by Rose Marie Williams
School Environment – Healthy or Hazardous?
We like to think schools are safe,
healthy places that create an atmosphere conducive to learning, creativity
and mind broadening experiences. In some cases, quite the opposite is
Modern construction materials,
toxic chemical exposure and poor indoor air quality can impede learning,
dull mental acuity, induce behavior disorders, and contribute to myriad
health problems, not the least of which is asthma.
Parents, educators, and physicians
need to become more aware of these environmental issues in order to
act as true advocates for children’s health. Administrators, teachers,
custodial and cafeteria staff need to learn more about the products
they are exposed to in the workplace.
It is naive to expect government
regulatory agencies to always act on our behalf. There are too many
reasons why this often does not work. This column will highlight a few
problems affecting children’s health in the school environment.
Pesticides in Schools
Schools use toxic chemicals for pest
and termite control in buildings; on lawns, trees, and athletic fields;
as disinfectants and deodorizers; and as wood preservatives on “treated
lumber” in playground equipment.
Synthetic pesticides, largely
derived from petroleum products, include insecticides, fungicides, herbicides
and rodenticides. The United States Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) registers these products because they are harmful to all living
It is a federal offense to
advertise registered products as safe. Registration merely
implies that the active ingredient will do what the label claims – kill
or diminish some life form. Using a registered product in a manner not
consistent with the directions is also a breach of law.
Pesticides are poisons that
not only kill the target pest, but pose a serious threat to other organisms.
Repeated exposures to small doses can be very harmful to humans and
Some pesticides pose an additional
threat because they are long lasting in an indoor environment. Dursban
(active ingredient – chlorpyrifos) is one such chemical found to linger
on furniture and release vapors into the air weeks after being sprayed.1
Chlorpyrifos, associated with
numerous toxic health effects in children and birth defects in newborns,
has finally been restricted by the EPA as of June, 2000, following years
of lobbying efforts by health advocacy groups.
Pesticides and Children
The two major classes of pesticides
– organophosphate and carbamate insecticides – kill insects by disrupting
nerve transmission. The nervous systems of humans are similarly affected
by these neurotoxins.
Pesticides and children are
a dangerous mix. Children are not merely miniature adults. They are
more susceptible to exposure to pesticides for several reasons. Children
play closer to the ground where pesticides are directly sprayed, and
on floors or rugs where pesticides are tracked in on shoes.
Children’s unique eating patterns
and hand to mouth behavior expose them to more pesticides than adults.
They take in more food, water, and air per body weight than adults.
Their skin is more absorbent to lipophilic agents than adults.2
ability to detoxify and excrete pesticides, and the rapid growth, development,
and differentiation of their vital organ systems compounds their risks
of exposure to chemicals. Children’s underdeveloped immune systems make
them more vulnerable to the toxic effects of pesticides.3
Some 70,000 chemicals are in the
marketplace, the great majority of which came into use before any testing
was mandated. When EPA was created their testing protocol did not even
consider the effects of pesticides on children.
Research of chemical toxicity
on lab specimens was extrapolated to consider health effects on an adult
male weighing 170 pounds. No thought was given to the toxic effects
these chemicals would have on a 60 pound child or 30 pound toddler.
Testing is only done on the
active ingredient which may compose as little as 1% to 10% of the total
product. The other ingredients are listed as “inert,” when they often
contain active compounds, some more toxic than the active ingredient
listed on the label.4
Little or no testing
is done on the synergistic activity of all ingredients in a marketed
product, nor is there any government or industry testing on the adverse
or long range effects, or from exposure to multiple products as exist
in real life situations.
Carpeting in the Classroom
In an effort to modernize and quiet
down classroom noise many schools now use rugs. However, there is more
to carpeting than meets the eye. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted
by carpet backings and adhesives have been blamed for health problems
ranging from nausea to skin irritation.
Synthetic glues and fibers
release toxic chemical fumes contributing to indoor air problems. Studies
involving carpet installation workers have determined higher levels
of leukemia, central nervous system damage, lung, oral, and testicular
Even small amounts of fumes
can cause serious health problems. One study of mice exposed to carpet
fumes developed abnormalities of their respiratory, neuromuscular and
neurological systems. Many died, and autopsies found kidney damage and
lesions in the liver and brain. It didn’t matter if the carpeting was
brand new, or twelve years old!5
To further illustrate
the serious health risks associated with carpeting, insurance companies
are reluctant to grant life insurance to rug installers, who must first
sign a release against future cancers developed down the road.
