Top Ten Concerns for a Healthful School Environment

Research was done at Texas Women's University to establish some ecological guidelines for a healthful school building. In this study the Delphi technique - a research method that elicits the opinions of experts to project information on a specific subject - was used to design a series of three questionnaires. Sixty environmental specialists from 26 U.S. states and two other countries participated in the study, giving their opinions on the construction and maintenance of healthful school buildings.

The experts agreed on ten areas of major concern, which are listed below in their order of importance, along with a brief description of each. A full description can be found in the primary reference below, Chapter 10 "Top Ten Concerns for a Healthful School Environment" by Norma Miller, Ed.D.

1. heating, cooling and ventilation

The heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems (HVAC) are the lungs of the school building that control the quality of the indoor air, thus affecting the health, learning ability and productivity of the students. In some schools, the fresh air supply has been completely closed off. Sometimes the HVAC units are not cleaned regularly. When drip pans are not kept clean, slime will collect and microorganisms can grow in them. Good filters are necessary and should be cleaned or changed regularly. Filters that are not serviced regularly may have molds growing in them, and may release allergens into the classroom. Heating-cooling units in individual rooms are often full of filth, and need to be cleaned thoroughly on a regular basis.

2. pest controls

In a survey in New York state, it was found that 87% of the schools used pesticides, all of which "contained substances which may cause immediate or long-term health problems." In Texas, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is the preferred method of treatment for all schools. IPM is a systems approach that seeks to reduce pest damage to tolerable levels but does not necessarily eradicate a pest species. It first uses the least toxic methods of pest control. Only after all nontoxic methods have proved to be ineffective is a chemical pesticide introduced. School staff members who are afraid of insects may need to be retrained to understand IPM methods in order to provide an environment that is nontoxic to both students and faculty.

3. cleaning products

Products used to clean schools should not leave toxic fumes in the indoor air. Most scouring powders are corrosive and contain toxic irritancs such as ammonia, ethanol or chlorine bleach. Disinfectants may contain naptha, cresol, lye and formaldehyde. Waxes and floor stippers contain toxic chemicals that can linger for days inside a schoolroom. School maintenance departments should use high quality floor wax when school is not in session, and maintain it well so that it will not have to be stripped for three to five years.

4. chemicals

Photocopiers, spirit duplicating machines, mimeograph machines, blueprint machines amd electronic stencil markers are among polluting devices found in schools. Various chemicals are used in science labs, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from various sources can be found in the air of any classroom. Management and maintenance personnel should implement plans to keep the school environment free from extraneous volatile organic compounds.

Aerosol cans, solvents, correction fluid and felt markers should also be stored securely, since some tudents abuse such substances by inhaling them, if they have access to them.

5. fragrances

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA), fragrances cause 30% of all allergic reactions. When exposed to perfume, more than 70% of asthmatics develop respiratory symptoms. Challenge testing of children has confirmed that perfume often shuts down learning capacity. Various experts ahve advised that teachers should avoid perfume and chemical fragrance products, including scented soaps and hair sprays, after-shave lotions, and colognes.

6. site selection

While no urban site is completely safe, careful site selection can lesson school pollution significantly. A school building 1,000 feet from a highway will have approximately 10% of the exhaust-related pollution of a building situated 300 feet from the same highway. Schools should not be built near major highways, railroads, airports, television or radio stations, microwave towers, high power electrical lines, toxic dumps or garbage incinerators.

7. lighting

Inadequate daytime light exposure can foster problems such as lethargy, which works against educational objectives. Some experts believe that daylight, with all its subtle changes of sunlight from dawn to nightfall, is the best base for providing healthy lighting in a classroom.

8. remodeling the school building

Remodeling often includes the installation of new floors, painting, or roof repairs, all of which could add pollutants to the indoor air of the school. For safety there should be a clear separation between new construction or renovation activities and the occupants of an existing school building. Remodeling should be done with low-emission materials and accomplished at those times in the school year when school is not in session. If school is in session, extra cleanup should be performed to reduce the potential for contamination.

9. floors

Floors in school buildings should be durable and easy to clean, and they should not expose students and facult to troxic substances. Although carpet has many aesthetic and acoustic properties, some adverse health reactions from wall-to-wall carpeting have been reported. If carpet is used, it should be steam-cleaned two to three times a year using an unscented detergent.

10. art supplies

Elementary schools should have only art supplies specifically designed for children. On nontoxic art products the label should read: "conforms to ASTM-D4236". If toxic substances are used by a teacher, they should be used when children are not in the classroom, and the room should be aired out before the children return. Toxic art materials enter the body through inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact. The art room should be well ventilated with appropriate exhaust hoods, and students should not eat food there. All students should wash their hands thoroughly at the end of art projects.

  Record #26, revised 1/15/2001


Related Topics (click for further information)


Related Case Studies

Primary Sources

1. The Healthy School Handbook


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