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Causes and Effects
of Sick Schools Vary

In this special report, Sick Schools: A National Problem, Education World examines the varied causes and effects of environmental problems in our nation's schools. Research has found links between learning and environmental contaminants. Are school environments resulting in increased numbers of children with learning disabilities and ADHD? Can sick schools affect student concentration? Can school overcrowding exacerbate problems? Included: General Accounting Office report confirms extent of environmental problems affecting schools.

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.

More than 20 million children in the United States attend a school that has at least one environmental problem. According to the 1995 General Accounting Office report School Facilities: Condition of America's Schools, administrators at about half the nation's 115,000 schools reported at least one environmental problem in their schools.

See the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities Web page for other reports.
Students who attend schools in districts that do not correct conditions that pose potential health risks might eventually pay a high price for the districts' inaction. The Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that exposure to hazardous elements inside schools is expected to cause serious illnesses over time. The agency estimates that at least 1,000 people will die prematurely from exposure to asbestos in schools. It also estimates another 4 million children may be exposed to uncontrolled hazardous waste sites or spills because they live within 1 mile of a hazardous waste site.

Another EPA study of 29 schools across the nation determined that one in five schools has a radon level above the recommended level. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers.


The EPA is calling for more research about how toxic elements affect children. According to the EPA, the number of children diagnosed with chronic childhood diseases such as asthma and cancer has increased significantly, and those escalating rates warrant closer study of the environment as the underlying cause of the diseases.

Sick Schools: A National Problem

Be sure to read all five parts of Education World's special report on the environmental conditions of our nation's school buildings, the health consequences for students and staff, and what school officials can do.
* Environmental Problems Blamed for Making Kids Sick
* Environmental Injustice: Poor and Minorities Suffer Most from Sick Schools
* Schools + Landfills Might Add Up to Health Problems
* Causes and Effects of Sick Schools Vary
* Sick Schools Create Dilemma for School Districts

The most dramatic increase in health problems caused by environmental conditions has been childhood asthma rates. The EPA report states that the number of children with asthma in the United States increased 75 percent between 1980 and 1994. That rise affected all racial and ethnic groups.

Asthma diagnoses have increased at even greater rates for children under five years old during the past 15 years, increasing about 160 percent, notes Mary Smith, director of the Indoor Environments Division of the EPA. "Nobody really knows why it's happening," she says. "But it is true that indoor air triggers asthma attacks and causes asthma."

The EPA yearbook reports that children today are being raised in a different environment than were most of today's adults. During the past few decades, the United States produced about 50,000 new synthetic chemicals, and many of those chemicals are dispersed in the environment. "Exposures to certain carcinogens in the environment may be associated with certain cancers," according to the EPA study. Among the leading carcinogens are radon, asbestos, some hazardous wastes, and some pesticides.


A more common concern about environmental safety in schools pertains to the use of pesticides. Research has linked exposure to some pesticides and insecticides to leukemia, brain tumors, and other cancers in children.

Although 30 states have some type of provision regarding pesticide use, the provisions vary, explains Kagan Owens, program director for NCAMPS and coauthor of the report. "There were huge holes within those states. Federal law will really protect everyone, no matter where you live."

The EPA recommends the voluntary use of integrated pest management, a method that effectively eliminates pests while minimizing the amount of pesticides.


The EPA also cites exposure to hazardous chemicals as a possible cause of some of the rising number of learning-disabled students. Exposure to lead, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) is suspected of causing harmful and sometimes permanent neurological effects in children. For example, research suggests that lead may cause lowered intelligence, reading and learning disabilities, impaired hearing, reduced attention span, hyperactivity, and antisocial behavior.

According to the EPA, 900,000 children in the United States have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Interior classrooms painted before 1978 in which walls are flaking paint chips may expose children to lead.

However, the jury is still out about whether the dramatic rise in learning disorders, particularly the significant rise in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), might be caused by exposure to chemicals. "My view is that evidence establishing a direct link between chemicals and ADHD is still quite limited," says John Wargo, an associate professor of environmental policy and risk analysis at Yale University and author of Our Children's Toxic Legacy (Yale Press, 1998). Wargo is currently researching the issue and writing a new book to be published by Yale Press early next year that will cover the issue in depth.

"That does not mean there is no relation between chemicals and ADHD, only that identifying a causal relation is extremely difficult, given the sea of synthetic chemicals kids are exposed to on a daily basis," Wargo tells Education World. "My instinct is that it only makes sense to prevent children's exposure to chemicals known to affect the nervous system, and those include pesticides, solvents, many volatile organic compounds, metals, PCBs, and thousands of other poorly tested synthetic chemicals now in commerce. That is a tall order, given broad misunderstanding of where those chemicals may be found -- in air, water, waste, and consumer products."


The most common environmental problem reported by schools is poor indoor air quality, or poor ventilation. A 1996 European study of 800 students from eight different schools documents a reduction in mental ability caused by poor indoor air quality. The study was presented at the Seventh International Conference on Indoor Air Quality and Climate in 1996. That study and others are now linking performance to changes in indoor air quality, according to the EPA. Poor ventilation generally reduces a person's ability to perform specific mental tasks requiring concentration, calculation, or memory and therefore affects academic achievement, the study reports.

Another consequence of poor ventilation in school buildings is high rates of carbon dioxide, which is not a health threat but does indicate poor ventilation and therefore high rates of indoor air pollution. Carbon dioxide is primarily generated by exhalation from people inside the building, according to the EPA. Student scores on concentration tests were low in classrooms with high rates of carbon dioxide. With proper ventilation and improved management of indoor air quality, student performance improves, the EPA states.

Overcrowding also exacerbates the problem of indoor air quality in buildings with poor ventilation. The National Education Association reports that schools have four times as many occupants per square foot as office buildings. The NEA also notes that many school ventilation systems were not constructed to accommodate significant increases in student population.


Often school nurses are the first to notice a problem based on student and staff complaints. The National Association of School Nurses wants to help alert officials and remedy problems associated with poor indoor air quality, noting that it is considered among the top public environmental health risks. The association cites EPA research that has found that levels of indoor air contaminants might be two to five times greater than outdoor levels.

Association officials believe that school nurses should educate students, staff, and parents about indoor air quality issues. The association states in Position Statement: Indoor Air Quality that it wants to "work with administration, maintenance, personnel, and other health professions in detecting, monitoring, and eliminating sources of indoor air contaminants."