Huffpost Green

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Molly Rauch Headshot

Breathing Easy at School

Posted: Updated:

My children spend six to nine hours at their school, depending on the day. I am invested not only in the quality of their school, but in the health of the school. When I drop them off, I sometimes feel like a stealth inspector for a commercial airline, checking every bolt, seam, and wire. I want to know where they spend one quarter or more of their weekday hours. I want to know what my children are breathing all day long.

Today's publication of the report Towards Healthy Schools 2015, from the Coalition for Healthier Schools (of which Moms Clean Air Force is a member), is a huge help for me in my stealth inspector mode.

We do not do enough to protect our children: unhealthy schools impose a grave injustice. States compel children to attend school; in fact, 98 percent of all school-age children attend schools -- irrespective of conditions. Yet the environmental conditions of decayed facilities or facilities close to hazards can damage children's health and ability to learn. At the same time, it is well-documented that healthy school facilities can help children learn, grow, and stay healthy." ~ Coalition for Healthier Schools

The new report offers a national overview as well as state-by-state pages describing data and policies on environmental conditions at school and risks to children's health using basic federal data on public schools and several other datasets. It's a great resource for parents who want to find out what's happening with school health in their state.

Indoor air should concern us as much as outdoor air. We spend as much as 90 percent of our time indoors. In some ways, school air is like home air, with many factors affecting air quality, such as:

  • Cleaning products used in the building;
  • Choice of furnishings and supplies, such as carpeting and dry-erase markers;
  • Proximity of the building to highways and industrial facilities like bus depots, chemical facilities, and incinerators;
  • Whether there is nearby oil and gas development, including fracking;
  • Extent to which school buses and carpool cars idle their engines near the building;
  • Pesticides and pest control strategies used inside and on the grounds;
  • Leaks and moisture conditions, and subsequent mold growth;
  • Effectiveness of the HVAC system; and more.

But school environments are different from home environments in one crucial way. Parents are not necessarily in charge of the decisions that can directly affect the health of their children. Meanwhile, the science bears out the obvious: An unhealthy school environment adversely impacts the health and academic performance of its students.

Take just one factor that affects school air: cleaning supplies. Cleaning supplies can emit hundreds of air contaminants, some of which have been linked to asthma, cancer, and other health problems -- and most of which have never been tested for safety. Even products labeled "green" or "natural" emit hazardous chemicals. But third-party-certified green cleaners release fewer air pollutants generally, and lower levels of hazardous Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).

Some of the chemicals found in school cleaning products (from sources here and here) include:

  • Acetaldehyde
  • Benzene
  • Butoxyethanol
  • Ethanolamine
  • Formaldehyde
  • Hexane
  • Perchloroethylene
  • Sodium hydroxide
  • Styrene
  • Trichloroethylene

What does all this industrial chemistry add up to? Some of the chemicals above, and other indoor air pollutants, have been linked to asthma, which affects 10 percent of American children.

Can you imagine? Cleaning a school with asthmagens? Sheesh. But it's not just asthma, because respiratory irritants such as those in some cleaning products can cause nasal congestion, shortness of breath, nosebleeds, coughing, itchy/watery eyes, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, rashes, fever, muscle aches and more. And that's not even the long-term effects, such as cancer, linked to chemicals such as formaldehyde and styrene.

How can your school make safe and healthy choices? The Healthy Schools Network offers the following checklist (and many more resources on healthy schools in their online clearinghouse).

Choose products that:

  • Contain no known, probable or possible carcinogens.
  • Have neutral pH. High pH= caustics; Low pH= acids. Choose products with moderate pH (7).
  • Are non-irritating to eyes & skin. If irritation information is not available, go back to neutral pH.
  • Have no short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic) health hazards. Check the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) and product label.
  • Are free of, or are low in, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs are organic chemicals that evaporate easily. They contribute to indoor air pollution and may cause headaches, nausea, respiratory problems and may cause the formation of ground level ozone/smog.
  • Use disinfectants only as required by state health laws. Disinfectants are designed to kill living organisms. They are rarely required.
  • Avoid fragrances (odors) and dyes.
  • Are non-flammable.
  • Are non-reactive. Mixing should not create toxic gases, fire or other violent reactions.
  • Are not packaged in aerosol/spray cans. Instead of pressurized propellants, they use pump-action dispensers.
  • Provide dispensing systems that minimize exposure to concentrated solutions. Dispensing method should be designed to eliminate exposure to the concentrated solution and reduce waste.

It's not rocket science. These are common-sense precautions many of us take in our own homes. "Some of this stuff is pretty basic, but it's surprising how few schools do it," says Claire Barnett, executive director of the Healthy Schools Network, the organization that coordinates the Coalition for Healthier Schools.

Some states have passed regulations requiring or promoting the use of safe and healthy cleaning products in schools and other public buildings. In states without relevant regulations, schools and school districts are also making the shift. That's because healthy cleaning is cost-neutral or cost saving; is effective; and protects the health of children, custodial workers, and school staff.

So, jump in. Get involved. You can learn about factors affecting indoor air quality; you can work with your school toward healthier choices (and here's great advice about how to do it). Check out the Cleaning for Healthy Schools Toolkit from the Healthy Schools Network for some of the nuts and bolts. You can make a difference in the air your children breathe, right now.

From Our Partners