In this special report, Sick Schools: A National Problem, Education World examines the dilemma sick schools create for school officials. The issues include disclosure, liability, identification, and funding remedies. Included: Steps school officials can take now to improve 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.
The causes of those common health afflictions are generally mold, fumes from cleaning agents and pesticides, and poor ventilation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The good news is that most of those causes can be easily and inexpensively corrected through regular maintenance. Other solutions -- such as repairing or replacing roofs and removing hazardous waste or mitigating the waste's effects -- are more costly. The most expensive solution is to close down an existing school and build a new school at another site.
Without laws to guide them, school districts without deep pockets have difficulty finding and funding long-term solutions to environmental problems. Linking environmental conditions to illnesses isn't always clear-cut. Though researchers are able to establish statistically high rates of specific illnesses, they are sometimes unable to explain the exact causes of those illnesses. Without solid proof, school administrators are often in a quandary about what action they should or should not take.
"In general, schools are reluctant to make expensive environmental changes," states Dr. Joel Forman, assistant professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "This is an area without the solid proof that we would like. There are a number of studies that associate respiratory symptoms, which can cause headaches, with moist and moldy conditions in schools that are quite suggestive. Anecdotal evidence supports this." Forman says research also warrants concern about the effects of long-term pesticide exposure.
HEALTH RISKS TOO HIGH A PRICE
For some school districts, potential and increased health risks outweigh the cost savings of doing nothing. Some parents complained to the school board of the Onteora (N.Y.) School District that their children's asthma was worsening. Even parents of children who had been previously healthy began suffering from various respiratory problems, says Hal Rowe, the district's superintendent of schools. Some school staff members lodged complaints too.
The students were housed in 27-year-old modular classrooms, Rowe explains. Testing found that the floorboards had become saturated with moisture and that mold was a problem.
"The students should have been out of there a long time ago," Rowe tells Education World. The community and school board agreed that the children -- about 120 students -- should be immediately relocated.
SHOULD SCHOOLS TELL PARENTS?
Another predicament school officials face with sick schools is the issue of disclosure. Even school staffs are often unaware of potential health problems caused by conditions in a particular school building unless concerned parents, staff, or local media publicize the problem. Because establishing scientific causality for building-related illnesses is difficult, concerned residents are often considered troublemakers or unreasonable by some in the community.
High rates of school absenteeism are often the first clue to a problem. But even high rates of absenteeism can be attributed -- often correctly -- to contagious illnesses typical in school-aged populations.
Unhealthful environmental conditions pose greater health risks to children because they are more vulnerable to toxic substances than adults are; children breathe more air relative to their size than adults do, exposing them to relatively higher amounts of contaminants.
EPA RECOMMENDS WALK THROUGH SCHOOL
"We don't advise schools to test initially, but rather, to do a walk-through of the school," recommends Mary Smith, director of the Indoor Environments Division of the EPA. The first step for school districts is to establish a committee to conduct a school-wide inspection to identify possible areas that might cause health problems. The EPA provides Tools for Schools, a guidebook to help schools identify potential environmental problems.
According to Smith, many of the solutions are very simple, such as making sure there are no books or other materials on heating vents to help ensure proper classroom ventilation. Another key indicator of potential problems --discolored ceiling tiles -- can be found during a simple walk-through. Water leakage is an indication of mold contamination, she said.
CONGRESSIONAL FUNDING PART OF REMEDY
Not all the solutions for correcting environmental problems are inexpensive and simple. A study of the infrastructure of U.S. schools in 2000 by the National Education Association found that one-third of school buildings need major repairs or total replacement. Among the repair problems are those that cause poor environmental conditions, such as leaking roofs that increase mold; poor ventilation systems; and old, dirty carpets. The NEA report Modernizing Our Schools: What Will It Cost? estimates the total cost for school modernization to be $322 billion, triple the estimate the U.S. General Accounting Office made in 1995.
Rural schools report the most need and the highest rate of environmental problems compared with those located in urban fringe areas, according to a report released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The report, Conditions of America's Public School Facilities: 1999, found that the nation's oldest schools are most in need of attention but that many of those schools do not have plans for improvement. Funding problems are the chief barrier to making repairs.