ABCs for a Healthy School
Studies show that children learn and behave better in schools that maintain a healthy indoor environment. There are many practical, cost-effective steps schools can take to protect the health of students and staff. Parents can use the following important goals to start asking questions and join in the effort to help their school promote a healthy environment:
- Protect the children in your school from exposure to pesticides. Schools should have policies to prohibit the most toxic pesticides and take action to reduce pest problems by eliminating food, water, and shelter for pests, sealing cracks and crevices in buildings, installing door sweeps, and proper cleaning. Learn more about Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in schools here.
- Improve school air with an indoor air quality (IAQ) plan. Sources of indoor air pollution in schools are varied and can include mold, combustion products like carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from toxic building materials. There are many simple steps schools can take to promote healthy air including opening fresh air intakes and windows to increase ventilation and using “walk-off” mats at all entrances to collect dirt and moisture. Learn more via EPA’s IAQ Tools for Schools.
- Renovate and perform maintenance safely, and use new construction projects as an opportunity to incorporate healthy building materials. School renovations or repairs should include a plan to keep occupants safe from lead, asbestos, and PCBs that may be present. Use renovations as an opportunity to incorporate green building materials at your school, like choosing safer alternatives to PVC building materials.
- Ensure that drinking water in your school is safe for children. Schools should test the water at drinking outlets to know if action to reduce lead exposure is needed. If there are elevated lead levels, use the EPA’s list of important short- and long-term steps your school can take to protect kids.
- Keep your school clean without dangerous chemicals. Use certified green cleaning products, such as those endorsed by Design for the Environment, along with advanced cleaning methods to prevent dirt and germs described in this Guide to Green Cleaning. Ensure disinfecting and sanitizing chemicals are used appropriately.
- Don’t overlook portable classrooms, which are vulnerable to air quality problems. Common problems in portable classrooms include poor ventilation systems, chemical off-gassing from pressed wood materials, and mold growth. Establish a plan for inspecting and performing specific maintenance tasks in your portable classrooms, just as you would with the main school facility, such as looking for water intrusion, and making sure ventilation systems are functioning properly.
- Stop unnecessary idling of buses and cars at school drop-off zones where kids breathe harmful exhaust. There are great programs with ready-to-use resources and free signage to help your school start a “no-idle zone.” If you’re in the Puget Sound area, check out CoolMom and Airwatch NW for toolkits.
- Eliminate stockpiles of hazardous and unneeded chemicals used in science labs, art studios, and custodial areas, and properly store the remaining chemicals. The King County Rehab the Lab Project, Art Chemical Hazards Project and School Chemicals List help simplify this process.
- Use least-toxic, low-odor supplies in the classroom. Schools should avoid buying or recommending supplies that involve hazardous chemicals, like air fresheners, toxic paints, glues, dry erase markers etc. If dry erase markers must be used, teachers should use low-odor versions such as Auspen, and maintain good ventilation.
- Get the guidance you need from an established healthy schools program to help parents, teachers, staff and students make positive changes at your school. Many states have their own programs to certify and guide schools in this process; for example, Washington Green Schools has resources, assessments, and action plans. Nationally, the EPA offers many programs. Get kids involved in making and maintaining a healthy school environment with interactive educational tools like NRDC’s Green Squad.