With all the recent talk about school safety, one of the greatest dangers has often been overlooked: the physical environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), half of our nation's schools have poor indoor air quality, which can cause or aggravate health problems and impair children's ability to learn.
There are various sources of toxins in and around schools, including pesticides, cleaning products, chronic leaks, chipped paint, and idling school buses. What's worse, a tightly sealed building may interfere with much-needed ventilation. The result is a buildup of pollutants-radon, arsenic, mold, carbon monoxide, asbestos, lead, volatile organic compounds, and more-that may be harmful when inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin.
Six hours of exposure a day, 180 days a year, represents a potentially grave risk for children, who cannot metabolize toxins as effectively as adults. Children are also more likely to sit or play on the floor, touch walls, and put objects (including their hands) in their mouths, putting them at even greater risk of ingesting harmful substances.
If you're worried about conditions at your child's school, bring your concerns to the administration, as well as local PTA and school board meetings. You might also consider running for a position on the school board in order to work on these issues directly.
Encourage the school to provide a clean, safe learning environment by:
• Seeking natural alternatives to cleaning products that contain toxic chemicals, or using products labeled "biodegradable" or "non-toxic."
• Using integrated pest management instead of chemical pesticides. If pesticides must be used, use the minimum amount needed.
• Fixing leaks to avoid mold growth.
• Inspecting for lead, asbestos, and radon. Schools built before 1978 should be tested for lead if there is evidence of chipped paint.
• Changing air filters in the ventilation system to regularly ensure fresh air circulation.
• Requesting the EPA's free "Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools" kit (see the link below).
Lastly, ask the school to prepare for a possible industrial accident, natural disaster, or other catastrophe by developing, posting, and then practicing an evacuation plan.
Written by: Union of Concerned Scientists
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