Activist pushes for school air cleanliness by Joan Millman, Globe Correspondent, The Boston Globe | September 23, 2004
What do you do if your child's school makes her sick?
Many parents have turned to Ellie Goldberg, founder of Healthy Kids: The Key to Basics. The Elmore Street resident specializes in educational planning for students with asthma and other chronic health conditions.
Except for peanut allergy, Goldberg gets more calls about students affected by mold and renovation hazards in schools than any other problems.
"Moldy conditions can cause nausea, headaches, rashes, nosebleeds, breathing difficulty, stomach aches, chronic coughing, memory and concentration difficulties, and exhaustion," said Goldberg, 57.
This week -- dubbed Mold Awareness Week by the recently formed Mold Awareness Coalition -- watchdog groups from across the nation are descending on Capitol Hill to campaign for greater awareness of the large problems caused by this minute substance.
Healthy Kids holds workshops for parents and schools; provides crisis intervention services; and helps tailor health plans for services for students with asthma, food allergies, cancer, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, and other acute impairments.
"A sick school sabotages a child's education," Goldberg said. "The same way steps are a barrier to those in wheelchairs, bad air is a form of discrimination."
Both new and aging schools may harbor hazards, she said, noting that mold flourishes in damp basements and other locations below ground, inside uninsulated walls and heating and air-conditioning equipment, and near leaks. Prevention requires keeping buildings clean and dry.
Goldberg's reputation as an advocate and educator has led to her involvement in high-profile cases such as the mold problem that forced Westborough to temporarily shut
Hastings Elementary School five years ago. Due to efforts of numerous safety specialists, Hastings now has a clean bill of health and Westborough has been honored by the Environmental Protection Agency for implementing a program to prevent such problems from recurring.
Goldberg's interest in environmental safety began when she learned there was lead in her backyard garden. At her daughter's school, Mason-Rice, Goldberg found cleaning agents, spray deodorants, leaky roofs and ceiling tiles, mildewed carpeting, and peeling paint.
When her daughters attended Newton North High School, Goldberg spotlighted numerous chemical hazards and air-quality problems that had been repeatedly identified and ignored.
After many calls to state offices, she found a safety official who insisted that the hazardous materials be removed.
Goldberg's local activism went on to spur health and safety efforts by public and private agencies, earning her national recognition in the field. In 1997, she was dubbed by the Massachusetts Department of Environment an "unsung hero" for promoting alternatives to pesticides.
Goldberg has been a health educator for the state Department of Public Health's Childhood Lead Poisoning Program; she currently serves on the boards of the Coalition Organized for Health Education in Schools, Clean Water Action, the Toxics Action Center, the Green Decade Coalition, and the Special Needs Advocacy Network. She is also the Massachusetts PTA legislative chairwoman and environmental health consultant.
After earning a bachelor's in education and social studies from the University of Michigan, Goldberg became a high school teacher and author of educational and curriculum materials. She consulted for WGBH's Children's Television Workshop and earned a master's in education from the Institute for Open Education (now Cambridge College).
Over the years, Goldberg's interests have ranged widely.
When her two daughters reached school age, Goldberg's concerns shifted to student health issues. One of the first causes she took up was pushing for full-time registered nurses at all schools.
"More than 20 percent of school-aged kids in our country have some chronic or recurring health condition," she said. When schools have no nurse, she said, medications and shots are often administered by untrained and unsupervised employees.
Today, Goldberg continues her fight for school health on a much broader scale, advocating for regulations to ensure that buildings are constructed and maintained with health in mind.
"Unhealthy and unsafe schools endanger and disenfranchise children, who have different metabolisms than adults," she said. "The key to reducing preventable illness and disabilities is clean air, clean water, clean energy, and safe food."
For further information on Healthy Kids, visit www.healthy-kids.info.