School-age children often spend up to a third of their day in school, but while they run, play and learn, hidden toxins and chemicals could be impairing their health and development. Schools are meant to help teach our children about the world around them, but they also have a duty to keep kids safe. In honor of National Poison Prevention Week (March 18–24, 2018), it’s important to keep in mind that poisons come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from environmental toxins to the chemicals used to clean the floors.
It takes a lot of work to keep a school building clean, but the cleaners and solvents used to keep people healthy can cause a variety of problems as well, ranging from headaches, nausea and dizziness to chronic issues like asthma. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an astounding 1 in 11 U.S. children have asthma, resulting in more than 10 million absent days from school.
Cleaning supplies, including air fresheners, rug cleaners and floor polishes, may contain harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and have been linked to respiratory problems. Recently, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) conducted an evaluation of 21 school cleaning supplies and found that nearly 30 percent of them released at least one asthma-causing toxin into the air. Even common cleaners are capable of causing damage. For example, if cleaners containing ammonia and bleach are mixed they create chloramine gases that cause coughing, shortness of breath and chest pain.
It’s important to encourage the use of green cleaners to prevent germs and keep people healthy. The Environmental Protection Agency suggests that being greener may improve overall student and teacher health, reduce absences, save money and even extend a facility’s lifespan.
The Air Around Us
Green cleaning practices go a long way toward keeping us safer, but no amount of scrubbing can change the environment that children, teachers and other faculty find themselves in each day. Older schools, particularly those built prior to the mid-1970s, run the risk of containing lead and asbestos, which are both known to cause severe health problems, but are almost entirely avoidable.
Although there are regulations in place for schools that maintain their own water supplies, the vast majority are unregulated and are simply encouraged to perform voluntary testing. Children are estimated to absorb four to five times the lead as adults are, and lead poisoning may result in mental and developmental disabilities, anemia and hypertension.
Asbestos was used in hundreds of building materials throughout the early- and mid-20th century, and can be found in schools across the country. When materials containing asbestos incur wear and tear and, fibers are released into the air and, and once inhaled or ingested, can possibly result in one of several types of cancer called mesothelioma.
The air around a school is also capable of causing respiratory problems for children and teachers. A recent investigation conducted by the Center for Public Integrity suggested that nearly 8,000 schools currently sit fewer than 500 feet away from a major roadway, exposing children to a wide array of carcinogens capable of causing asthma attacks, weak lung growth, and hamper a child’s ability to learn.
Toxic School Supplies
We tend not to think about the items our children use in schools as dangerous, but crayons, glues, and even lunch boxes can contain chemicals. For example, some dry-erase markers contain methyl isobutyl ketone, a solvent capable of causing dizziness, nausea and headaches. Newer markers contain a much safer alcohol-based formula.
Other everyday items found in schools, like backpacks and lunch pails, could contain phthalates, which are used to make plastics softer, but have been linked to dangers including early onset puberty, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and even cancer development. For parents interested in avoiding vinyl and PVC products, they can purchase items that are made without phthalates and look for recycling symbols alerting customers of PVC.
Parents concerned about their child’s school and art supplies should look for products with the phrase “conforms to ASTM D 4236” or labels from the Art and Creative Materials Institute. These products meet federal regulations and are labeled with messages about any health hazards they may cause.
What Does The Future Look Like?
The truth is that no matter how hard we try to control for every chemical and toxin, everyone is still going to be exposed to them in some amount throughout the course of their lives. With that said, there are plenty of things we can do to limit exposure to these toxins.
Green cleaners and safer practices will help reduce cases of asthma, while taking a more conscious approach to school shopping can keep PVC items and phthalates out of the classroom. Our environments can also be kept safer by improving air quality through the use of air-cleaning plants, more efficient air purifying systems and by voluntarily testing water for harmful contaminants.
In many cases, chemical exposure is almost entirely avoidable by simply being more mindful of the products they use and the environment they’re learning in. Taking a few small steps today can ensure our kids have a bright and healthy, future.
Emily Walsh is the Community Outreach Director for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance (MCA) where her advocacy work helps people become aware of what toxins they are exposed to and how to make simple changes for a healthier life. Emily’s main focus is spreading the word about asbestos to all vulnerable communities to make sure they are aware of the material’s potential health impacts. You can follow MCA on Facebook or Twitter.