Chemicals in Schools: Battling for Awareness, An article by Ellen Glazer, for Newton Magazine, March 2006
"Think Global, Act Local." Ellie Goldberg, an educational and environmental health consultant, lives and acts by these words, working locally and throughout the country to build partnerships to make schools safer for children.
Goldberg's current initiative is to make March 18, the anniversary of the New London 1937 Texas School Explosion, an annual day of remembrance and action.
On March 18, 1937, over 300 children were killed in a school explosion in a small Texas town that was the richest school system in the country. The explosion was the result of short cuts and unnecessary economies in the building of the school and in the design, installation and maintenance of the heating system. However, no one was held officially responsible because the problem was attributable "to the collective faults of average individuals, ignorant or indifferent to the need for precautionary measures, where they cannot, in their lack of knowledge, visualize a danger or a hazard."
It was this enormous tragedy that resulted in the passage of the law requiring that an odor be added to natural gas.
Goldberg's project, Lessons of the 1937 Texas School Explosion, is designed to honor the memory of those who died and to mobilize parents and educators everywhere to commit themselves to "Never again." It is her top priority, because "the decision-making that led to the 1937 explosion is the same type of decision-making that leaves dangerous old explosives and other hazards in today's classrooms, labs, closets and storerooms."
"I always look at conditions in a school through the eyes of the vulnerable child." Goldberg says.
First as a classroom teacher who "morphed into" a curriculum writer and textbook author, then as a health educator for the Massachusetts Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, and as the parent of a child with asthma and allergies, Goldberg realized many years ago that a school is not necessarily a safe place for children.
"I learned that most people tend to take school safety for granted. Even when everyone is talking about a problem, people tend to just put up with it. My project is designed to inspire and educate, to break the silence about school hazards, and to make conversations about safety a part of school culture."
"Acting locally," when she first moved to Newton in 1986, she campaigned for a full time nurse in every school and was the Asthma Resource Person for Newton's Understanding Our Differences for fifteen years.
Since founding HealthyKids: The Key to Basics in 1989, Goldberg's has created an extensive bibliography of publications in national magazines and journals that translate medical, legal, educational and environmental health information into resources for parents, advocates and citizen groups. She responds to callers on a daily basis who ask for technical assistance, resources, models, mentors and ideas for funding. They are calling about problems related to pesticides, chemical hazards, indoor air quality, asthma, food allergies, mold, pesticides, and school and workplace hazards, especially on behalf of vulnerable populations such as students with asthma and other chronic health conditions.
"Thinking globally" Goldberg has served on a variety of national and state task forces and committees addressing educational and environmental policies and is frequently quoted on a variety of health and environmental topics.
Every year, as March 18 approaches, Goldberg sends out a press release asking people to remember the 1937 Texas School Explosion, reminding them that too many schools today, old and new, have inadequate ventilation systems, stockpiles of explosives, flammables and other hazardous chemicals, poor sanitation, and extensive safety code violations. She points out that it is rare to find a school where anyone has primary responsibility to protect children from environmental hazards or to enforce public health, chemical hygiene, occupational health and safety, and occupancy standards.
Her 2005 article, "Strengthening the Schools Response to Explosives," recommends how teachers and parents can build partnerships to correct safety hazards and chemical security gaps at school. The article is posted on her website, www.healthy-kid.info in the Resources Section.
Every year Goldberg also names school indoor air quality heroes, individuals who understand that when it comes to making decisions that affect children, "no risk is acceptable if it is avoidable." Goldberg hopes they inspire others to become IAQ heroes so that schools will be the healthy places and safe havens they are supposed to be.
For March 18, 2006 Goldberg urges parents and teachers to find out about chemical hazards that may be present in their children's schools. She suggests asking three straightforward questions.
1. Does my school have a chemical inventory? 2. Does my school have a comprehensive chemical management plan? 3. Does my school have a chemical hygiene officer?
