In the first part of the special report Sick Schools: A National Problem, Education World news editor Diane Weaver Dunne describes how environmental conditions in school may make students sick, yet no federal laws protect students from exposure to contaminants that pose potential health risks. Included: Tips from the EPA for improving indoor air quality.
Note: This article is part of a five-part series originally published in June 2001. Links have been updated for this reposting of the article.
Ten-year-old Hope Carlson has been doing her daily schoolwork at home since last winter -- on her doctor's advice. Though the Windham (N.Y.) fifth grader had begun the school year in good health, by last October, her asthma had significantly worsened. She became lethargic, developed dark circles under her eyes, complained about chronic headaches, and no longer wanted to play with her friends.
Hope's doctor suspected that the environmental conditions in Hope's classroom might have been causing her illness -- a condition referred to as a building-related illness, or sick-school syndrome.
Hope's classroom was located in an older addition to the Windham-Ashland-Jewett Central School. Her symptoms improved soon after she began studying only at home.
Mary Weston met with school officials. She strongly advocated closing down the section of the K-12 school her daughter attended. School officials responded to her concerns about indoor air quality and mold contamination by having the building inspected by the state's department of health. A state inspection of 13 sections of the school found three areas with slight to moderate mold growth. Based on those findings, the state determined the school did not have a mold problem. However, Weston countered that the testing was not an accurate depiction of the environmental conditions of the classroom, noting that school staff had filled some of the vents with cement and removed some of the discolored ceiling tiles.A subsequent state inspection found that the classrooms had poor ventilation based on high carbon dioxide readings. Carbon dioxide by itself does not make people sick, but it does indicate inadequate ventilation, the state report said. Of the 14 carbon dioxide readings, six were more than twice the recommended level. Carbon dioxide levels were reduced in some classrooms only when the windows were opened. But open windows resulted in a chilly, uncomfortable room, the report also states.
"My daughter was going to a school that was not ventilated, is filthy, and has had a ceiling that has been leaking for six years," Weston says.
School superintendent Thomas E. Wolf and the state health risk officer assigned to evaluate the school did not return calls from Education World about the school's condition.
Wolf banned Weston from entering school property after arranging for home tutoring for Hope. He cited the district's policy governing public conduct, which lists more than 20 conducts prohibited on school grounds, as the reason for banning Weston from school grounds. He did not, however, specify which rule Weston violated.
In a letter to school parents, Wolf explained that school officials have contracted with an industrial cleaning consultant as well as consultants to conduct further testing of mold, lead, carbon dioxide, and radon.
STUDENTS NOT PROTECTED BY FEDERAL LAWS
Weston's struggle to improve the environmental conditions of her daughter's classroom is not unique. Nearly one-fifth of the nation's population spends its days in school buildings, yet no federal laws protect students and teachers from environmental conditions in or near those buildings that pose potential health risks. In addition, no federal laws establish indoor air quality or ventilation standards, guidelines for the use of pesticides in and outside of classrooms, or standards for locating new schools near industrial facilities that emit toxins or on landfills.
Though adults who work in the private sector enjoy the protection of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, children do not benefit from occupational health and safety standards, Barnett says. Some states have adopted OSHA guidelines for pubic employees; however, OSHA established standards based on exposure limits for healthy adult males, Barnett points out. "OSHA has nothing to do with women and children."
EPA PROVIDES TOOLKIT FOR SCHOOLS
Although no federal indoor air quality standards protect women and children in schools, the Environmental Protection Agency does provide some guidance for schools.
The EPA provides a written guidebook that schools can use, says Mary Smith, director of the Indoor Environments Division of the EPA. The Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools guidebook was created in response to a 1995 General Accounting Office report that found that ventilation was a problem in many of our nation's schools.
According to Smith, setting standards for indoor air quality is difficult. "We do not have a clear sense of what level [of volatile organic compounds] becomes an issue for health," she said. Volatile organic compounds, referred to as VOCs, are characterized as any compounds of carbon, excluding carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, metallic carbides or carbonates, and ammonium carbonate that participate in atmospheric photochemical reactions. VOCs are commonly found in copiers, paints, cleaners, and solvents.
"There is no requirement, federal standard, or legislation for school ventilation rates," Smith explains. "It is up to the school districts." However, voluntary standards are available that guide the installation of ventilation systems when new schools are constructed, she adds.