Earth Matters: Healthy schools, healthy children

Patti Wood

As children return to school this month, their safety is uppermost on many parent’s minds. The meaning of “safe” schools conjures up different things to different parents, but I think we can all agree that we want our children to be safe from violence, cyberbullying and drugs in their classrooms.

For those of us in the environmental health field, a safe school also means a place free from low-level chronic exposures to toxic chemicals and radiation.

Think of it this way – school is a child’s workplace, a place where they spend up to eight hours a day, five days a week, week after week, month after month.

Harmful environmental exposures that occur in schools can have a profound and lasting impact on a child’s short and long-term health.

So how can we ensure that school districts are taking steps to reduce toxins in and around their buildings?

Some school exposures are well understood, but others may not be as obvious.

Take exhaust from idling vehicles for example. Diesel exhaust from school buses contains more than forty hazardous air pollutants, and the Environmental Protection Agency says there is no safe level of exposure.

Diesel exhaust has been linked to an increased risk of asthma and other respiratory diseases, cardiovascular problems and cancer.

The state Education Department has issued regulations prohibiting any idling of school buses on school grounds, but as with all laws and regulations, enforcement is sometimes lacking. Signs posted where buses drop off and pick up children are good reminders, as are dashboard signs reminding drivers that New York State has a “no idling” policy.

Diesel exhaust is not the only health threat our children face at school. Unlike most of our homes, schools are cleaned every day, using disinfectants, surface cleaners and floor care products.

Some very harsh industrial chemicals are contained in these products, which can linger in the air and as residue on desks, cafeteria tables, bathroom surfaces and floors.

Although children with asthma and allergies are most affected, any child can exhibit symptoms, such as respiratory symptoms, sore throats, headaches, itchy eyes and skin rashes if they are exposed.

Many health experts believe that products used to clean and disinfect our schools should be bio-based (made from substances derived from plants, minerals, forestry or marine materials) and even if used undiluted, which is often the case, present no potential for harm.

The USDA Bio-Preferred Program or the ChildSafe School Program of Grassroots Environmental Education have the highest standards and have listed the safest products to use in schools.

New York State passed a law regarding the use of green cleaning products in schools, but the petrochemical industry quietly inserted a clause making the entire law optional. As a result, some schools are following the law; others are not.

But here is some good news!

In New York, we have passed the only comprehensive ban on the use of pesticides on school grounds, including playgrounds and playing fields.

This law, first and only in the nation, prohibits the use of pesticides at all schools, K-12, including daycare centers. There are exemptions for poison ivy and other “public health” threats, but overall it has been a successful law.

That said, even as we have worked hard to find solutions for some threats to our children’s health at schools, new threats are emerging. Three new environmental exposure issues that have come under increasing scrutiny in the past few years are LED lighting, wireless radiation and synthetic turf.

LED light bulbs are typically specified for school lighting and it’s easy to understand why. Compared to incandescent lighting, they use a lot less energy and therefore reduce operating costs.

But medical researchers are beginning to warn of an unexpected problem: LED lights contain high levels of “blue” light, and exposure to this short wavelength, high energy light from lighting fixtures, tablets and computers can have an adverse impact on the retina of the eye.

Children are particularly vulnerable, so it is recommended that schools choose bulbs with a lower color temperature, such as 3,000K or below, not those harsh “white” daylight bulbs in the 5,000K-6,000K range.

Better yet, schools could go with long-life incandescent bulbs. No risk.

Microwave radiation from wireless devices in schools is a difficult issue to address because of the tremendous push toward screen learning, the popularity of wireless devices and the inherently slow pace of science regarding the biological impacts of exposure to RF radiation.

While scientists cannot yet prove an absolute cause-and-effect relationship between exposure and disease, they are closing in on how wireless radiation impacts our nervous and reproductive systems, damages DNA and may cause harm to the developing fetus. More careful placement of routers, turning them off when not in use and most importantly, installing Ethernet connections whenever possible will reduce exposure risks.

Finally, a word about synthetic turf.

Many schools are installing these fields, spending millions of dollars to have kids play on 40,000 old ground-up tires, inhaling the dust and enduring searing heat and toxic fumes. The EPA has withdrawn it safety assurance for these fields, the state Health Department is reconsidering its assurance of safety, and more and more communities are thinking twice before spending the money for a synthetic turf field.

Similar problems are found with recycled rubber tire playground surfaces. More about this in a future column.

So, is your child’s school a healthy school?

As a parent, you have the right to know who is making decisions that impact the health of your child, and how those decisions are being made. You can learn more about the science behind these exposures – and the solutions that are available at

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