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Claire L. Barnett Headshot

Schools and Disasters: Prepare First, Then Remediate Fully

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After 9/11, New York City parents praised schools for safeguarding their children on the day of the World Trade Center terror attacks.

Gratitude quickly turned to outrage when parents realized not a single federal, state, or city agency evaluated or tracked impacts on 3,000 children who returned to facilities filled with toxic dust and fumes.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) was called in to evaluate the health of school personnel, schools reopened without [fully] remediating contaminated classrooms.

Schools of Ground Zero: Early Lessons in Children's Environmental Health, co-published by my office and the American Public Health Association in 2002 documented this shameful situation. Unfortunately, since its publication, other disasters have revealed continuing gaps in children's health protections.

Katrina left New Orleans with moldy schools and pesticide-contaminated playgrounds, but no process to protect the kids who returned to them.

After the BP oil spill, it was four months into swimming season before a pediatric health advisory warned about children's chemical exposures.

After Superstorm Sandy, the New York State Education Department told schools they could reopen as long as they had heat, light, and phone. They made no mention of contaminated sewage, mold, or other known results of flooding, or the state health department guidance.

Children can't protect themselves from environmental exposures; often, they can't understand or articulate exposures and health issues. Yet after disasters, schools can be filled with a huge range of environmental hazards. What's more, hidden hazards or poor facility conditions that existed before the disasters hit will make remediation more costly and more difficult

Children's health should be a priority in planning for and responding to disasters, including planned time to assess and remediate hazards. But until federal, state, and city health agencies finally stand up for kids, it's up to parents, communities, and individual schools to be prepared before disasters, and to be ready to cope afterward.

For schools, this means maintaining a healthful indoor learning environment every day, long before disaster strikes. A sound facility will withstand a disaster better than one that is already compromised by leaks or broken ventilators. After a disaster, it is not enough to make sure that the phones, lights, heat, and computers work. Schools must ensure that time is set aside to assess and remediate hazards in damaged facilities. What happened to the schools' stores of pesticides, fuel oil, cleaning products, and chemistry supplies? Has the structure been properly aired and dried to prevent molds from growing? All of this is harder for the poorest schools: not only are those buildings often in the worst shape, but climate studies show the poorest communities have the fewest coping resources.

For parents, disasters and schools are first about the paperwork: emergency and alternative contact information in place before school starts; special education plans that include disaster plans. Post disaster, it means monitoring and urging the school to assess and remediate promptly.

And at all times, it means pressing schools to sustain structurally sound buildings and keep a healthy indoor learning environment.

On the facility side, there is bleak news from two recent federal surveys. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only 42 percent of states had helped districts with key environmental policies and practices in recent years; only a third of districts were addressing the need for low toxicity products. Schools also told a National Center for Education Statistics survey they needed an estimated $197 billion to bring facilities into good repair, and as with previous surveys, the poorest children still have the worst conditions. The data are strong indicators that our schools are not as prepared as they should be and in poor shape even before the next disaster strikes.

During Public Health Week 2014 and on National Healthy Schools Day 2014, we hope our leaders will do more to protect vulnerable children. They must promote and encourage healthier and more resilient school facilities capable of withstanding extreme storms and must intervene when children are at risk or have suspected exposures.

 
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