Many of our nation’s schools are in poor repair, making them a threat to our children’s health and ability to grow and learn. In 1995, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported that “While laws compel children to attend school, some school buildings may be unsafe or even harmful to children’s health.” The average age of U.S. public schools is 42 years old and over 60 percent of schools report at least one serious maintenance problem. More than half of these schools report at least one unsatisfactory environmental condition such as poor ventilation.
Tight school budgets mean that school buildings are cleaned less frequently, allowing dust and mold to build up — both trigger asthma and allergies. Poorly maintained ventilation systems may also contribute to poor air quality in older school buildings and poor health among students. When schools are cleaned, the chemicals used may be harmful to children’s development. The pesticides used on school grounds are more harmful to growing children than they are to adults and may be used at unsafe levels.
In addition, a substantial number of schools, particularly those in low income communities, are built on the cheapest land available — which may be near polluting industries or may have been contaminated by previous industrial uses.
Who Is Affected?
Children are more vulnerable than adults to toxins in their environments due to their smaller size, developing bodies and normal childhood behavior such as crawling, digging in dirt and putting objects in their mouths. Scientists are beginning to link rising levels of childhood asthma and increased rates of hyperactivity in children to exposure to pesticides, toxic chemicals and pollutants.
What You Can Do
Join with other parents to perform a “toxic audit” of your child’s school. Find out what types of chemicals are used in your child’s school, if the land it’s built on contains toxic chemicals, what sources of pollution are nearby, and what maintenance issues could be triggering asthma and allergies in students. There are a number of “healthy school” groups and coalitions that can provide toolkits and other information for your audit, such as the Healthy Schools Network and Tools for Healthy Schools.
Join with other parents in your state to fight for healthier schools. Many states have coalitions fighting for laws and funding to make public schools healthier for children. For example, California’s Healthy Schools Campaign successfully passed a law that requires California public schools to reduce their use of pesticides on school grounds. Search the Internet to find out if your state has a coalition fighting for healthier schools.
Find out where your local and state officials stand on healthy schools. Attend town meetings and ask them whether they support more funding for school maintenance and reduced use of toxic chemicals in schools. Register to vote and vote for the candidates who will work to clean up your schools.
To find out more about how toxic chemicals and other environmental hazards affect children, contact Physicians for Social Responsibility or the Center for Health, Environment and Justice’s “Childproofing Our Communities” project.