There are several things to
be aware of concerning carpeting: 1) the glues, latex backings, and
rubber padding are all toxic and off-gas, 2) pesticides used to control
carpet beetles may include arsenic and benzene, 3) carpets become reservoirs
for tracked in pesticides, heavy metals, and other toxins.6
Symptoms of Pesticide Exposure
Some pesticides used in school buildings
and on playing fields may damage the kidneys or liver, and cause tumors
or cancer. It is mind boggling to think about young folks engaging in
heavy exercise, breathing heavily, and rolling around on pesticide treated
turf at schools, parks, and playing fields.
Additional symptoms of acute
pesticide exposure may include headaches, nausea, dizziness, diarrhea,
vomiting, confusion, memory loss, moodiness, learning problems, hyperactivity,
fatigue, sleep disorders, loss of coordination, weakness, skin rashes,
and respiratory problems.7
Asthma is the 3rd leading cause of
hospitalization for children in the United States. It is the largest
single cause of school absenteeism, according to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention. Asthma deaths among young adults and children
have increased an alarming 118% between 1980 and 1993.8 Meanwhile
the incidence of asthma nationwide has increased 73% between 1982 and
1994, according to the American Lung Association of New York.9
A recently passed law
in New York State now requires all schools to permit children with asthma
to carry their inhalers while in school, with permission from a parent
and physician. That this became necessary points to a serious indoor
air problem in the school setting.10
As mentioned previously, there is
very little research looking at the cumulative effects of chemical exposure.
However a new five-year study at the University of Wisconsin looked
at the effects on mice exposed to a mixture of commonly used carbamate
insecticides, the triazine herbicides and nitrogen at levels typically
found in drinking water.
Findings showed detrimental
effects on the nervous, immune, and endocrine (hormone) systems which
has direct implications for humans. If any of these three closely connected
systems is damaged, or degraded, it may have an adverse effect on the
Observations included interference
in thyroid hormone levels, reduced body weight, immune dysfunction and
increased aggressive behavior.11
A recent study of four
and five year old Yaqui Indian children in Mexico noted impaired mental
and physical ability and increased aggression among children exposed
to pesticides in the lowland farming district. Yaqui children residing
in the upland ranching area with no pesticide exposure did not demonstrate
any impairment of developmental skills.12
We are asking why there
is an increase in childhood cancer, asthma and violent behavior. Thus
far modern science has produced unsatisfactory answers. Like the song
about love, perhaps scientists are looking in all the wrong places.
More attention should focus on the synergistic effect of multiple chemicals
and multiple exposures.
Pesticide Reduction and Alternatives
Many localities have adopted pesticide
policies or programs that require schools to use integrated pest management
(IPM), prohibit use of toxic pesticides, and/or provide prior notification
of pesticide application. IPM is a process that
reduces dependence on toxic chemicals by seeking alternative approaches
to dealing with pests by sealing off routes of entry, removing water
and food attractants, using natural fertilizer for proper field maintenance,
and substituting more natural cleansers and disinfectants.
Because of a growing awareness
about pesticide exposure some communities are introducing legislation
that will give neighbors advance notice of when a commercial pesticide
application will occur. This allows neighbors to take necessary precautions
to close their windows, keep children and pets indoors, or leave for
a few hours if they choose.
Such a bill had been tossed
around the New York State Legislature for three years. In response to
the Long Island breast cancer activists the NY Assembly supported a
bill which would include notification to parents of daycare centers
and school children. The NY Senate not only left these important aspects
out of their version, but bowing to industry demands, they decided the
bill should be optional for each county within the state.
Rather than suffer another
defeat, environmental advocates pushed for passage of the weakened Senate
bill (June, 2000) and immediately embarked on amending it to include
daycare centers and schools. I mention this to illustrate how “government”
often favors the interests of industry over the interests of public
health, in this case the health of children.
Location, Location and Location
With an eye to the bottom line, school
districts often purchase inexpensive land upon which to erect school
buildings. Such parcels are often located on covered landfills, some
highly toxic like Love Canal in Niagara, NY, or on top of an oil field
like the abandoned $125 million high school project in Los Angeles.
Other sites are situated on old farm land where persistent chemicals
may linger in soil, or next to a working farm with seasonal pesticide
spraying, or downwind from a toxin-spewing industrial facility.
Invisible Danger from Power Lines
Another poor choice for locating
a school is near high power lines. Electromagnetic fields (EMFs) may
be invisible, but that does not mean they are safe Scientific studies
are controversial and inconclusive, depending on the source of information.
Most of the studies indicating
a health risk have been done outside the United States. Swedish researchers
observed a clear dose-response relationship between increasing magnetic-field
exposure and the occurrence of childhood leukemia. Children in homes
exposed to average power-line fields of more than one milligauss had
twice the risk of developing leukemia as children living in homes exposed
to fields of less than one milligauss. Children exposed to more than
two milligauss had almost three times the risk; and children exposed
to more than three milligauss had nearly four times the risk.13
Admittedly, this test
was conducted on exposure to children’s domiciles. However, since children
spend a substantial part of a day at school, any EMF exposure at the
school site might have significant impact on children’s health.
