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by ELIZABETH AGNVALL Monday, Feb. 23, 2004 at 2:18 AM


How Healthy Is Your Child's School?

by Elizabeth Agnvall

Questions Parents Should Ask School Officials
Why Are Children Vulnerable?
Childhood Cancers and Pesticides: Is There A Link?
Three years ago, when Robina Suwol dropped off her six-year-old son, Nicholas, at school in Los Angeles, she noticed a man in a white uniform spraying a liquid substance. When Nicholas had a severe asthma attack that night, Suwol called the school and discovered they were spraying Princep, an herbicide that can cause diarrhea, slowed breathing, paralysis, and impaired adrenal function.

Horrified, Suwol found out that the LA Unified School District regularly sprayed pesticides that were known carcinogens and neurotoxins during school hours. She talked to other parents and approached the school district with her concerns. "At first there was resistance," Suwol says. But the parents did their homework -- they researched and brought in medical experts and scientists.

As they began looking for the source of pest invasion, they discovered that school kitchens were thoroughly cleaned only once every two years. Other problems stemmed from poor maintenance. After a year of parents pushing, the school district allowed a committee of parents, medical experts, and district staff to create new pesticide guidelines. LA schools now use the least-toxic methods whenever possible. If schools must spray, parents are notified so they can keep sensitive children home.

Pesticides -- Just One Issue Facing Schools

Many schools are built to be as airtight as possible. When air stagnates inside them, dust, fungal spores, pesticides, cleaning fluid fumes, and other substances create a level of indoor pollutants that may be 2 to 5 times and sometimes more than 100 times higher than outdoor levels.

A recent National Center for Environmental Statistics study found that about half of the nation's schools reported at least one unsatisfactory environmental condition, such as poor ventilation, and over 60 percent of schools said they have at least one major building feature in disrepair. "In virtually every school, you can find indoor air problems resulting from inadequate design and maintenance," says Bob Thompson, an environmental engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency's Indoor Environments Division.

Mold Is A Growing Problem

Hundreds of schools across the country have been closed temporarily because of mold in the past several years. The EPA says between 50 and 100 common indoor mold types have potential to cause or exacerbate health problems such as asthma, upper-respiratory infections and sinusitis. St. Charles East High School in Illinois closed indefinitely last spring because of toxic mold imbedded in exterior walls.

Cathy Villwock had been fighting to have mold and other toxins removed from the school since 1997, when her oldest son started high school. Villwock says Sean is allergic to molds, and he has suffered continuous upper-respiratory infections and other health problems. She discovered other students and teachers who had similar health problems and began lobbying for improvements.

In April, a testing firm found stachybotrys in the school, a fungus commonly known as "black mold" that is linked to chronic fatigue, dry coughs, runny noses, and skin rashes. At press time, the school remains closed.

Crumbling Schools Endanger Students

Claire Barnett, executive director of the Healthy Schools Network, says communities should concentrate on the entire school. "Schools are children's workplaces," Barnett says. "Schools are four times as densely occupied as commercial workplaces, yet there are no set exposure limits to protect kids."

Barnett says crumbling schools lead to a host of indoor environmental problems. When schools do make repairs, the renovations can put children at risk for asbestos and lead contamination. The most immediate challenge in schools, she says, is poor indoor air quality -- an issue that's difficult to define because it differs from school to school, but the problems are pervasive. A recent National Center for Education Statistics study said 18 percent of public schools reported unsatisfactory indoor air quality. "Indoor air is a moving target. It can be due to poor ventilation, use of toxic products, or slowly accumulating mold. There are many complex variables, and it doesn't necessarily affect the whole building," Barnett says.

EPA's Thompson says a lack of adequate air exchange is the major culprit. With poor ventilation, toxins and allergens build up in schools. The resulting indoor air aggravates health problems, such as upper-respiratory illnesses and asthma.

Richard J. Shaughnessy, program manager for indoor air research at the University of Tulsa, says parents are generally unaware of these school problems. "Adults go to their offices and demand a comfortaable, clean environment in their workplace. But then they send their children to schools with ventilation rates that are a fraction of what adults experience in their working office," he says.

Cures for Sick Buildings

Many school districts are improving their schools' environment. They've found that not all problems cost millions of dollars and cause years of controversy.

The EPA's Indoor Air Quality "Tools for Schools" program has become a model for many schools. This guidance kit offers a set of actions that school officials can take, including improving indoor air quality. G.W. Carver Elementary School in San Francisco has used "Tools" since 1998 with good results. It found ventilation systems that had been shut off and other problems that were fairly easy to solve. Within a year, visits to the nurse's office for asthma inhalers were cut in half, and fewer students kept asthma medications at school.

Kate Horter, chairperson of health and environmental issues for the Howard County, Md., Parent Teachers Association, says her group took the probram one step further. Teams of parents and school administrators armed with checklists discover little problems before they become big ones. So the few dollars that maintenance crews spend to repair missing caulking around doors, loose weather stripping, small leaks, and peeling ceiling tiles potentially save Howard County millions.

"What's important are teamwork, communication, and working with your administrators to set up a program that everyone is comfortable with," Horter says.

Questions Parents Should Ask School Officials

Is there a preventive maintenance plan in place to regularly fix leaky pipes, a leaking roof, broken windows, broken ventilation quipment, etc.?
Is routine cleaning and food storage usually enough to control pests so that pesticides are used as a backup measure?

Are parents and employees told in advance of pesticide use and/or renovations?
Is the school regularly inspected for lead, asbestos and radon as well as for molds and dust?
When was the air last tested? What were the results? What is the ratio of outside air to recycled air?
Source: Healthy Schools Network, National Safety Council.

Why Are Children Vulnerable?
Poor indoor air quality can lead to absenteeism and decreased performance while at school. For example, asthma-related illness causes over 10 million missed school days per year.

Children may be vulnerable to environmental chemicals because:

Children take in more food, drink and air per pound of body weight. Their rapidly growing tissues, organs and immune systems are susceptible to environmental chemicals. Children absorb, metabolize, detoxify and excrete poisons differently from adults.

Young children play on the ground and put objects and hands into their mouth, thus increasing the potential for ingesting toxins. Children's longer remaining lifespan provides more time for environmentally induced diseases to develop.
Return to Top

Childhood Cancers and Pesticides: Is There A Link?
Dr. Phillip Landrigan, director of environmental medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says pesticides may be a factor in rising rates of childhood leukemia, brain cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and testicular cancer in young men.

"A lot of us who work in children's environmental health are concerned that pesticides may be contributing to childhood cancer, most especially some of the herbicides," Landrigan says.

A review study by Shelia Zahm of the National Cancer Institute says children who live on farms, where substantial pesticide exposure occurs, have higher rates of cancer, and several studies have shown that children who live in homes where parents use pesticides have an increased risk. "There is potential to prevent at least some childhood cancer by reducing or eliminating pesticide expposure," Zahm writes.

But some health experts warn against overreacting to potential dangers of pesticides and ignoring the real and present health risks posed by pests. Rodents can spread diseases such as Hantavirus; ticks infect thousands of Americans with Lyme disease each year; mosquitoes carry encephalitis; and cockroach droppings can trigger asthma. Banning pesticides would jeopardize children's health, according to Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, an association representing pesticide manufacturers.

Some health experts agree. "The levels at which people are exposed are really very low, unless pesticides are being misused. The risks to kids from other things are much higher," says Kimberly Thompson, professor at the Harvard Center of Risk Analysis.

Courtesy of Family Safety & Health magazine, Fall 2001 Issue. Copyright 2001 * National Safety Council * Disclaimer
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