Breathing in school has its risks

Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” has been successful in raising consciousness about the dangers of global warming. Along with the destruction of the natural environment, the perils of manmade environments, including that of schools, are eminent.

Each year, indoor pollution increasingly affects the health and performance of students and teachers alike. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, one half of our nation’s schools have problems linked to indoor air quality. The indoor levels of pollutants can be two to five times higher than outdoor levels. The poor air quality contributes to increased respiratory infections and more students missing vital classroom times due to illness.

The University of Tulsa’s Department of Environmental Health published a study of the association between ventilation rates and student performance. The report concluded low ventilation rates lowered student performance in contrast to the positive impact sufficient ventilation has on human performance.

When I attended school, most windows could be opened to let in fresh air. Now many schools have no windows at all or windows permanently sealed shut. Air circulates through vents that may not be regularly vacuumed. The problems associated with this lack of proper ventilation are numerous. Infections diseases thrive if there is not enough ventilation to blow away and disperse the infectious organism: a virus can stick to desks or to doorknobs and live for several hours, causing a variety of afflictions, including the asthma attacks that result in 14 million missed school days each year nationwide.

One in 12 children now suffer from asthma, which, according to the National Institute of Health, is double the rate of 20 years ago. Exposure to certain chemicals and odors can spur asthma attacks. Culprits are cleaning agents, solvents, and building materials, which are known as volatile organic compounds.

Children who still are growing are at risk from breathing in such contaminants, pesticides and allergens. Locker rooms where athletes congregate before and after games are another major source of contaminants. Dirty clothes often are stuffed into small spaces, paper towels are not replaced, soap containers remain empty, and hands are left unwashed.

No matter how many times an overburdened custodian might clean, the stale air clings a breeding ground for disease. Is it any wonder exposure to unsanitary conditions, pollutants and a lack of proper hygiene have resulted in increased allergic reactions, auto-immune diseases and deadly MRSA staph infections?

Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was identified several decades ago in hospitals and found to be resistant to a range of antibiotics used to treat it. In the 1990s, it began to show up in the wider community and recently has caused the serious illness and even death in a matter of days of seemingly healthy students.

MRSA is very dangerous in children and often enters the body through a cut or scrape. The immune system of children is not fully developed, and they do not have the antibodies to fight many common germs.

Across the Delaware in Bucks County, toddler Luke Summers, 2, of Quakertown was diagnosed with the infection. It started as a pimple on his elbow that grew. His mother became worried and took him to the doctor. His doctors immediately sent him to an area hospital where the 2-year-old had surgery to clean out his wound.

Luke was a lucky one, thanks to his mother’s prompt action.

Other recent cases of MRSA in schools have been sourced to unsanitary conditions in locker rooms. The culprits are poor hygiene and the sanitary conditions in some schools where gym clothes are often shared, hands are not sanitized, and the sharing of towels and razors spreads the infection.

Careful consistent disinfection of common surfaces like library tables, desk tops and athletic facilities are recommended. Older students themselves have been encouraged to carry hand sanitizers for frequent use.

The concern over MRSA is not alarmist, though. A national study found 90,000 Americans are infected each year.

Diesel exhaust is a human carcinogen to which children are especially vulnerable. Riding the school bus is a source of exposure to diesel emissions that can lead to an increase in lung diseases such as asthma. Recommendations to reduce emissions include fewer stops to pick up children and a limit on the bus idling.

A Canadian study recommended re-engineering bus exhaust pipes to extend to the left rear end of the bus so exhaust will not be emitted on the same side of the bus as the doors. An even better location, according to this study, would be to release exhaust from a stack above the back of the bus.

These and other equally important concerns about the environmental conditions in our schools have led several states to embark on “Green Schools” initiatives.

The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, working with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, has created a Renewable Energy Trust, which is offering $15 million in grants to schools that meet guidelines for energy efficiency.

Our own state of New Jersey has a Sustainable Schools Network in which consortiums of schools, organizations and individuals are working together to promote healthier environments in the state’s schools.

The Green Squad, a program funded through Citigroup Foundation and the FAO Schwartz Family Foundation as part of the healthy schools networks, teaches kids about the relationship between their schools and environmental and health issues.

Concerned students themselves are demanding schools go green.

Concerted action and planning is needed to design green schools and implement changes in existing facilities to insure the health of future generations. We cannot let this other important and “Inconvenient Truth” fail to be addressed.