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Claire L. Barnett Headshot

Zero Tolerance for No Preventive Health

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PHEW. That was a close one.

I am grateful Congress decided to pass the Omnibus FY 14 Budget Act. I am glad that we averted the sequester and restored some discretionary funds to EPA and CDC.

I'm here to tell you that it was not nearly enough.

The absence of federal funding for programs that promote healthy indoor environments in schools and child health means that more school children will be hospitalized for asthma, more children may be sent to special education, and parents will hire lawyers.

Briefly, schools have a poor record in handling their buildings, and education leaders have little background in children's health and environmental exposures. According to the IOM, contaminated indoor environments are already "damaging health and learning." But, using EPA programs -- now slashed from the federal budget -- one school in Texas reduced asthma inhaler use at school, improved attendance resulting in $2 million in attendance revenues, and reduced facility cleaning costs by 30 percent overall.

Yet, here's what can happen when school leaders are unaware of or ignore the environment.

  • New York students were hospitalized after a high school chemistry experiment engulfed them in flames.
  • A Connecticut parent found her child shunted into special education after she reacted only at school to a heady mix of fumes from dry erase markers and cleaning products. At another school, with better indoor air and health supports, she is in an academic program.
  • A Pennsylvania parent found children with watery eyes, headaches, and fever; they were home sick one day and better the next, and their teacher had them cleaning up mold. The state health department said it did not handle mold problems.
  • A New Mexico parent, exhausted by denials of mold issues, tracked a school vehicle to a local dump, then took pictures of moldy building materials dropped behind the gates. She shared pictures with the local news.

More health care is not the answer, nor is health care reform. Prevention is the common sense answer that could have saved schools and parents' time, money, lawsuits, and local acrimony.

Thus it is shocking that the Obama Administration and congressional leaders agreed to cut 25 percent from EPA's tiny Office of Children's Health Protection which has a new effort to help state agencies address school environments, and have cut millions from EPA's discretionary programs to reduce risks from indoor air and to reduce the use of toxic pesticides in schools. The EPA's chemical management programs for schools were zeroed out in the Bush Administration.

We are a better nation than this.

On behalf of 55 million children in our schools, and especially those at highest risk almost 60 years after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, we hope that common sense and a desire to prevent harm rather than patch it up with costly healthcare reimburseables will prevail in the FY 15 budget.