Back-to-school season brings more than an unsettling midday quiet in the house. It also prompts a question: If we care so much about what's in our food, our products, our air, and our water, why don't we ever wonder about what's in our schools?
We should, because from September to June our kids spend most of their days there. That should make our schools some of the safest places around. But often the ironic opposite is true: If we knew what was really going on in there, many of us would run screaming for the home-schooling manual.
As my daughter makes her way through our own school system, I'm continually surprised by how many toxic hotspots we encounter. Even here in progressive Vermont, too many schools get a "F" on their environmental exam. Learning that lesson starts with a simple pop quiz we all should take:
- Does my child have health or learning problems at school that seem to disappear or lessen at night and on the weekends? If the answer is yes, it may be something in the school environment.
- Does my school have a no-idling policy? Idling diesel buses produce toxic exhaust that the EPA calls a likely human carcinogen. Loaded with ultrafine particulates, this pollution can get deep into developing lungs and school buildings, too. It also wastes fuel and contributes to the climate crisis.
- How does my school control pests? Does it practice integrated pest management techniques that call for removing the sources of pest infestations, blocking access points, and using pesticides only as a last resort? Or are toxins routinely used?
- How does my school stay clean? Does the custodial staff use petrochemical products filled with who-knows-what or "green" cleaners and other non-toxic methods?
- Does my school have a damp or musty smell? Do I see any leaks or signs of recent water damage? If so, there could be a mold problem.
- Is fresh air let into classrooms? If not, indoor air pollution is probably building up.
- Is the water been tested on a regular basis to make sure there are no bacteria or other pollutants flowing from drinking fountains?
- What school supplies are used? Are they safe and fume-free? Hazards can hide in even the most innocuous items. For example, glues can emit unhealthy fumes and dry erase markers contain toxic chemicals like monobutyl ether, and phthalates.
- Is there any wooden playground equipment with a greenish tint? That's a sign it's been treated with chromated copper arsenate, an arsenic-filled carcinogen.
- Is there "crumb rubber" on the playground? These tiny black, brown, red, or green pebbles or crumbs are used beneath equipment from which kids might fall. They're made from recycled tires, which contain heavy metals and carcinogenic chemicals that are easily ingested during play.
- Is there any artificial turf? Many varieties release lead dust as they degrade over time. Surface temperatures on fake grass can get hot enough to cause burns, and it's suspected of transmitting bacterial infections from person to person.
- What's in the sandbox? Natural sand, or so-called commercial "play sand" made from ground quartz that's frequently contaminated with asbestos?
These are simple questions, and every parent has a right to ask them. Make them a part of your back-to-school lesson plan and help keep your school from flunking out of health class.