Can school make your child sick?

Photo: istockphoto.com/Lisa Thornberg

Ahhh back to school. Remember the wonderful smell of freshly mimeographed paper, the comforting scent of bleach in the nurse's office, and the joy of sending billowing dust clouds into the air by smacking two chalk brushes together? Such fun. Such nostalgia. Such a health hazard.

D minus for health
As it turns out, school may not be the healthiest place to be learning. A report from the Parent Teacher Association of America states that more than 14 million American children attend school in deteriorating buildings and at least two-thirds have unhealthy environmental conditions that include lead in water and paint, indoor air polluted from chemicals and pesticides, walls covered with mould or filled with asbestos. American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave American schools a grade D (poor) in their annual Report Card for America's Infrastructures.

Intelligent air
Unhealthy schools have been linked to learning disabilities, chronic asthma, headaches and fatigue. But according to the US Green Building Council (initiators of the now-mainstream LEED building certification program), "green" schools are fast proving themselves to be something of an educational miracle cure, raising students' test scores by 20-24 percent, reducing student and teacher sick days, and cutting instances of asthma by 38 percent. Apparently, clean air and daylight are good for students.

Costs are low
Budget restraints and the cost of improving our schools are often touted as the reason for not taking action. But it may cost us more in the long run not to clean up our sick schools.

In October, 2006, a multi-year study sponsored by, among others, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Lung Association, revealed that, on average, construction costs for green schools are about 2 percent (or about $3 per square foot) higher than for non-green schools. The same study concluded that by factoring in things like lower energy costs, reductions in illness and asthma, improved teacher retention, and increased lifetime earnings of students, those green schools are responsible for no less than $71 per .09 square meters (one square foot) in financial benefits a payback of over 2,000 percent.

Granted, trying to predict future earnings based on school test scores may seem like hocus-pocus, but other components of their calculation are harder to refute. Energy costs alone, for example, result in savings of $9 per.09 square meter (one square foot) over a 20-year time frame. What's more, such energy savings naturally result in significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions. It seems there is no down side.

Slow to react
Mimeograph machines may be a thing of the past, but stale air and inefficient heating are not. While many school boards struggle to overcome their inertia and inability to act, other schools and universities are beginning to get the message.

The Cincinnati board of education has been slowly upgrading more than two dozen schools to improve indoor air quality and energy efficiency. The University of British Columbia has retrofitted their campus and now saves about $2.6 million dollars a year in energy costs. The Ontario's Windsor Essex Catholic District School Board has mandated green standards for all of its new buildings.

Parents need to act
Fortunately, nothing is as galvanizing as a swarm of angry parents at a school board meeting and there are several grass root organizations helping parents pressure schools boards to act. The PTA is encouraging parents to lobby Congress and the Healthy Schools Network, Inc. has strategic proposals parents can present to local school boards. The Alliance to Save Energy has implemented a Green Schools Program to help schools reduce energy consumption always a good starting point.

The Environmental Protection Agency offers the Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Tools for Schools (TfS) Program to reduce indoor contaminants and help improve air quality in schools. The kit has also been adapted for Canadian schools and is published by Health Canada.

Students shouldn't have to sacrifice their health for a bit of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Mark Mallet is a LEED Accredited professional consultant and writer based in Vancouver, specializing in the green building industry.