- New carpets, fresh paint, toxic pesticides,
dirty air vents . . . and you thought all you had to worry about was the
In Irving, Lively Elementary School third grader, Josh Jackson liked school,
but it didn't agree with him. Headaches and stomach pain plagued his little
body when he was in the building; he withdrew emotionally in the classroom
and his grades were in a downward spiral. At home, he was fine. Less
astute parents might have written it off as a psychological problem, but
his father, Mark, who had allergies and sensitivities of his own, began
to suspect something in the school environment was at fault. To check
out his theory, he collected an air sample from the facility and took it
to a local physicians, who developed it into an allergy- type extract.
When tested with the substance, Josh re-experienced the same symptoms.
Jackson asked Irving I.S.D. to help him identify the sources of the IAQ
(indoor air quality) problem. The district's response, Jackson says, was
enthusiastic "how can we help?" After the initial research,
they did everything that he recommended: removed shampoo from the carpets,
cleaned the air system's duct work and filters, replaced cleaning chemicals
with borax, and put an air purifier in the classroom. Four years later,
Josh, who was held back after his disastrous third-grade year, is in the
math and English honors program and regularly ranks in the top percentile
in standardized tests. Jackson gives credit to the school district. "They
were able to help resolve my son's problems cost-effectively and didn't
brush it under the rug," he said. "And it benefited all the
kids." The district was so gung-ho, in fact, that this year Irving's
Brandenburg Elementary will serve as the pilot for the new "Tools
for Schools" program, sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA). It will also implement the guidelines for indoor air quality currently
under development by the Texas Department of Health (TDH). So far, the
school as set aside a budget and developed a management plan, trained teachers
and staff, educated parents, and is taking a detailed look at every aspect
of the building for indoor air quality. Following this intense inspection,
it plans to do whatever it takes to be in compliance with the EPA/TDH programs.
Some of the changes may include substituting less-toxic cleaners, removing
carpeting, and cleaning air ducts. Jack Rambo, Assistant Superintendent
of Irving Schools, says the district expect concrete results from their
efforts. "The two things we think will show up with better indoor
air quality are improved attendance and decreased discipline problems with
stu- dents," said Rambo. He explains that when children have allergy
problems, they often become more active and have difficulty concen- trating.
"If we have better attendance and their attention span is focused
on what is going on at school, Rambo said, "then the teachers can
take care of test scores improving." The TDH expects similar results.
"Bottom line, with implementation of the guidelines, I expect the
attendance, grades and test scores to improve in schools where bad indoor
air is a significant problem," said Quade Stahl, Chief of the Indoor
Air Quality Branch. He says the Department is focusing on the "sick
school" because they consider it a serious issue. "In my experience,
there definitely is a problem with Texas schools not having good air quality,"
he said. "We've looked at more than 220 schools that have requested
the Health Department's assistance in the last decade, and over 90% had
some degree of an IAQ problem. But Stahl emphasizes that IAQ is an issue
for all Texas schools, not just the "sick" ones. "I think
all schools should definitely implement the guidelines," he said.
"We will be glad to help and assist them with their questions."
Could our child's school be sick? Here's a look at some courageous parents
and administrators who discovered that their schools were, and what they
did about it.
- WHAT MAKES A "SICK SCHOOL"
- In 1966, the U.S. government published
a report asserting that millions of children attend schools with unsatisfactory
environmen- tal conditions. For example, in Texas, it said, 16% of schools
have poor ventilation and 12% have unacceptable indoor air quality.
- EPA studies show that indoor levels of
pollutants may be two-to- five times, and occasionally more than 100 times,
higher than out- door air levels. Over the past several decades, buildings
have been more tightly sealed and ventilation rates have been reduced to
save energy, all the while the use of synthetic building materials, pesticides,
and toxic cleaning supplies has increased. Whereas the ASHRAE (American
Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air- Conditioning Engineers) standard
for indoor air is 15 cubic feet per minute per person, some schools, experts
say, have dropped that level to as low as 5 cubic feet per minute per person
to lower energy costs. Schools are especially prone to problems because
budget re- strictions and taxpayer pressure frequently result in the purchase
of construction materials and building products that are cheap and more
likely to be toxic. This was the case for Wimberly Schools.
