It is the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, and it is also 12 years this month since the Healthy Schools Network began documenting the absence of environmental health protections for children in schools it by disasters. That was after the attacks of September 11, when New York City rushed to get schools near Ground Zero back online. National reports show how the environmental conditions of schools can significantly hurt or help kids' health and ability to learn.
Now after too many disasters, we know that school buildings can be further compromised by weather and other disasters: see pictures of schools ravaged by tornadoes, snow and ice storms hurricanes, and threatened by wild fires.
Post-9/11, here's what we found. There was enormous pressure to "normalize" life by reopening schools as quickly as possible. But no federal, state, or city agency assessed the dust-and-fume contaminated schools in Lower Manhattan to determine if they were remediated for safe reoccupancy by children. Adults had some protections: The National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health responded to teachers' complaints and reported new onset illnesses in 300 school personnel. Yet, despite knowing that children are more vulnerable to hazards than adults and are compelled by law to attend school, no agency tracked the health of some 3,000 kids attending Stuyvesant High School. Indeed, parents reported that many kids had the same symptoms as personnel. Now, we are seeing the repercussions.
In another episode in late 2001, several national groups saw a bizarre outbreak of rashes among school children. The federal Centers for Disease Control investigated and learned two things: children in 100 districts in 27 states were affected with a noncontagious rash and that local schools could refuse entry to federal public health investigators concerned about potential new kind of terrorism.
And there was more. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans schools were left with mold infestations and playground soils contaminated with flood-borne toxics such as benzene, lead, and pesticides. A National Commission on Children and Disasters urged important efforts to keep children and their parents united and mental health trauma counseling; but there was no recommendation to check on chemical hazards. Again in the Gulf, after the BP Oil Spill, we found no federal or state agency issued public health advisories on protecting children from the chemicals, while the local media carried pictures of kids splashing in oil-slicked waters.
There are two large issues here.
First, while we appreciate the important research investments in children's environmental health by the federal agencies over the last 15 years, we wonder why the agencies are not applying what they know to protect children in schools and child care centers.
And, second, knowing that states require kids to attend schools, and that school buildings can be knocked flat by severe storms, where are the guidelines and construction funds for improving the resiliency of our children's schools?
School building climate mitigation and resiliency are not simple tasks. States and districts need technical information, training, and implementation grants. Just sealing up and "weatherizing" buildings damages Indoor Air Quality; reducing ventilation to save on energy also hurts Indoor Air; using more air conditioners can be expensive and, in the increasing number of high humidity areas, the A/C needs to be on year round and maintained so it doesn't spew mold spores; more insulation can be a good thing, but not if it comes with hazardous chemical off-gassing, and as long as the building (and the occupants) can still breathe. Being "green" is not enough. A school needs to be a healthy building for children, so they can stay in school and learn.
On the federal front, congressional chaos has added nothing and taken away funds. The Education Department has no more grant funds for school emergency management planning. US EPA's Indoor Environments Division, the leading experts in school indoor environments, has been decimated by budget cuts. EPA's Office of Children's Health Protection has suffered as well, just as it launched a voluntary grant program to help state agencies address environmental health issues. And CDC slashed its school health, asthma, and lead prevention programs. Are kids' health and learning no longer important?
Obviously, with the current focus on student testing and teacher evaluations, academic performance in schools is a priority. But how can we ask our children to learn, and our teachers to teach, in sick schools?
We think the responsible agencies should be able to offer at least the same public health protections to school children as they offer to principals, teachers and staff. And we think that states and districts need the technical guidance and funds now to help adapt to climate change and make the facilities, which after all are often used as community shelters, safer and more resilient to chaotic weather.
Here's a solution: Let's take the money lost in the recent shutdown and reinvest a similar amount in helping our children and their schools.