Five Steps to A Chemical Free School

August 2008
When we think about what it takes to raise a child to become a healthy adult, many things come to mind - including love, nourishment and a good education. However even the most loving parent might not think of establishing a sanctuary for their children to protect them from toxic chemicals that can interfere with the natural growth of their central nervous and endocrine systems, and other aspects of their body’s development.
A common example of how a child can react detrimentally to toxic chemicals at school is when they are given solvent-based markers in art class. Petrochemically-based solvents are very neurotoxic and can cause loss of concentration, hyperactivity, aggression and more. Imagine what happens to a child’s performance if their art class is followed by math? Less obvious examples of unhealthy air in schools caused by synthetic chemicals include exposure to pesticides, cleaning chemicals or simply from an inadequate air exchange.
Establishing a school sanctuary is a true gift in an age when thousands of inadequately tested chemicals are in cleaning, construction and other products. I urge you to work with your school system to provide a healthy environment for all students. You can manage this aspiration in an easy, step-by-step way. The process is very pragmatic. I was part of a group that successfully accomplished a healthy school in the district my daughter attended, so I know that you can do it, too. Many schools are actually very receptive to establishing a healthy school and welcome the initiative.
Step One: If your school doesn’t already have one, work with the superintendant to establish a Health & Safety Committee. Invite representatives from parents, faculty, building and grounds, and the administration. I found that a committee of about eight was a great size. If your district or private school already has such a committee, ask to join and explain your purpose. One caveat is to understand that the most successful results happen with a pragmatic approach such as described in the following steps.
Step Two: Map out the areas affecting indoor air quality that you want to address. At the very least  I recommend that you investigate 1) the state of the school’s heating/cooling/air exchange, 2)cleaning products and methods, 3) pest control methods, 4)art and science supplies, and 5)building and remodeling plans.
Step Three: Carefully prioritize which of the above areas you want to start first. When making your choices, be sure to consider the school’s plans for renovating, the season, and other health priorities. For example, schools could polyurethane the gym floor in the summer when the school is empty instead of the fall.  If it is spring, you could help facilitate the timing of this maintenance activity. During the winter, schools start making plans for lawn maintenance, and you will want to be part of the decision-making process about the use of herbicides.
Also, look into any health concerns and complaints that may already exist. For example, in my daughter’s grade school, many parents and even the nurse were concerned that the children were sick too often. We prioritized investigating the air quality in the school building. Low and behold, we discovered that during the energy crises in the 1970s the school district plugged up the air exchange that had been designed to be part of the heating system! The air quality was terrible, and the committee’s investigative results were quickly recognized by the district as needing immediate attention.
Step Four: For each area you have chosen, the committee’s job is to research products and practices that provide the safest, healthiest, efficacious and economical recommendations. Make sure that these recommendations fit the school’s product procurement requirements and abilities.  This step is especially important for cleaning products. Make sure you know the state laws and requirements. If the school has construction and renovation plans, make sure that the architects and builders present to the committee. If you aren’t assured of the environmental health choices try to develop a budget for a consultant who can help in that area.
Step Five: Once the healthiest products and practice recommendations have been approved, help make them policy. For example, if the committee researches Integrated Pest Management and the school decides to proceed with such a pest control method, make sure that all of the details about how, why and the approval process are on record.
My participation in my school district’s Health & Safety Committee was one of the most gratifying activities of my life. To know that my daughter’s school was as healthy as it could be gave me great peace of mind. Knowing that all of the other children in the school district also benefited gave me an increased feeling of joy.
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