- NEW AND NASTY
- Sue Pitman moved to Wimberly, a small
town just southwest of Austin, in 1984, after the chemicals in her new
suburban Chicago home made her and her family ill. The Texas Hill Country
seemed to offer the perfect clean-air haven for a family that had become
sensitive to many chemicals, pollens, dust, and molds. But after her son
reacted to pesticides sprayed on the playground, he became sick while the
school was painting his classroom. Pitman began to work to educate the
school system on the dangers of poor indoor air quality. When the school
board proposed building an elementary school made of particle board, which
is replete with formaldehyde, a respiratory irritant and carcinogen, Pitman
railed at board meetings. While the district made some compromises, they
basically stuck by their plan, also carpeting each room. When the first
day of school rolled around, dramatic things began to happen. Children
wheezed and broke out in rashes; one boy experienced grand mal seizures,
which had heretofore been under control. Visiting parents were sick.
"Someone called the media, who took pictures of parents yelling and
screaming at school officials," said Pitman. Everyone panicked but,
she says, little was actually done to correct the problem. Over a few
month's time, a survey showed that 18% of the parents felt their children
were having problems in the school. Pitman says that 30-40 families left
town because the district wouldn't address the problem. Some parents who
left say their children have been permanently damaged by their exposures.
- THE DEADLY INVADER -- MOLD
- At W. A. porter Elementary in Haltom
City (near Fort Worth), mold was the culprit. After years of trouble with
a leaky roof, Birdville I.S.D. moved to solve the problem of the school,
only to uncover a bigger one -- the stachybotrys mold, a dangerous toxin
and potential killer that had recently made national news headlines. Parents
panicked. Birdville I.S.D. Communications Officer, Robin McClure, says
the school reacted quickly and proactively. "We hired an indoor air
quality expert, used HEPA vacuums daily, and installed humidifiers (sic.),"
said McClure. Her co-workers have nicknamed her "the mold queen"
for her intense work in this area. At W. A. Porter, we spent $500,000
alone to make sure that parents have no concerns." Fortunately, experts
said, the mold -- found in two isolated areas -- was never airborne. Thus
the students and staff were not in immediate danger. But the mold incident
motivated Birdville to make indoor air a priority at all of their schools.
"We said to the community, `If you have any problems with your child's
school, let us know, and we will have it inspected,'" said McClure.
Ten to twelve campuses have been checked out, she said, and reports have
been made public.
- NEW TOXIC CARPETING
- For Ryan Campbell in Garrison, Texas,
a "sick school" meant toxic new carpeting. Ryan entered the
5th grade as a normal, healthy child. Almost immediately, he complained
of nausea and, as the weeks went on, he became more and more ill with symptoms
that included diarrhea, headaches, low-grade fever, and swollen glands.
"I started thinking about what was different in the school,"
said Rhonda Campbell, "and they had painted and put down carpeting
in the hallways." Medical tests revealed high levels of formaldehyde
in Ryan's urine and, when they tested the carpeting, they found it contained
the same toxic chemical. Ironically, even though Ryan's father sat on
the school board, the district refused to address the problem. After arguing
with the school for three years, and keeping him home during that time,
the Campbells finally sent Ryan to a private school in Nacogdoches, where
he is doing well.
- PESTICIDE PROBLEMS
- In the Houston suburb of Conroe, Rebeka
Perrell walked into her son's school and could smell the pesticides sprayed
on baseboards the night before. The school had waited until the children
arrived the next day to air out the school. Her son was sick for two days
with headaches, flu-like symptoms, and light- headedness. "I knew
my son was sensitive," she said. "But I never thought the school
would do anything that dumb." She proposed the use of Integrated
Pest Management (IPM), which uses least toxic pest control methods, with
an emphasis on mechanical and preventa- tive means, using pesticides only
as a last resort. Conroe I.S.D. implemented the system with much success,
but others issues, from painting to re-tarring the roof during school,
are causing Perrella to again voice her concerns. She thinks her efforts
will benefit all of the children. People think it's a small percentage
who are sensitive, but a lot of times children are reacting and don't know
it," said Perrella. "Most doctors will say they just have an
allergy or a cold."
- A WIDE ARRAY OF SYMPTOMS
- In her "Contaminated Classrooms"
workshop, Safe Schools consultant Irene Wilkenfeld describes these symptoms
to look for: hyperactivity, inability to concentrate, short-term memory
loss, chronic headaches, anxiety, frequent mood swings, unexplained changes
in hand-writing or drawing, dark circles under the eyes and/or skin rashes.
Other experts add flu-like symptoms and learning disorders to the list.
Dr. William Rea, director of the Environmental Health Center -- Dallas
and chapter author of The Healthy Schools Handbook, says that "sick
schools" can do lasting damage to a child's health. "Potential
long-term effects include the children becoming physically incapacitated,
failing in school, and being drugged to control the symptoms, for example,
with cortisone-type medications for asthma," he said. Experts say
that those who already have a chronic illness, like asthma, or a pre- existing
health problem, like Attention deficit Disorder (A.D.D.), are more likely
to respond with more symptoms than those who do not. In Dallas I.S.D.
alone, there are 700-800 children with asthma.
