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How to Make Your Child’s School Safer

Because 55 million kids in this country spend most of their waking hours in school, we need to start paying more attention to the cleanliness and safety of these buildings. Involved parents can make all the difference in bringing about the changes necessary to protect their children. Here’s what you can do, from Growing Up Green: Baby and Child Care by Deirdre Imus

We send our kids off to school so that they can learn and flourish in a safe, healthy environment. Unfortunately, many schools are contaminated with hazardous chemicals. Highly toxic pesticides are used on a regular basis to control pests in schools and on playing fields. The air children breathe may be filled with the byproducts of toxic molds from water-stained ceiling tiles or carpets or poorly maintained ventilation ducts. While the common cleaning products used in schools keep the floors, desks, and hallways germ free and smelling fresh, their fumes are potentially dangerous and pose a threat to the health of our children.

Because 55 million kids in this country spend most of their waking hours in school, we need to start paying more attention to the cleanliness and safety of these buildings. The adverse health effects of toxic exposures in the schools has been well documented:

  • On October 27, 1992, the Westchester County, New York, Department of Health closed down Eastchester High School for three weeks after students and staff complained of nausea, headaches, eye irritation, and respiratory problems. The day before, an exterminating company had applied the insecticides resmethrin, chlorpyrifos, and diazinon in the school.
  • Asthma, which is linked to exposure to toxins in the environment, is the number-one reason for school absenteeism and the number-one chronic childhood illness.
  • Conventional cleaning chemicals can contain neurotoxins, highly toxic materials that affect the nerve cells and may impair a child’s developmental and learning abilities.
  • A study published in the October 2003 edition of Environmental Health Perspectives found that teens showed a fourfold increased risk of illness from exposure to disinfectants than adults.
  • Several Seattle public schools found that the lead concentration in their water fountains exceeded the 20 parts per billion recommended by the EPA.
  • Many items containing mercury are found in schools. At a school in Connecticut, the simple act of cleaning out a supply closet resulted in twelve broken mercury laboratory thermometers. The school was evacuated and paid cleanup costs totaling six thousand dollars.
  • A report prepared by an environmental coalition that focused mainly on five states with large school-age populations — Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and California — concluded that more than six hundred thousand students were attending nearly twelve hundred public schools that are located within a half mile of federal Superfund or state-identified contaminated sites.
  • Many cleaning products used in schools, such as toilet bowl cleaners, mold and mildew sprays, and antibacterial cleaners contain carcinogens, mutagens, teratogens, and neurotoxins. These substances are known to cause or aggravate cancer, cause genetic changes in cells, and affect nerve cells.

These toxic exposures can lead to school absenteeism, learning disabilities, asthma, and other chronic health problems. Remember that knowledge is your best defense against these very real threats to our children’s health. Involved parents can make all the difference in bringing about the changes necessary to protect their children.

If we all join forces with other concerned parents in the community, we can force school officials to do a better job of reducing our children’s exposure to lead, mercury, pesticides, and other hazardous pollutants. There are lots of easy ways to create a safer school-day environment. Bring up your concerns with other parents at school meetings, and together you can:

  • Persuade the school administration to make the switch to nontoxic and biodegradable cleaning products that contain few or no volatile organic compounds. You don’t need dangerous chemicals to clean a school thoroughly and effectively.
  • Test for lead in water and replace old pipes, since children tend to absorb more lead than the average adult.
  • Work with your municipality to identify, collect, and recycle mercury products that might be present in your children’s school. Start a drive to replace these products with nonmercury alternatives.
  • Reduce the use of pesticides in school buildings and landscapes, and use alternative methods of managing pests. Integrated pest management is a collaborative effort between parents, teachers, administrators, cafeteria workers, and even the students that has proven to be an effective method of managing pest infestations in school buildings, and on school grounds, without the need for pesticides.
  • Make sure that the outdoor play equipment, decks, and fences at your children’s schools are arsenic free. Before your child becomes ill, check the wood. You can order an inexpensive test kit to test for arsenic in the soil or in wood structures.

These tasks might sound daunting, but my environmental center can help you make cleaner, greener schools a reality. Visit our Web site ( or call us at 201-336-8071 to discuss ways to implement these protocols. We offer a free consultation and facility evaluation and can help your school green their cleaning, test for lead, switch to healthier paints and building materials, and even remake the food program.

Together, we can equip our schools to deal with these environmental threats and protect our children from harm.

Deirdre Imus, author of Growing Up Green: Baby and Child Care (Copyright © Git’R Green, Inc.), is the founder and president of the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology®, part of Hackensack University Medical Center (HUMC) in New Jersey. She is also a cofounder and codirector of the Imus Cattle Ranch for Kids with Cancer, and the author of the bestselling book The Imus Ranch: Cooking for Kids and Cowboys.




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