Sustainable Schools

Sustainable Also Means Healthful

A “safe” school can mean many different things. For those of us in the environmental health field, it means a place that is free from potentially harmful exposures. School is a child’s workplace—where they spend up to eight hours a day, five days a week, for most of their important developmental years. This makes it a priority to reduce or eliminate toxins that can negatively impact children’s acute and long term health.

Some exposures are well documented and understood; others may not be as obvious. Take diesel exhaust from school buses for example. Exhaust and particulate matter from idling buses contain more than 40 hazardous air pollutants, 21 of which are recognized by the EPA as known or suspected carcinogens. Despite the evidence linking exposure to diesel exhaust with increased risk of asthma and cancer, many schools still permit buses to idle on school grounds, exposing both students and staff to high levels of harmful toxins.

Turf pesticides used on school playing fields are another common exposure; although the use of pesticides on school grounds is prohibited in some states like New York, others continue to allow schools to use these chemical poisons on fields where children play. The exposure to pesticides is magnified by the fact that kids sit, lie, slide, and roll in the grass, drink from water bottles lying on the grass, and often engage in hand-to-mouth behavior. Pesticides can also be tracked indoors where they can remain active for weeks, or even months.

Exposure to the daily use of petrochemical-based cleaning products can also be harmful to children’s health. Typical institutional cleaners contain harsh chemicals used as solvents, disinfectants, surface sprays and floor cleaners. These products have been associated with an increased incidence of allergies, asthma, neurological problems, certain types of cancer, endocrine disruption, chemical sensitivity, and kidney or liver damage.

The good news is that many schools across the country are addressing these problems with efficacious, cost-effective solutions. The installation of “No Idling” signs in bus loading areas, the employment of natural turf management techniques for grass playing fields, and switching to non-toxic bio-based cleaning products can all have a quick, positive and profound impact on the health of students, teachers, and support staff.

But even as we find solutions for these issues, new environmental health threats to our children are emerging.

LED technology is now firmly established as today’s energy efficient lighting standard, but medical professionals are beginning to urgently warn of an unexpected problem. LEDs utilize high energy, short wavelength light—the blue part of the spectrum—which can damage cells in the retina. Children actually absorb more of the blue light spectrum than adults, so experts recommend that schools avoid the use of light bulbs with a high intensity blue component, and instead choose bulbs with a color temperature of 3000K or below.

WiFi in schools is difficult to address because of the vigorous initiative in education towards screen learning, the popularity of wireless devices and the slow pace of science. While scientists cannot yet prove an absolute cause-and-effect relationship between exposure and disease, many studies show that wireless or radiofrequency radiation produces biological effects on humans that can lead to reproductive problems, neurological and behavioral effects, disabling hypersensitivity and cancer.

We can at least make sure that children are not unnecessarily exposed to this radiation by placing existing classroom routers over exit doors (ensuring a minimal distance between any child and the router) and placing the router on a timed circuit that shuts off automatically after a predetermined time. And, of course, a hard-wired classroom utilizing ethernet cables is best.

Finally, a word about synthetic turf. Many schools are spending millions of dollars for fields that present significant health problems for student athletes, including inhaling the dust and toxic fumes from chemicals in the ground up tire infill, enduring dangerously high temperatures, unusual debilitating injuries and higher infection risks. The EPA has withdrawn its safety assurance for these fields, and more communities are thinking twice before spending the money for a new turf field.

As a facilities director you are responsible for many of the decisions that impact the health of the students in your school. I always tell parents that the facilities director in their child’s school is the most important person in the district. Learn more about the science behind these exposures and the simple solutions that are available at

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management July/August 2018 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Patti Wood is the executive director of Grassroots Environmental Education, an award-winning science-based non-profit organization based in New York.

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