Chemically Dependent Schools: What Parents Must Know About Toxins at School

By Kim Motylewski

Laing Middle School, Mount Pleasant, S.C., 1998 – Exterminators hired to kill

Not Feeling Well?

  • Learn the common complaints connected with air quality problems.

  • Find out what questions parents need to ask.

  • underground termites accidentally drilled holes into two empty classrooms and sprayed them with Dursban, a nervous-system toxin that is absorbed through the skin. The next day, teachers and students wiped the sticky mess off their desks with paper towels. Soon, they complained of peeling skin and aching limbs. The classrooms were used for two months before parents were told the truth about the accident and the rooms were renovated. Today, some of those children are still sick.

    Between 1993 and 1996 Poison Control Centers received about 2,300 reports of pesticide accidents in schools.

    Barnstable County, Mass., mid-1990s –
    On a tip from the fire department, a public health officer investigated chemical stockpiles at the regional high school and other county schools. She found an aged and deteriorating array of flammable, toxic, reactive, infectious, radioactive, and corrosive chemicals with the oldest dating to 1840. She was told of unreported accidents including a summertime explosion that generated deadly bromine gas. Luckily, no one was hurt. In the end, more than 65 tons of hazardous waste were removed from county schools.

    No one keeps records of chemical inventories in schools, but a chemical safety consultant in New England says that at one time about half of his 100 client schools had similarly hazardous overstocks.
    Sources of Toxins

    Before parents can help school districts assess and correct potential problems linked to chemical use, it’s important to understand the sources. Some of the most common categories of chemical hazards in and around schools are:

    Janitorial supplies – These may contain acids or strong solvents that can burn eyes, skin or airways, or can cause cancer, liver or kidney damage, or blindness.

    Indoor pest-control and outdoor grounds-keeping supplies – These may include toxic pesticides, herbicides or fungicides linked to short- and long-term health effects.

    • Overstock and mismanagement of chemical inventories
    – Science and vocational-education laboratories, art studios and office chemical inventories may pose health hazards, as well as invite theft and security threats.

    Other threats to air quality and to human health possibly found in schools include: lead, radon and asbestos contamination; mold and mildew growth; animal dander; faulty ventilation; improper cleaning and maintenance; and new furniture and carpeting that emit formaldehyde gas or glue fumes. Add to this list the fact that a recent survey by the Child Proofing Our Communities Campaign, a national effort to protect children from exposures to environmental health hazards in schools and childcare settings, found that 1,185 schools in five states – including California and New York - are located on or within one-half mile of major toxic-waste sites. These are the only states the group had the funds to investigate.


    What’s the Risk?

    The problem with having toxic chemicals in schools is twofold. First, studies show that indoor air can be 10 times more polluted than outdoor air. Many energy-efficient school buildings tightly contain contaminants, especially if ventilation is inadequate or poorly maintained.

    Second, children are more vulnerable to chemical insult than adults because they are small and still developing. Pound-for-pound, kids consume more contaminants than adults under the same environmental circumstances and are less able to cope with them.

    A 1993 study by the National Research Council, an agency of the National Academy of Sciences that provides services to the government, the public and scientific communities, recommends that pesticide regulators presume greater toxicity to infants and children because exposure early in life increases the risk of chronic disease later on.

    Other studies link certain neurotoxic pesticides to hyperactivity and behavior and motor problems in animals. Children exposed to a range of agricultural chemicals have shown decreased stamina, coordination, memory and drawing ability.

    As a nation, we have witnessed rising rates of childhood cancers (overall incidence rates are up 10 percent since the early 1970s) and the American Lung Association reports that 55 percent more kids have asthma today than did in the early 1980s. As many as 20 percent of school-age children may be affected by inflammatory diseases such as asthma, chronic sinusitis or frequent migraines – which if not caused by environmental factors are certainly exacerbated by them.

    While no one can draw a definitive link between any one environmental cause and these statistics, it’s reasonable to hold schools to the highest standards when 55 million children spend their days within school walls. Yet, half of our nation’s schools have problems linked to indoor air quality and many schools use a wide array of chemicals that pose known and potential risks, according to the EPA.

    Many schools routinely use pesticides that can cause cancer, birth defects or damage the kidneys, liver, nerves or reproductive organs in adults, according to Beyond Pesticides, a public information and advocacy group dedicated to reducing the use of harmful pesticides. The group counts 48 such commonly used products.
    Many janitorial products manufactured for commercial use are used by schools. A recent EPA-sponsored survey in the San Francisco Bay area found that 6 percent of the products janitors were using in area businesses either could cause cancer or were banned for environmental reasons. Researchers also found that 35 percent of the products used could blind, burn the skin or be absorbed through the skin, damaging blood cells, the liver, kidneys, the nervous system or a developing fetus.

    Lack of Regulations

    Despite known health risks, there are no national standards or laws governing chemical use in schools. Occupational health and safety regulations apply to school employees, but not to students and their parents. Thirty-two states have passed laws governing some aspect of pesticide use in schools, but the protections they offer vary widely and so does oversight and enforcement.

    A federal mandate for toxic use reduction has been slow in coming. In November 2001, the School Environment Protection Act (SEPA) was attached to the Senate version of the Bush education reform bill, but failed by two votes to clear the conference committee that resolved the differences between Senate and House versions of the bill.