- PARENTS MAKE THE DIFFERENCE
- All of the parents profiled in this article
have one thing in common. Even when the schools themselves didn't respond,
these persistent folks made progress for Texas school children in general.
Mark Jackson has been an advocate for the development of the Irving School
District's program. In Wimberly, Sue Pitman started a national organization
to help sick schools, and her efforts are partially responsible for the
new indoor air guidelines for schools that the T.D.H. will present this
year. Rebeka Perrella's determination resulted in a 1995 law requiring
all Texas schools to use Integrated Pest Management (IMP) instead of standard
pesticide spraying. Ryan Campbell's parents appeared earlier this year
on Channel 8's "Good Morning Texas" along with safe schools expert
Dr. Doris Rapp to issue a plea for schools to address the problem.
- WHAT TO DO ABOUT A SICK SCHOOL
- If your children have the symptoms described
here, if your school has telltale signs of being "sick," or if
you want to become involved on a preventive basis, the stories of these
parents can be an encouragement as you approach the school. 1. Your first
step should be to contact the EPA and request information on their "Tools
for Schools" program. They have a brochure for parents and a detailed
packet for schools. 2. Second, send away for information available through
the organizations listed her under "Resources," and read one
or more of the recommended books. 3. Next, approach your school or school
district, information in hand, and offer to work with them to start an
indoor air quality program. Dr. Doris Rapp, author of Is this your Child's
World? How You Can Fix the Homes and Schools that Are Making our Children
Sick suggests reminding school officials that "if appropriate changes
are made, the need for (and cost of) home teaching, special education for
select students, and absenteeism would decrease. At that same time, academic
performance should improve, along with the attendance and health of both
students and teachers."
- LOOKING FOR A FEW GOOD SCHOOLS
- The Indoor Air Quality Branch of the
T.D. H. is moving rapidly to address the problem of the "sick school."
The department's indoor air quality guidelines for Texas schools, now
in draft form, are expected to be finalized and distributed by late winter.
They are also looking for four-to-six schools in different districts to
serve as pilots, like Irving I.S.D., to try out the new guidelines. (The
pilot program is designed to determine how best to implement the T.D.H.'s
guidelines and to measure how effective they are.) Interested schools should
contact the T.D.H. in Austin. IAQ Branch Chief Quade Stahl says the T.D.H.
also plans to get some federal assistance. "We are currently applying
for an EPA grant to provide funding for the development and implementation
of the guidelines as well as some radon testing," he said. "This
will go to approximately 1,000 school districts in Texas. Dr. Stahl is
enthusiastic about the potential results of the programs. "I've heard
many anecdotal stories where parents said their kids went from failing
to having significant improvement, even to becoming honor students when
the indoor air quality was improved," he said. Some went to A's and
B's from D's and F's." Mark Jackson, Josh's father, gives his futuristic
vision of the healthy school. "Build the school right, don't put
in things that will cause problems and maintain it correctly," he
said. "Generally, it's all common sense." Those parents who
wonder if, in the I.S.D. bureaucracy, good sense will win out -- take heart.
Of all the difficult problems faced by schools as this millennium comes
to a close, making and keeping them healthy is possibly the most easily
- U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA).
Joyce Stanton (214) 655-6444. Texas Department of Health Indoor Air Quality
Branch. (800) 572-5548. "Safe Schools" (Workshop for schools
and video). (318) 984-2766. "Environmentally sick schools"
-- a videotape by Dr. Rapp. (800) 787-8780.
- The following publications are available
through the American Environmental Health Foundation, (214) 361-9515: Is
This Your Child's World? How You Can Fix the Schools and Homes that Are
Making Your Children Sick, by Doris Rapp. The Healthy School Handbook,
Edited by Norma Miller, Ed.D., a publication of the National Education
- To join an IPM Network: National Coalition
Against the Misuse of Pesticides. (202) 543-5450.
- For information on developing healthy
schools in Texas: The Vanguard. (512) 338-1108.
- ADDITIONAL RESOURCES
- Failing Health -- Pesticide Use in California
Schools, Calif. Public Interest Research Group Charitable Trust, 450 Geary
St., Suite 500, San Francisco, 94102. 415-292-1487. Reducing Pesticide
Use in Schools -- An Organizing Manual, Pesticide Action Kit No. 3, Pesticide
Watch Education Fund, address and phone number as above.~~ _________________
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