"If the answer to any of these questions is no," says Goldberg, "the school is not safe. You need to take prompt and appropriate action when children are in harm's way."
The good news is that there are a wealth of experts and resources to help schools and to make sure that school personnel are trained to teach safely and to teach safety. In some areas the US EPA provides funding to help pay for chemical cleanouts and expert training."
Again and again, Goldberg states her belief that the key to pollution prevention is "Partnerships, Persistence and Publicity.
She says that while some people view environmental safety as a "consumer issue," she sees it as a "citizenship issue." For example, Goldberg says that people will ask what bottled water to buy. "The real question," says Goldberg, "is what can I do if I think my tap water is not safe."
Goldberg connects people to local environmental advocacy activities such as the Clean Water Action's Massachusetts Campaign to Protect Drinking Water or Newton's Green Decade Coalition.
"It can happen here."
In a May, 2005, WHDH-TV Channel 7 did a report titled, "Bad Chemistry," that highlighted the widespread problem of unsafe chemical management and quoted Director of Massachusetts Office of Technical Assistance Paul Richard saying that over 200 schools in Massachusetts needed help to get rid of unsafe chemicals and to set up chemical management systems.
Goldberg quotes a Colorado report on 300 school inspections that revealed 94% had shock sensitive compounds, 30% had explosive chemicals, 15% had radioactive materials.
When her daughters were in school, Goldberg took action when strong unpleasant smells in the Newton North High School basement alerted her to the school's poor indoor air quality. She joined the NNHS health and safety committee to try to resolve NNHS's long standing maintenance and chemical safety problems.
An inspection report on NNHS, (March 23, 1998), described "incompatible storage of chemicals and storage of chemicals in leaking or damaged containers may lead to unexpected fires, explosions or release of toxic fumes and gases into the occupied spaces of the school." The report included many hazards that had appeared in inspection reports years earlier. Having seen the chemical storeroom and finding out that officials knew of the hazards and were not taking action, she made many phone calls until she found a state safety official willing to insist on an "emergency chemical clean out."
Goldberg and her older daughter, a documentary filmmaker, visited Texas last year to attend the March 18 memorial service. They interviewed survivors and family members, and visited the Museum and the monument to the victims. Created and maintained by survivors and descendents of the 1937 explosion, the Museum tells the story of their beloved community and school, the aftermath of the devastating explosion, and its legacy for future generations.
Goldberg says that she would like to see every school adopt a "zero tolerance" policy for explosives and to follow the recommendations of the 1937 Court of Inquiry, "to hire technically trained administrators for modern school systems, to conduct more rigid inspections and more widespread public education, and to adopt a comprehensive, rational safety code."
Goldberg urges everyone to visit the official website of the Texas school explosion and take a virtual tour of the Museum, www.nlse.org. There are articles, news clips, old newsreels and first person accounts. There are rows and rows of photos of the young victims and of the terrible school wreckage. "Those photos should inspire everyone to bring the lessons of the 1937 Texas School Explosion to their school," says Goldberg.
Her website article, "Strengthen the School's Response to Explosives" includes many suggestions for school events and curriculum-based activities, including writing letters to the Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee, Ste. 5013, 1735 N. Lynn St., Arlington, VA 22209-6432 to support the campaign for a commemorative stamp in time for the 70th anniversary of the disaster, March 18, 2007.
One need spend only a few minutes talking with Ellie Goldberg to feel her passion for her mission and also her appreciation for the Newton community where "there are so many amazing people doing wonderful work." She was the co-chair of GreenCap, the Committee for Alternatives to Pesticides of Newton's Green Decade Coalition for ten years. In 1997, she was one of six "unsung heroes," recognized by the Mass. Dept of Environmental Protection for her work promoting alternatives to pesticides through community education and public policy initiatives.
To learn more about the Lessons of the 1937 School Explosion and to join others working for safer schools, go to Goldberg's website, www.healthy-kids.info or contact her at (617) 965-9637.
The world endures solely by virtue of the breath of school children. (Talmud)