Find an exhaust vent. (Look for grillwork on ceilings, closet doors, in closets, or behind bookcases.) Hold a sheet of paper up to the grill. If the paper doesn't stick it isn't venting the air.
HEALTHY IS YOUR SCHOOL?
Ellie Goldberg, MEd. Originally
published in The American Journal of Asthma & Allergy for
Pediatricians, Vol. 4, No. 1, October, 1990. v.
...Every September on the first day of school we are greeted - with the heavy smell of fresh paint, cleaning solutions, etc. While I applaud the maintenance efforts certainly painting could be scheduled so the school would air out before school opens. These smells permeate the building along with the usual heavy, humid and stale air associated with the summer. During my daughter's second grade year she attended the first couple of days of school and missed the next two and a half weeks due to asthma -- the smell of paint was particularly strong that year.... D.B., Massachusetts
Common childhood illnesses and allergies can cause a stuffy nose, headaches, eye irritation, restlessness, stomachaches or drowsiness.
Those same symptoms can also be caused by an unhealthy school environment.
Air quality problems at school can range from the mildly irritating to seriously debilitating. While a few sensitive people may be the first to get sick from mold, paint fumes or strong smelling cleaning solutions, everyone is affected by health hazards such as solvents, cigarette smoke, and high levels of carbon dioxide...teachers and students alike.
Parents of students with asthma and allergies that worsen at school can alert school officials to a variety of potential environmental health hazards. Like canaries in a mine, when these children react to odors or poor air quality, it flags problems that, if corrected, can protect others from illness and disability.
In one Connecticut town, a child's medically controlled seasonal allergies and mild asthma developed into severe asthma immediately after starting second grade. The child was subjected to extensive medical testing and required medication that exceeded $200 per month. Doctor bills for the period from September to June added up to more than $1000. The child missed twenty days of school. His frequent and prolonged illness required his parents to change jobs (and lose income) so that one parent could be at home at all times to monitor his condition, transport him to school, and administer medication. His health improved during the summer but deteriorated immediately in September when he returned to school.
The district paid to transport the ill child to a school across town rather than clean up the classroom mold problem. Eventually, when other children became ill, their parents got involved and demanded the school address the problem. (Teachers had unaddressed grievances about the odor in the classroom going back six years.) Now, an advisory group is working to set up a procedure to ensure that other complaints about school safety and health hazards are properly investigated and corrected.
In Massachusetts, parents prompted an inspection in one elementary school where a comparatively high number of students had chronic respiratory problems. The inspector found high levels of carbon dioxide and pointed out that the exhaust and air circulation systems had not been properly installed twenty years earlier. The exhaust vents were in closets. The inspector noted that the situation was "not unusual."
Many schools do not comply with fire, building or safety codes, especially where previously unused space in damp moldy basements or dusty storage areas are turned into classroom space. Other hazards are created by poor maintenance or the misuse and poor monitoring of debris and chemicals during pest control, lawn care, or renovation. When budgets are tight, towns may be lax about routine inspections and delay repairs on ventilation, cooling and heating systems.
True, inspections and correcting problems may cost money. But the solutions are not always expensive. In fact, it could be as inexpensive as moving a bookcase that blocks a vent, adjusting a thermostat, or relocating the bus waiting area away from the air intake vents.
On the other hand, when a school district fails to promptly acknowledge and correct a problem, it can end up losing more than money. In one Massachusetts town, an eighteen-month delay in reporting the detection of toxic vapors from underground chemical contamination led to widespread distrust and controversy. Even though the state's Department of Environmental Protection labeled the risk "not serious," so many teachers and students requested transfers that the school was closed.
Now, in anticipation of reopening, an advisory group of parents, teachers, and school officials is designing a system to monitor air quality. In addition, students will be monitored for headaches, abdominal pain, malaise and other signs of poor ventilation and toxic exposure. The school has also overhauled its ventilating system to control carbon dioxide levels blamed for causing headaches.
What can you do if you have concerns about health hazards in your school?
Start conversations. Involve parents, students and teachers in a school safety and injury prevention checkup during national and local campaigns for school safety, public health, asthma awareness, child health, occupational health, and injury prevention.
Use safety checklists from the fire department, National Safety Council, the National Parent Teacher Association and local, state, and federal health agencies. Order a copy of the School Safety Handbook from The Association of School Business Officials International in Reston, Virginia.
Ask questions. Don't be surprised if it requires some research to find out who is responsible for maintaining standards for specific areas of school safety or health. A variety of city offices may have similar roles.
Ask for school guidelines for the purchase and use of art, science and cleaning supplies. Do they protect students from hazardous products especially in areas where food is stored, prepared or served?
Be suspicious of strange odors. What is the air quality standard? How is it monitored? Room air exchange rate test results should be stated in cubic feet of outdoor air per minute per occupant. Inspection reports should be available to parents, staff and other interested citizens on request.
Submit concerns or inspection requests in writing to school administrators and certifying agencies of the city or state health department whose employees have an "affirmative obligation" to maintain standards that protect public health and safety.
Speak up. Concerned parents should support each other and school staff. Write letters and appear at school board and town meetings to let administrators and officials know that you care about safe schools. Keep the issue alive until the situation is remedied. Your kids will thank you for it.
Let me know how it goes.
The world endures solely by virtue of the breath of school children. (Talmud)