THE BLOG
11/10/2014 12:13 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

Tips for Flu Season: Clean Up Your School and Tell Congress to Support EPA's Voluntary Schools Programs (and Wash Your Hands)

Everyone has heard how to prevent colds and the flu: Wash your hands and cover coughs and sneezes! But here's another tip that's not heard often: Clean up your school. You might reduce the flu by 87 percent or asthma by 39 percent. Here's why and what you can do.

Just as our children are not just "little adults," school buildings are not just "little offices." States compel all children to attend school, and children outnumber adults in schools. Kids are also biologically more vulnerable to environmental hazards than adults; for example, they breathe more air per pound of body weight and will have different exposures, especially if they sit or play on the floor. Schools are very densely occupied -- more so than offices -- and heavily used for many hours every day. And once the school year starts, there aren't many unoccupied days to do heavy cleaning and repairs. There may not even be custodians on staff; instead, there may be a contract service on a schedule.

The National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences found that there is a "robust literature" showing that schools will have better attendance and test scores if the buildings are: clean, dry, quiet; have good indoor air; control dust; and have well-maintained systems. Another study reported stunning benefits (savings) of healthy indoor environments: an 87 percent reduction in flu, 67 percent reduction in Sick Building Syndrome, 46 percent reduction in upper respiratory problems, and 39 percent reduction in asthma at school. Despite the evidence, a New York State Health Department reported schools "filled with asthma triggers" and pediatric asthma hospitalizations that might triple on every return to school. The costs to children, families, educational outcomes, taxpayers, and health insurers are incalculable.

Do you need a new bond act to build all-new buildings? No, not necessarily. An old building does not necessarily need to be torn down. Let's look at two examples, a new building and an existing building.

First, a new building. If your district is planning a major renovation or all-new building, get the best deal for your money. Be very careful with bid specifications. You want the public investment to result in a building that is clean, dry, quiet, etc., just as the NRC recommended. That means: an environmentally-benign site (with no lurking toxics); low-emissions building and finishing materials inside (after all, who needs more formaldehyde?); and a facility that is easy to keep clean and to maintain.

Think it through: Do you want a soaring atrium that no one can reach to clean? What about carpeting that the vendor guarantees only for 5-7 years even with special vacuums? How about a Koi pond or rain forest garden indoors? How about landscape plants next to the foundation that create pest access to the building? Should you buy white boards that require the use of toxic markers (they can give mice seizures)? Say "no thanks" to the poor choices, and once the building looks done, make sure staff are trained on how to operate and maintain the new systems, and that all dust and fumes have been cleaned up or aired out.

Second, an existing school. If your community has an existing building -- and thousands do; there are 130,000 existing schools in the United States -- what can you do, short of rebuilding? Quite a lot, as it turns out, because how you manage the school facility has the most to do with how well it will stand the test of time and the test of keeping kids healthy.

This is where U.S. EPA's voluntary guidance for schools is helpful. EPA has published free help for schools for years on assessing and preventing problems with siting, indoor air, molds, mercury, chemical management, PCBs, drinking water, safer pest control (integrated pest management, or IPM) -- in short, many of the issues every school needs to address. It sounds complicated at first, but the issues and how to deal with them fit together well, and once plans are in place, schools can develop their own routines during the school year for cleaning, maintenance, and repair to keep a school clean, dry, quiet, etc. And, as the schools and communities listed below have found, eliminating their own sources of problems costs next to nothing.

To help local schools, Connecticut set up a statewide school environments advisory team that meets quarterly with stakeholders.

Center District in Kansas eliminated asthma triggers in classrooms, such as pets, plants, and air fresheners.

Greendale, Wisconsin schools removed hanging materials from ceilings, removing paper from bulletin boards and used paints, reduced plants and air fresheners, and removed stuffed furniture known to trigger asthma.

Northeast Independent in Texas went an extra mile or two and in addition to the careful medical management of asthma developed its own classroom assessment tool to help identify and remove asthma triggers. It uses certified green cleaning products; removes products brought from home; reduces plants, pets, and air fresheners; uses low-emissions furnishings; and has common pest-control items such as door sweeps. The results? Fewer trips to the nurse, better attendance, and better worker health and safety.

Blue Valley schools in Overland Park, Kansas, one of the first districts to win an EPA award, has sustained its excellence in indoor air, resulting in fewer indoor air complaints each year; lower operating costs; better test scores; and a decrease in lost instructional time due to facility problems.

St. Paul, Minnesota public schools, to ensure healthier environments and stronger achievement, have switched to third party certified green cleaning products, eliminated chlorine bleach, added HEPA vacuums, eliminated herbicides from grounds, and to help control pests, installed door sweeps.

If they can do it, you can do it. Find EPA guidance here. Get specific information on how to find and use green cleaning and other healthy products for schools.

And so can Congress.

Educate your elected leaders. Tell them to restore the cuts made to discretionary programs at EPA that help kids stay healthy and learn, the same EPA programs these states and schools used and you can use too: Indoor Air Quality, IPM, Chemical Cleanout, and the Office of Children's Health.