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Are Our School Buildings Harming Our Students?

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Co-authored by Tolle Graham, Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health

With back-to-school time in full swing, each school day, 55 million children and 7 million adults -- 20 percent of the total U.S. population and 98 percent of all children -- will spend their days inside school buildings. As our children head back to the classroom, there are efforts to offer our children healthier foods and more exercise, along with asking for more rigorous testing. Yet, despite our best efforts, we know that schools -- the very buildings they step into every day -- are working against them.

Many of our kids are returning to unhealthy school environments. Unfortunately, too many of our nation's 130,000 public and private schools are "unhealthy" buildings that can harm their health and hinder learning. Today, clear and convincing research shows that improving specific factors such as school indoor environmental quality improves attendance, academic performance, and productivity.

Let's look at what we know.

Children are more vulnerable than adults to environmental hazards because they are smaller, have developing organs, and breathe more air per pound of body weight. They cannot identify hazards. Several agencies, including the U.S. Environmental and Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Health and Human Services, have found that adverse exposures and injuries during childhood have a lifetime impact.

Many school environmental factors can affect the health of children and employees. Too many schools are situated near industrial plants or toxic waste sites; some are on abandoned landfills. Many school facilities are poorly designed and maintained. Thousands of schools are severely overcrowded, which compromises ventilation systems, acoustics, recess, and basic sanitation and lavatories. Extreme climate events have damaged schools and even killed children and melted playground equipment.

We consider all children to be at risk of extra health and learning difficulties due to the conditions of their schools, and due to the lack of public health services for children at risk or with suspected exposures. An Institute of Medicine report on Climate and Health (2011) reported that poor indoor environments are already compromising health and learning and that indoor exposures can be 100-1,000 times more intense than outdoor. However, no federal or state agencies track or report on school assessments and children's health.

We must act to ensure our children have the healthiest environment in order to maximize their attendance and ability to learn.

At the federal level, we must advocate for funding of a new GAO survey on conditions of America's schools that include environmental health. The last survey to do so took place in 1995. With increasing weather concerns over the last few years, we must also ask about extreme climate effects on schools.

Despite the cuts to all the agencies due to the sequester, we must find a way to fund school urgent repairs to ensure that new and renovated facilities are healthy places for children.

Not only that, but we must make sure that our schools are taking cost-effective steps keeping their facilities healthy. Our schools should not only use the EPA's Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Kit, but they should use other tools available, such as the Cleaning for Healthy Schools Toolkit, and practice safer pest control.

One of the fastest and cheapest ways to improve school Indoor Air Quality is to reduce the use of toxic products indoors. Environmentally Preferable Purchasing ("EPP," aka, "green purchasing") promotes the purchase of goods, services and equipment that have reduced impacts on health and the environment compared to equivalent products, services and equipment. Our schools must make sure that, whenever possible, the products being used daily around our children and educators are the healthiest ones. Parents can advocate for and help schools find and buy green and healthy products. One way is to encourage parent-teacher associations to promote the purchase of third-party certified EPP/green products for cleaning and maintenance, or classroom use. Schools doing this have realized big wins: healthier kids, more productive employees, and reduced costs.

Our country is committed to raising academic achievement for all children and to improving the environment of every neighborhood. In order to do so, we must promote child and adult health, improve education, and create healthier communities and healthier school environments. We cannot have our schools inadvertently undermining the health of our children and their teachers. To do so, puts enormous externalized costs onto working families, single parents, and community taxpayers. We prefer healthier children, healthier staff, and reduced costs.