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Is School Making Our Kids Sick?

Keisha missed a few days of third grade when her asthma flared up. Joshua struggles with obesity and sometimes has trouble keeping pace. Ashley recently received an autism diagnosis and her family and teachers are working on ways to help her achieve her goals in school.

As a nation, we’re in the middle of a children’s public health crisis. Both asthma and obesity rates have nearly tripled over the last 30 years, while the prevalence of diabetes has nearly doubled since 1995. Rates of autism spectrum disorder diagnoses have recently been pegged at one in 50 children, triple the rate from just a decade ago. Food allergies are also more prevalent, as many school districts could tell you, with the rate of peanut allergies tripling since the mid-1990s.

At the same time, the condition of school buildings is declining. The last major survey of school conditions showed that 14 million students in the United States attend schools needing major repair or replacement. More recently, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s schools a “D+” in its 2013 report card of national infrastructure, noting the linkage between school condition and academic performance.

And while building conditions themselves are important, it is the health impacts caused these conditions that can greatly affect student health and well-being. National research shows a strong linkage between buildings, education and health; children that attend schools in poor condition have worse health outcomes and lower academic performance.

These statistics paint a grim picture of public and environmental health, issues that are further complicated by regional air quality issues caused by manufacturing facilities, electric power plants and vehicle exhaust.

So what do schools have to do with this? Children’s exposure to air pollution such as diesel exhaust, pesticides, cleaning products, and formaldehyde can trigger asthma attacks, create new cases of asthma, bring on headaches and nausea, or far worse, cause learning disabilities or cancer. Since more than 50 million American children spend upward of 40 hours a week inside schools, the quality of the school environment can have a big impact on children’s health, well-being and ability to learn.

Today, April 30 is National Healthy Schools Day, an excellent time for us to consider these issues and recognize the importance of environmental health in schools. Every child – including those with asthma, allergies, chemical sensitivities, and other conditions –deserves to have a safe, healthy learning environment.

The silver lining here is that schools can do many things low- or no-cost things to immediately improve conditions. Clutter in classrooms, for example, can restrict the flow of fresh air and increase the concentrations of dust and other contaminants, so removing it can make a difference in air quality.

Other simple ideas to help improve air quality? Try switching to non-toxic cleaning chemicals, setting up entryway systems that remove more of the contaminants that are tracked in, eliminating pesticides wherever possible, and ensuring that ventilation systems are all working correctly. No one single measure will fix the problem, but every little bit helps.

The benefits of healthy schools can be felt throughout the community. Healthier students mean better attendance; more instructional time; decreased health care burden; greater contribution to society and the economy; a higher capture rate of state and federal reimbursement to school districts; and, healthier students also mean happier and healthier teachers and a host of benefits that come with it.

Nearly every school can do better by their students, staff and parents to provide safer and healthier environments. If you are ready to step forward and be the change agent that your school needs, here are some things to get started:

  1. Be a healthy schools advocate – learn more about environmental health, speak to your district’s administration, and share what you have learned with others in your community.

  2. Be an observer – does the school appear clean? Are there unusual or strong odors? Do you or your child experience headaches, dizziness or other conditions while in one or more parts of the school? Are there any signs of moisture damage on ceilings, walls, or flooring?

  3. Build a team – talk to parents, teachers, students, and administration officials about starting a healthy schools or indoor air quality committee in your school.

  4. Stay positive – emphasize the benefits and opportunities of improved environmental health, instead of focusing on shortcomings and what may have been done poorly in the past. This will help you build the foundation for collaboration that is critical to success.

Our children are counting on us to look out for their health and well-being. We can step up and look at new, better options for learning, so our community’s future leaders can grow up without the burden of chronic illness or the sub-par education that results from sub-par learning environments. During this year’s National Healthy Schools Day, think about what you can do to ensure that the children in your life have a safe and healthy place to live, learn and grow. Please browse the Healthy Schools Collaboration website to find out what you can do.

Guest post by Andrew Ellsworth

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