    In mid-February 2002, Senate sponsors Robert Torracelli (D-N.J.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) moved SEPA forward again, attaching it to the Farm Bill approved by the full Senate. At press time, action by the House Agriculture Committee was still pending.

    SEPA would require school-based pest management plans that “minimize health and environmental risks.” The bill would also forbid pesticide use in occupied buildings, provide for parental and staff notification of planned and actual pesticide applications inside or outside, and establish record-keeping and public-information standards.

    School environment advocates want a federal standard like SEPA to set a baseline for protections and to strengthen the hand of local organizers. For now, children’s advocates must navigate a tangle of building codes, right-to-know laws, school facilities requirements and regulation of toxic materials alone.

    Reducing Exposure Through Education

    In the absence of federal standards, states, cities, teachers, public health agents, private consultants and advocacy groups have taken the lead in setting chemical controls, devising green purchasing protocols and rethinking curricula.

    There are many things schools can do to reduce chemical hazards. They sound simple, but all require a shift in thinking and behavior. Ellie Goldberg, a children’s environmental health consultant whose Web site,, is educational planning and management resource for parents of children with chronic health problems, says, “substituting knowledge for chemicals is key.”

    Goldberg first got involved in her local schools as a parent. She was troubled by what her kids told her, and by what school staff couldn’t tell her. What, for example, was in those unmarked bottles of cleanser that the teacher sprayed on her daughter’s desk? The janitor couldn’t say for sure. Why were students asked to clean graffiti off walls with a toxic solvent? Why didn’t parents and sports teams know when playing fields would be sprayed?

    Today, Goldberg advises parents and advocates for students with chronic health problems and says that if schools would make “breathing zone safety” a priority, everyone would be served by a healthier environment. That means moving from a system based on quick chemical fixes to one grounded in good hygiene, ongoing maintenance, sound design and a culture of precaution.

    Advocates of toxics-use reduction agree that students and staff must learn to:

    • Discourage indoor pests, reducing the need for pesticides.

    • Use an integrated pest management (IPM) program that focuses on ongoing food hygiene, sanitation and building maintenance.

    • Build healthy soil and choose locally appropriate grass and shrub species to reduce the need for synthetic landscaping chemicals.

    • Choose curriculum materials that eliminate hazardous inhalants and other toxic products.

    • Properly handle, store and dispose of chemicals.

    • Establish purchasing practices that favor less- or non-toxic agents and control inventories.

    Children’s environmental health advocates, such as the New York-based Healthy Schools Network Inc., suggest beginning with an overall assessment of the school’s indoor air quality. A good place to start is with the EPA’s assessment kit, called “Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools” (see Resources).

    All of this work takes time, training and perseverance. Successful programs must have the support of administrators and purchasing agents, technical advice from chemical experts and good training of end users, including custodians, maintenance staff and teachers.

    The importance of this buy-in and the accompanying training can’t be overstated. Often, less-toxic products are rejected as ineffective when in fact they require a change of practice or work routine: the oil-based floor soap, for example, that must be mixed with cool water, not hot; or the bathroom cleaner that must be left on the fixtures for several minutes to do the job well.

    Finally, the education process must be ongoing. Goldberg’s local schools have had an IPM policy in place since 1997, but she says, “if I go into a school and find a birthday cake sitting out in the faculty lounge all day, I know the message of pest prevention has not gotten through.”


    Start with an assessment of your school’s indoor air quality.

    EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools KitThis free kit will help school staff and other community members get started. The kit suggests how to find appropriate professional help and offers a series of questions for evaluating professionals before hiring them.

    Pest-Management & Grounds-Keeping

    Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan and, more recently, California have been leaders in pest-control legislation for schools. Thirty-two states have such laws and many municipalities are now adopting policies of their own.

    Beyond Pesticides – Offers a state-by-state review of integrated pest management (IPM) laws, model legislation and policy. Under the programs menu, choose “Children and Schools.” This site also offers a directory of pest-management companies that use least-toxic or non-toxic products and practices.

    For manuals on designing and implementing IPM programs in schools, contact:

    The IPM Institute

    Bio-Integral Resource Center

    Childproofing Our Communities Campaign – Look for the report titled “Poisoned Schools: Invisible Threats, Visible Actions.”

    California Healthy Schools Campaign – Serves as a clearinghouse of information and tools to help eliminate the widespread, unnecessary and harmful use of toxic pesticides in schools.

    California Safe Schools This group has successfully worked with the Los Angeles Unified School District to adopt an Integrated Pest Management Plan.

    Curriculum Resources

    Chem Info Net – This chemical health and safety resource for school-based personnel offers a textbook that revises classic chemistry experiments to reduce the hazardous materials used. It also offers a chemical health and safety database, and a chemical hygiene plan for high schools.

    For More Information

    The Child Proofing Our Communities Campaign –This grassroots campaign works to protect children from exposures to environmental health hazards in schools and other childcare settings. The Web site offers a wealth of information and resources. – This is a resource for parents of students with chronic health conditions.

    Kim Motylewski is a mother and freelance writer specializing in environmental issues.