Think Green

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How schools can maintain eco-friendly environments for students

Parents and educators alike want to create healthy learning environments for kids in schools. A healthy school environment promotes healthy students, and such students are in a good position to do well in school.

Recognizing the importance of environmental health programs at schools, the United States Environmental Protection Agency developed a comprehensive strategy to develop healthy school environments for children. That strategy encourages faculty, staff, parents, and students to work together to maintain their school environments, which the EPA feels can lower rates of absenteeism, improve student health and academic performance, improve teacher retention and job satisfaction, and save schools money through energy and water conservation and efficiency. The following are just a few of the many suggestions the EPA has made to encourage healthy school environments. More information is available at www.epa.gov.

• Practice effective cleaning and maintenance. Cleaning products are essential to a healthy school environment, but only if schools choose the right products. Certain products contain chemicals that can cause health issues affecting the eyes, nose and throat and trigger headaches or asthma attacks. When choosing cleaning products, schools should rely on products with little or no volatile organic compound, or VOC, emissions as well as products that are biodegradable, boast neutral pH levels and contain no known carcinogens.

When cleaning school buildings, do so when buildings are unoccupied, and remove dust from hard, impermeable surfaces with a water-dampened cloth. Paint chips should be wiped up with a wet sponge or rag, and parents can encourage schools to use only vacuums with high-efficiency particulate air filters.

• Prevent mold and moisture. Moisture stimulates mold growth and provides a nurturing environment for mites, roaches and rodents. Mold and moisture in a school can contribute to respiratory ailments, so school officials should make sure schools are routinely inspected for moisture problems, such as leaky plumbing or leaks in the roof. Moisture-generating appliances, such as dryers, should be vented to the outside of the building, where gutters, downspouts, scuppers, and storm drains should be maintained. Downspouts should drain away from the building to prevent moisture issues and the possible formation of mold inside the school.

• Reduce environmental contaminant hazards. Chemical and environmental contaminant hazards pose a threat to anyone, but especially so to children, whose bodies are still developing. School officials can take steps to reduce exposure to harmful gases like radon, a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas that occurs naturally in soil. Radon can enter schools through cracks or other openings in buildings' foundations, which should be inspected routinely.

Another potential hazard schools should be on the lookout for is aging plumbing systems and leaky pipes. Many students and school staff drink a substantial amount of water at school, where water supplies can be contaminated by poor plumbing systems. Even if a school's water supply is not contaminated, a leaky plumbing system can contribute to mold growth spurred on by water loss from leaky pipes.

• Ensure adequate ventilation. Poor ventilation in a school can lead to poor indoor air quality, which has been linked to a host of health problems, including coughing, eye irritation, headaches, and allergic reactions. Inadequate ventilation and filtration systems also contribute to airborne mold, infectious diseases and carbon monoxide poisoning. Schools should have their ventilation systems routinely inspected to ensure they are functioning at full capacity and should implement a regular schedule for inspecting and changing filters. In addition, ensure that ducts and the interior of air-handling units or unit ventilators are clean, and make sure books, papers and other items do not block ventilators.

Keeping a school environment healthy requires a team effort that includes administrators, teachers, staff, parents, and students. But working together to promote positive school environments can make a dramatic difference in student and teacher health and performance.