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Sick Schools
Create Dilemma
for School Districts

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.

A Dozen Quick Fixes

School officials can take some easy steps to help improve their schools' air quality; click here for Tips for School Officials.

Sick schools often cause a dilemma for school officials. Many administrators, though experts in education, simply don't know how to go about identifying the culprit that is making the schools' children and staff ill. Though the most common health problems are not life threatening, illnesses such as upper respiratory illnesses, chronic headaches, stomachaches, and the exacerbation of asthma do interfere with learning and teaching.

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.


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.


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.

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

"Most of the time, many people in the building mirror other people who are suffering silently," says Claire Barnett, director of Healthy Schools Network. "It's the dirty little secret of sick schools. It's never one person suffering; it's always a cluster of people getting sick. That is a dead giveaway."

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.


"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.


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.

Tips for School Officials

There are several simple, low-cost steps school officials can take to improve a school's indoor air quality, reducing unhealthful environmental conditions for their students and staff. The following recommendations are from the Environmental Protection Agency Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Tools for Schools program, the Healthy Schools Network, and Beyond Pesticides, National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides.

  • Select a committee of staff, including maintenance staff, and parents to walk through the school building to identify potential environmental contaminants or problems by following the EPA Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Kit.
  • When touring the school, committee members should take notice of any musty, stale odors; sewer gas smells; visible mold or water damage on ceilings, walls, floors, carpets; pest damage or droppings; dirty carpets; broken toilets or sinks; or chemical fumes.
  • Discuss the committee's findings with the maintenance staff, and develop plans to correct and modify regular maintenance procedures that are not in compliance with EPA recommendations.
  • Discuss routine maintenance practices and how staff can reduce exposure to students of cleaning supplies, pesticides, and other chemicals during regular school hours.
  • Present to the school board the committee's findings that will require additional funding outside the school's annual budget.
  • Develop a preventive maintenance plan for heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems.
  • Review integrated pest management procedures with staff. Some advocacy groups recommend that schools notify parents in advance to alert them that pesticides will be applied, to apply pesticides after hours, when school is not in session, and to post warning signs for indoor and outdoor pesticide applications.
  • Ascertain whether the climate control in individual classrooms is too hot or too cold and correct.
  • Inform teachers that they should be sure all heating vents are clear of classroom materials. Poor ventilation has been found to affect concentration.
  • Avoid having school buses idle in front of open school doors or near the building's ventilation units; bus exhaust can significantly increase the level of carbon monoxide inside the building. Maintenance staff can improve indoor air quality by shutting off the intake ventilation system and closing exterior doors during school bus arrival and departure times.
  • Limit painting, applying floor finishes, or doing other repairs or maintenance procedures that require chemical products to when students are not inside the building.
  • Replace water-damaged carpets with floor tiles. Damp carpets can become a primary source for microbial growth, often causing adverse health effects.