In spite of the lack of conclusive
evidence in our own country, there have been many instances when parents,
or workers, suspected a problem and initiated investigation on their
own. This is precisely what occurred in 1991 at an elementary school
in Bolingbrook Illinois, located within seventy to 100 feet of a utility
right-of-way containing a 345,000-volt transmission line and a 138,000-volt
Engineers from the utility
company took magnetic field readings throughout the building. The rooms
closest to the power lines had the highest levels, between two and a
half to eight milligauss. A week later, engineers from the University
of Illinois Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineering recorded
a magnetic field as high as 20(!) milligauss in one fourth grade classroom,
which had to be evacuated. Measurements taken at another elementary
school located several miles away from the power lines recorded ambient
fields of as little as .1 and .4 milligauss.14
An informal 1993 survey
of the affected school revealed some interesting findings. Out of forty
faculty members in the building, seven, whose classrooms were closest
to the power lines, developed a variety of cancers, had one baby with
birth defects, and one young student died of brain cancer.15
The most frustrating
thing is that parent and faculty concerns were ignored by the school
administrators, health officials, the EPA, and the utility company.
The reason? A threatened drop in property values. This scenario plays
out in communities all across America.
A similar problem in Houston,
Texas in 1985, had a more positive outcome when a jury found “clear
and convincing evidence” of potential power-line health risks and awarded
damages to the school district, forcing the utility to relocate their
In 1994 an elementary
school in Clifton, New Jersey, adjacent to two very high voltage transmission
lines recorded magnetic fields between 23.7 and 41.6 milligauss. At
about the same time measurements taken by a parent at an early childhood
center on Long Island, New York recorded a magnetic field in excess
of 90 milligauss! This was later confirmed by engineers from the utility
company. It was believed to be caused by a high current cable running
through the floor of the classroom.17
Whenever a small independent
study shows a possible link between EMFs and health risks, the industrial/scientific
community responds by saying more studies are needed. However, little
or no grant money is made available to do independent research. On many
occasions researchers working with generous grants have had the grants
canceled and their positions curtailed if their findings were contrary
to corporate interests.
How many childhood leukemias,
or latent health problems might be related to EMF exposure in the school
or home setting will remain a mystery.
As though high voltage transmission
lines were not enough of a menace, a new threat looms on the horizon
(no pun intended). Cell towers are popping up all over the landscape.
The rapidly expanding telecommunications industry finds schools to be
very desirable sites.
Offers from telecommunications
companies to rent space are very tempting to school districts struggling
to balance budgets. Industry reps are quick to point out there are no
definitive studies “proving” a connection to cancer. It is not even
legal for citizens to raise health concerns regarding placement of cell
towers in their communities. Critics point to studies done in Australia,
New Zealand, Sweden, Poland and elsewhere, but are easily dismissed.
It may be a while before progress
is made about EMF exposure, but to finish up on a positive note there
is something afoot regarding pesticides in the school environment.
Thanks to the tireless efforts
of the National Campaign Against the Misuse of Pesticides (NCAMP) and
other environmental/health groups, there is now a bill before congress
called the School Environment Protection Act (SEPA), S.1716 /
H.R.3275. This bill gives national attention to the urgent need to better
protect children from pesticides typically used in schools.
Parents, health providers,
and others interested in children’s health are urged to contact their
Senators and Congressional Representatives recommending they co-sponsor
this bill, or at least support it. More information about the bill is
available from NCAMP’s website, www.ncamp.org, or email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Landrigan, P, et al, Pesticides and Inner-City Children:
Exposures, Risks, and Prevention, Environmental Health Perspectives,
Vol. 107, Supplement 3, pp. 431-7, June, 1999
4. Spitzer, Eliot, NYS Atty. Gen., The Secret Hazards of Pesticides:
Inert Ingredients, Environmental Protection Bureau, Albany, NY
5. Deuhring, C., Carpet Concerns, Part Two, Informed Consent,
7. “School Pesticide Fact Sheet: Why take a Chance When Alternatives
Work,” New York Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NYCAP), Albany,
8. Danserau, C., Protecting Children from Toxic Exposures: A New Emphasis
on Children, Alternatives, Vol.16, No.4 Winter 1997, Washington
9. Healthy Schools Network NEWS, Winter ‘99, Albany, NY
11. Montague, P., Rachel’s Environmental Health Weekly, #648,
April, 29, 2000 Annapolis, MD
13. Brodeur, P., The Great Power-Line Cover-Up, Little, Brown,
& Co., NY, 1995