new independence. But going off to school also means putting our children in a new environment for anywhere from 3 to 11 hours a day. That school environment can affect our children’s health in a number of ways.
According to the Healthy Schools Network, a Moms Clean Air Force partner, schools are practically unregulated indoor environments. The air quality in schools has been linked to asthma and respiratory ailments, and has measurable impacts on the health and productivity of students and teachers.
“Out of the nearly 100,000 public school buildings in the country, more than two-thirds have at least one dire infrastructure problem, like leaking roofs or inadequate ventilation in need of repair or replacement, as well as poor chemical management. The American Society of Civil Engineers says schools are in worse shape than prisons.”
Around the country, families struggle to determine whether their child’s school is a safe place for their kids.
In Richmond, Virginia, one dedicated mom and aunt, Dr. Kim Allen, was distressed when she learned of plans to re-open Norrell Elementary to a Head Start program of disadvantaged three- and four-year-olds. Norrell Elementary, built in the 1960s on top of a garbage dump, has faced several environmental problems over the decades. Methane, an explosive gas that commonly seeps from landfills, had been detected at high levels in the past. Hurricane damage in 2006 sent raw sewage flowing over the school grounds. Parents had long criticized the placement and problems of the school.
When the plans to re-open Norrell were announced, Dr. Allen’s nephew had just enrolled in a different preschool. She says, “When I learned about plans to move the children to Norrell, I thought, my nephew could have been one of those children.” Despite assurances from the school board that the school was safe, she was concerned about how thoroughly the building had been tested, and what measures were in place to monitor the air quality going forward. Tests of air quality were being done, but Dr. Allen (trained as an anthropologist and now the executive director of a local non-profit organization) and other parents did not have the scientific expertise to interpret the results, nor did they understand the rationale behind the testing process. “We don’t know what to look for,” she says. “We don’t have the background to even ask those questions.”
The school opened as planned in September 2012. Speaking of her nephew, Dr. Allen says,“Would I be okay with Malachi being inside that building for six hours a day, five days a week? The answer was no. And if it’s no for Malachi, it’s no for everyone.” The mother of a grown son, this dedicated aunt has organized to meet with the school board to demand transparency and better communication, so that all children can learn in a healthy environment.
Dr. Allen is adamant about the influence of environmental racism in this situation, and others like it at many schools around the country. Schools in poor communities often face the most extreme infrastructure and environmental problems, in addition to the legacy of being built on sites that would never have been used for schools in rich neighborhoods. “It’s not their intention to harm, but you have to look at the result,” she says. “Look at who is impacted.”
In addition to the location of the school—is it built in a potentially dangerous area like a dump, landfill, or former factory? Is it close to major industrial pollution sources, such as natural gas wells, major highways, or oil refineries?—the Healthy Schools Network recommends that we keep an eye out for the following air quality issues in schools:
- Mold. Leaks in the plumbing, roof, windows, and basement can lead to persistent dampness – ideal conditions for mold growth. Mold can trigger asthma.
- Dust. Dust mites trigger asthma and allergies. Schools should use doormats and other strategies to control dust and prevent dust mites.
- Ventilation. Fresh airflow prevents pollutants from accumulating indoors. Vents need to be clear of clutter and windows should be capable of being opened.
- Toxic fumes. From the science lab to the janitor’s closet, schools can contain a range of potentially toxic chemicals. Does the school know what these are? Does it dispose of them properly? Does it buy less toxic versions of the products it needs?
- Pesticides. Pesticides can trigger asthma attacks. Baits, traps, caulking, screens, and other simple, natural methods can be more effective, less costly, and healthier than using chemicals. And don’t forget about the school grounds. Kids can be exposed to pesticides in the building and on the playground.
“No kid should be going into a school where we don’t know if it’s safe or not,” Dr. Allen says.
What’s happening in your child’s school? We’d love to hear from you.
By Molly Rauch